Having been comprehensively outplayed in the Boxing Day test at the MCG, India went into the second test at Sydney against Australia with everything to play for. And when they did play as the cohesive batting machine, the world champions have cried a very shrill and ugly foul, and uncorked the biggest controversy in the cricket world since the match-fixing scandal to mark the Australians’ second 16-test unbeaten run, in recent memory.
Caribbean umpire Steve Bucknor added his own brand of calypso to the encounter by managing to get as many as 13 crucial decisions wrong, adjudicating key Australian batsmen – not out – when India were on top in the first innings, costing Anil Kumble’s men dearly. Yet, seemingly the last bastion of the true followers of the Gentleman’s Game, India did not complain, atleast audibly, and carried on with the game.
The dams weren’t going to hold very long, and the beginning of the end of all things gentlemanly was on the third day of the test match.
Like all big things, it started with a proverbial resistance, when Harbhajan Singh, a turban wielding, former tormentor of the mighty Aussies, albeit with the ball, partnered Sachin Tendulkar to steer India into the lead, scoring a valiant 63 while at it. Amidst the chaos that is a cricket field in Australia, he seemed to have patted Brett Lee’s tender behind, which ignited the patriotic and team fervor in one Andrew Symonds. “Friendly” Words were exchanged between Bhajji and Symmo, and all look hunky dory between the men in Blue, and the Baggy Greens.
However, the end of day’s play was to hold something other than just celebrations on a magnificent knock for Harbhajan Singh. News trickled out that he was being reported for racism — specifically, for calling Symonds a ‘monkey’. As memory lane would refresh us, Symonds was subjected to monkey chants the last time Australia toured India. After India’s inexcusable last over defeat, match referee Mike Proctor heard both sides out. With five players including Brett Lee, Symonds and skipper Ricky Ponting representing Australia, only Tendulkar, and Jumbo represented India. Harbhajan was banned for three matches, opening another Pandora’s box for the ICC. The ban has since been appealed by the Indians, and Ponting and his men have come in for some strong criticism from cricket experts in the fraternity. The choicest quotes were from Peter Roebuck, who called for Ponting to be sacked, and called his brand of cricket ‘ugly’.
It was only a matter of time, before the high and mighty of the BCCI became involved. Tendulkar shot off an SMS to the Maratha warrior, Sharad Pawar, and the world’s richest cricket body jumped into the fray to defend its prodigal sons from further humiliation. In an attempt to undo the damage done already, they even threatened to pull out of the remainder of the tour, halting it, interim. They also demanded the removal of Bucknor from the rest of the series, and the ICC has complied, replacing him with Kiwi umpire Billy Bowden. Subsequently, Bucknor has been called on by Dickie Bird to retire because he has gone too long, and too far.
With Ponting vehemently defending his side of the story and Kumble now unhappy with the integrity of his Aussie counterpart, the series is set for more than just a tight finish. Ponting is under immense pressure from the world media, and his team’s record equaling 16th consecutive test victory has hardly resulted in the kind of celebrations he would’ve hoped for. ‘Punter’ has been found wanting of any diplomatic skills that come with the territory of being skipper, and inevitable comparisons to his equally tough but drastically different predecessor, Steve Waugh, only leave Ponting wanting in many quarters, as captain. Ponting claims that the series had been played in good spirit, up until Bhajji abused Symonds. This has been denied by both Harbhajan and his batting partner Tendulkar, someone with substantially more credibility in cricket, rendering the claims of the Aussie skipper paradoxical.
Harbhajan has been cleared to play, pending an appeal on his ban, and the Indians are expected to continue with their tour Down Under. However, the reputation of a game already struggling for air in the world of sport has taken a severe beating, the redressal of which might just take the cricketing world apart.