Okay, India was robbed. Appalling umpiring did India in. Okay, the three-Test ban on Harbhajan Singh was not merely harsh, it was terribly unfair. Undoubtedly. We Indians are all agreed on that.
But you know what? Most Australians, at least the rational, liberal members of the intelligentsia that I know, are agreed on that too. Some of them, like Peter Roebuck and Greg Baum, have written about it.
Fine. So far, there is perfect unanimity.
Now wait a minute. We may not have had time to pause and think about this in the swirl of events since Harbhajan was accused of making a racist remark to Andrew Symonds on Friday, but two things — especially after the defeat in the Sydney Test on Sunday — have somehow been conflated in the public imagination: the business of shocking umpiring and the business of racism.
It’s somehow turned into a Them versus Us thing. It isn’t that at all.
There are as many boors in Australia as there are in any other country but in my experience (and I know I could have been particularly lucky), there are more people there who are respectful of classy opposition cricketers than there are in, say, India. Sachin Tendulkar and V.V.S. Laxman get standing ovations when they come out to bat in Australia. The SCG crowd stood to a man when Sachin and VVS got their hundreds in the just-concluded Test. I don’t know if I could say that for a crowd at the Wankhede Stadium or Kotla or the Eden Gardens were Ricky Ponting or Matthew Hayden to grind the Indian bowling into the dust.
Australian fans are so used to seeing their team win that they can’t imagine their side won’t, but will always enjoy a tough, hard-earned win. You could see that during that glorious 1-1 series in 2003-04. You can see it here too. So I think many Australian fans (at least the ones I know) are deeply disappointed that a great Test was ruined by poor umpiring.
But poor umpiring isn’t new in the history of the game. Neutral umpires were introduced because home umpires were said to have favoured the home team. (Just ask Mike Gatting and a certain gentleman called Shakoor Rana.) And after they were introduced, we found that neutral umpires too were prone to making errors. Only, we hoped the errors would not be weighted on one side.
The trouble with the Sydney Test was that the errors were nearly all to India’s disadvantage: Eight to one. How could the umpire not hear Symonds’s snick? Why wasn’t Symonds’s stumping referred to the third umpire? Could the umpire not see that Dravid’s bat was tucked behind his pad? How could Ponting be asked if Ganguly’s catch was fair? It was shocking and incompetent. It was a complete disgrace. What a game it could have been (would have been) had the umpires got it right.
Alas, that’s only part of cricket. In this particular Test, it was a question of degree — which is why we are all talking about it. We are all talking about it also especially because India so heartstoppingly, heartbreakingly lost the match.
If you adore a game in which the toss of a coin can influence the course of a match, in which the conditions (of the pitch, of the weather) are not equally advantageous (are not equal) for both sides, you’ve got to acknowledge that luck is woven into its very fabric. Umpires are human, and umpiring has always been a roll of the dice. Too bad, but someone will always get unlucky. (Kumar Sangakkara, in the midst of an incredible challenge against Australia in Australia last year, was given out wrongfully. The umpire? The usually reliable Rudi Koertzen.)
Things might get better if technology were to play a bigger part, if there were to be more third-umpire referrals, if — as in tennis — cricket were to introduce a stipulated number of player challenges. But till any of that happens, we’ll need to live with it.
We can at most demand punishment for umpires. If players who haven’t played well are dropped, so should umpires. India has done the right thing by asking for Steve Bucknor’s removal. But we’ll still need to live with it: not having him at Perth will not negate the result of the Sydney Test.
The more deeply unsettling thing, though, is the ban on Harbhajan. (At the time of writing, it is unclear how things will play out. The Indian board will appeal to the International Cricket Council is all we know for sure.) And by focusing on the shocking umpiring — and unconsciously conflating these two issues — we are actually undermining the seriousness with which we ought to question why match referee Mike Proctor slapped the ban on the Indian spinner.
What exactly do we know about the incident? We know that there was an exchange between Symonds and Harbhajan. We saw others intervening and we saw it being sorted out. Or so we thought till we learnt that Ponting had reported it to the umpire and that the Indian spinner was being charged with having made racist remarks.
The umpires heard nothing offensive from Harbhajan. They reported it to Proctor only after Ponting lodged a complaint. Tendulkar, who was batting at the other end, said nothing offensive had been said. Harbhajan denied having said anything racist. There is no audio or video evidence. None of the TV channels covering the match have anything on record. So without circumstantial evidence, what did Proctor base his judgment on? The Australians’ word against the Indians’? I don’t think Proctor is bound to tell us but we would love to know.
Because unless we know, we’ll begin to remember all sorts of things. We’ll remember how Australian players don’t take too kindly to opponents who get up their noses, who take them on at their own game. Former Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga would tell you that. As would Sourav Ganguly from his experience of the series he played as captain against Australia.
The Australians have a history with Harbhajan, the most recent being the one-day international series the two teams played in India. Whether the reporting of Harbhajan was over-reaction or an attempt at score-settling or devious strategy on the part of Australians or a combination of all these factors or none of them is in the realm of conjecture. But unless we know exactly why Proctor found Harbhajan culpable of one of the gravest offences in the ICC’s book, these conjectures will inevitably be made.
If Harbhajan is guilty as charged, he deserves to be punished. But he is innocent till he is proven guilty. And proof needs to be grounded on solid, incontrovertible evidence, not a hunch or an instinct. We need to know why Proctor was “satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Harbhajan Singh directed that word [monkey] at Andrew Symonds and also that he meant it to offend on the basis of Symonds’s race or ethnic origin”.
Transparency engenders certitude; ambiguity and not knowing enough will breed only speculation. That will be no good for the future of the game.
Soumya Bhattacharya is the author of You Must Like Cricket? Memoirs of an Indian Cricket Fan.