Welcome break in OZ drama

2008-01-19 00:00

After 10 days of almost unprecedented frenzy sparked off by Anil Kumble’s solemn and superbly-timed remark about Australian sportsmanship (or the lack of it), normal services have been resumed.

Except that the proceedings were not exactly normal. India ended the third day well-placed to win and break Australia’s record of successive Test victories. And such an entente cordial came over relations between the teams that some spectators were convinced that they had not awoken and instead remained trapped in an especially farfetched dream.

Take the outbreak of friendliness staged before a ball had been bowled. In Australia, it has long been customary for the respective anthems to be sung by representatives of both nations. In some opinions this oversteps the mark by turning a cricket match into a chest-thumping exercise. Others regard the playing of the patriotic songs as a welcome show of mutual respect. Certainly spectators and both teams stand ramrod still as the tunes are performed. Even journalists interrupt their usual morning activities (which generally include a rigorous exercise routine constructed along the lines favoured in Japanese factories) to pay their respects as the formalities are carried out.

On this occasion, the players went a good deal further. Various meetings had taken place since the debacle in Sydney and it was widely agreed that the boil had to be lanced. Ranjan Madugalle, the distinguished Lankan, had been called in as a peacemaker. Ranjan is a splendidly intelligent and discreet fellow whose abilities could be more widely used. Anyone capable of bringing peace between these cricketing nations could surely persuade the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms. Or else Graeme Smith could hire him as his public relations officer.

Madugalle, in the nicest possible way, had spent the previous few days banging heads together. As much could be told from the announcement that the captains had abandoned the idea of taking a fieldsman’s word on low catches, thereby removing a bone of contention from the SCG Test. Between times a provincial ’keeper had claimed a catch in a 20-over final when, to the naked eye, the ball seemed to bounce a foot in front of him. Australian indignation about opposing batsmen refusing to accept their words has about as much credibility as Mugabe condemning dictatorships.

Now it is up to the onfield umpires to make the decision and not pass the buck to the third umpire. Low caches always look bad on television.

Further evidence of Madugalle’s influence emerged once the anthems had been completed. Ricky Ponting and Anil Kumble lined up their men and walked past each other with everyone shaking hands in the style often seen on soccer fields before the players start diving and swearing at the referee. Gestures of this sort help to repair strained relations. Likewise, the news that the captains intended to meet at stumps to sort out any problems boded well. Not so long ago match referees had it easy. Now they must have degrees in the law of evidence.

Nor did the new spirit fail to express itself on the field. At one stage Shaun Tait apologised after an entirely reasonable appeal for a catch at the wicket was rejected on the grounds that the missile had narrowly missed the bat and instead struck the shoulder. Significantly, the fieldsmen behind the bat did not join the appeal. Nor did Adam Gilchrist raise his gloves after dashing and diving to take another dropping ball that replays confirmed had collided with the batsman’s arm guard. The Australians were extremely miffed by criticism of their appealing at the SCG.

Their rage was misplaced. Suddenly they seemed to have developed better eyes and ears.

Not that the Aussies were soft touches. Andrew Symonds was at his most warlike whilst Brett Lee bowled admirably on a scorching day. Both have improved immeasurably in the last 12 months. It is the ability of Australian cricketers to keep improving that has set them apart. Rivals think it is enough to secure a position in the Test team. These fellows seek places in the record books.

Idealists will argue that the locals have turned their backs on the nastiness seen in Sydney when a minor altercation was so foolishly allowed to escalate into a cause celebre. They will suggest that Australia has realised that the breast-beating produced at the SCG is no longer acceptable.

In the 1970s, Australia cast aside its pale Englishness, producing robust theatre and literature and a distinctive sporting culture. Ian Chappell’s cricket team expressed the mood. But it is tiresome to keep fighting old battles. Ricky Ponting and company should be forging a contemporary identity that reflects a country led by a prime minister fluent in mandarin and seeking cultural and economic contact with a wide variety of nations.

Before too many more decades have passed Australia might even pluck up the courage to elect its own head of State.

Cynics will reply that the players are more concerned about losing lucrative contracts in India than about their tattered reputations. Already the financial fallout has been substantial and worse will follow unless more humility is shown. Regardless of motive, the cricket was played in a much better spirit and was altogether more enjoyable to watch.

•International cricket writer PETER

ROEBUCK (peter@peterroebuck.com) lives in the KZN midlands but spends much of the year in Australia.

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