Australia and India — the cricket saga continues

2008-03-01 00:00

UNTIL Matthew Hayden gave a Brisbane radio station the benefit of his opinions about Harbhajan Singh, it was possible to take Australia’s side over the latest fracas at the SCG. Until then, Ricky Ponting and his players seemed to be more sinned against than sinning. A couple of flare-ups occurred, but hardly enough to distract attention from a gripping match. Then came Hayden and, later, his astonishing suggestion that no offence had been intended. Not that the horticulturalists were ever happy. According to them, a weed may indeed be noxious and the addition of “ob” is quite without merit. In trying to rid their properties of obnoxious lantana and bugweed, local gardeners face a stiff task.

Until the Queenslander publicly insulted a visitor, it could be argued that the Indians deserved the bulk of the blame for the game’s latest self-indulgent outburst. Of course, those watching from beyond the boundary are relying on guesswork and interpretation. In the old days, it was enough to have sharp eyesight or a pair of binoculars. Now the ears are almost as important. As far as could be told, India had insufficient reason to address a letter of complaint to the match referee. The Australian heavweights may have wagged their tongues, but Ishant Sharma and Harbhajan Singh are hardly blushing violets.

Clearly, too, Ishant broke the rules by directing a defeated opponent towards the pavilion, an offence reported by the umpires and penalised by the match referee. Doubtless Jeff Crowe took the teenager’s age and record into account when imposing a mild sentence. But India grizzled anyhow, and blamed the departing batsman. Andrew Symonds said his remark was harmless, but everyone is tired of this “he said, she said” nonsense. Ishant broke the rules. Apparently his language this summer has often been fruity.

Harbhajan has hardly been an innocent party either. Independent observers have been dismayed by the off-spinner’s provocations. Urged on by television networks eager to cast them as heroes, Harbhajan and Ishant have turned into hotheads. Meanwhile, Gautam Gambhir, Mahela Jayawardene, Anil Kumble and company have retained their poise.

Since Mahendra Dhoni was detected using unlawful gloves, it seemed India had been the main culprit at the SCG. A thousand pities they could not let the matter rest. It was a glorious match and a spirited chase from which they emerged with credit. But they could not let it go. Instead, they rallied around their man. Although the contents of their letter to the referee remain private, its existence was made public. As usual the Indian players were portrayed as victims. The sight of teams running to teacher after another of the schoolyard squabbles that have demeaned the summer has had little to commend it.

For a few days, the Australians were occupying the higher ground. It did not last long. Hayden’s insults saw to that. He does not seem to care what outsiders think about him, which as far as overseas teams are concerned is just as well. He was given a reprimand and got off lightly. He played his part in promoting the popularity of a notably irritating opponent. India may rejoice in its “Bhaji” but he does not command affection elsewhere.

As always it is useful to delve deeper into the spat. As far as the Australians are concerned, it is apparent that the Queenslanders, Hayden and Symonds, have become more influential in the rooms. Clearly they have filled the space left by Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and the other recent retirees. John Buchanan’s absence has also been felt. These hard nuts were involved in the contention surrounding the SCG Test and subsequently appeared before a respected judge in their casuals. Both were cut from the same intransigent stone as their captain. Ponting seems to have fallen under their spell.

As a result, the culture of the Australian team has changed. The desire to prove they could keep winning post-Warne has added to the effect. As much could be told from the team’s outlook this summer. Opponents at the T20 World Cup were struck by their high-handedness. Apparently the “A” side created a similarly bad impression on its concurrent tour of Pakistan. The players have formed a unit answerable only to themselves. Doubtless lucrative ICL and IPL contracts; tensions over the tour to Pakistan — a tour they are reluctant to undertake and a country some are loathe to visit — and the banned columns have affected the mood. Now players are retiring in droves. Brad Hogg, Michael Kasprowicz, Jimmy Maher and Jason Gillespie have withdrawn this month. Damien Martyn has returned from his mysterious withdrawal to sign an ICL contract (ICL is the rebel outfit promoted by a television mogul whose creation forced the establishment’s hand).

In Australia, anyhow, it has been a summer of discontent. But the Indians have also changed. Australia had been the working man’s team bound by common purpose. India had its hierarchies and complications. Now the Indians play with the same fervour as their hosts, and with the same disregard for niceties. Although fabulously wealthy nowadays, cricketers like Mahendra Dhoni and Ishant come from hungry streets. They are not answerable to tradition, owe no allegiance to England, are not deferential towards Australians, were not raised in polite gymkhanas, but in tough backyards. Accordingly cricket can rely more on their fighting spirit than their goodwill.

Now these two cricketing nations must find a way to live together the better to play against each other without drawing blood. A choice must be made. Only two positions are any longer enforceable. Either everything goes or nothing goes. Finally, the moment of decision has come. In the next few months cricket will shape its future.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent based in the KZN midlands.

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