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Race, to the finish

india Updated: Jan 10, 2008 13:35 IST
Sitaram Yechury
Sitaram Yechury
Hindustan Times
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Since the days of Douglas Jardine’s infamous Bodyline series against Australia in the 1930s, which immortalised Don Bradman, the cricketing world has, probably, not witnessed such hostility as in the current team India’s Australia tour. There is, however, a role reversal. The tormented have turned tormentors.

Central to this is the alleged racist insult that Harbhajan Singh heaped on Andrew Symonds. At the outset, it needs to be stated that no display of racist attitudes can be tolerated and allowed to go unpunished not only in sports but anywhere else in civil society. Sports, as in other fields, has, at times, been an arena of racial abuse. Adolf Hitler’s fury at the legendary Jesse Owens’ haul of gold medals in the Berlin Olympics, 1936, (how can a black out perform an Aryan?) is well-known.

In cricket, despite being ‘the gentlemen’s game’, racial abuses are well-documented. In the early 1960s, the English team under DB Carr assaulted the Pakistani umpire, Idrees Baig, so badly that he had to continue his job with his hand in a sling. In recent times, Australia has a not too distinguished record on this score. In 2003, its leading batsman Darren Lehmann became the first international cricketer to be banned for racial abuse in a match against Sri Lanka in Brisbane. In August 2006, former Australian batsman, Dean Jones, was sacked by Ten Sports for describing a South African batsman and a devout Muslim, Hashim Amla, as a “terrorist”. The ICC has recently settled with the Australian umpire Darrell Hair who came under charges of practising racism when he accused Pakistan of ball tampering in the September 2006 Oval Test against England. Pakistan refused to take the field in protest and Hair ruled that they had lost. This was the first such verdict in cricketing Test history. It is after this incident that the ICC’s anti-racism code was strengthened in November 2006. It is under this code that Harbhajan Singh has been banned for three matches by the match referee, Mike Procter. The Indian appeal to the ICC has been admitted to review this decision, and, hence, we shall have to wait for the final verdict.

Recollect that Procter is from South Africa — a country that faced an international sporting boycott after it refused to allow Basil D’Oliveira to play in the 1968 England tour on the basis of the colour of his skin. Apartheid remains the most obnoxious form of institutionalised racism. Surely, one cannot blame a sportsman for the discriminatory regime that his country may be following. One, however, is forced to recollect this given the manner in which the judgment has been made in this case. In the absence of any recording or a third party confirmation, the Australian accusation is accepted while the forceful denials by both Harbhajan Singh and Sachin Tendulkar are rejected. Modern technology allows for confirmation through lip reading. Neither was this considered nor was any other effort made to establish the veracity of the Australian claim. This, despite the fact that one of the accusers continued to bat, due to an umpiring error, of being out and the other testified a grounded catch as valid.

In all probability, this is the reason why the ICC has admitted the Indian appeal for review. Also recollect that Symonds has admitted that he had ‘provoked’ Harbhajan. Apart from the humongous umpiring errors that went against India in this test, the atmosphere of animosity was palpable leading the level-headed Indian captain to say in the post-match media conference that, “only one team was playing in the spirit of the game”.

Leaving all these aside, let us consider the larger issue of racism. This practice continues to violate basic human rights across the world. The American Heritage Dictionary lists two definitions: first, the belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others, and second, discrimination or prejudice based on race. The United Nations has, following the ‘World conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’ held in Durban in September 2001, reiterated the definition of racial discrimination laid out by the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, 1966. This states: “… any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1998) defines racism as: “An ideology that gives expression to myths about other racial and ethnic groups, that devalues and renders inferior those groups, that reflects and is perpetuated by deeply rooted historical, social, cultural and power inequalities in society.”

How can the usage of the word ‘monkey’ by Harbhajan, as alleged by the Australian players, be an expression of racism? Though according to the ICC anti-racism code, this may qualify, it is necessary to draw up a more specific definition considering the gravity of both the insult and the consequent punishment. This, however, is not to suggest that players call each other monkeys.

This brings us to the moot point that needs to be seriously considered. Why should players speak or gesticulate during a match? If anything needs to be banned, it should be the verbal interactions between players of the competing teams. It is unfortunate that the cricketing world has come to accept ‘sledging’ as an inevitable component of the game. Restore the gentlemanliness to cricket by enforcing such a rule preventing the verbal interactions between contesting players.

In a country like ours, or for that matter, in the subcontinent and Sri Lanka, cricket is not merely a game. It is a passion. Naturally, any such behaviour against the Indian players is bound to enrage the public. Further, India alone provides 70 per cent of cricket’s global revenue. Along with our neighbours, this share would be substantially more.

Thus, there is too much at stake if India were to withdraw from the series. This apart, it would be a big loss for the cricketing fraternity if such hostility and animosity is allowed to thrive. The ICC has asked the Australian captain to rein in his ‘boys’. Efforts must be made to eliminate extraneous issues from influencing the outcome of the game. Clearly, there has been a psychological impact on the Indian team to be told, on day 3, that the Australian complaint would be taken up for a hearing soon after the end of the match, on day 5. If this was aimed, as it seems to appear, to demoralise the Indian team, then steps must be taken to ensure that such tactics are not invoked in the future.

Finally, in a country like ours — where millions, maybe over a billion, if we consider the global Indian diaspora — worship Hanuman, few would consider being called a monkey as a racist slur.

In the interest of cricket’s future, the ICC must come out with unambiguous definitions while the teams and the players must voluntarily restore to the game its gentlemanliness.