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Gavaskar debate only a symbol of a conflict that runs deep

The drama over Sunil Gavaskar's comments about Australian behaviour was, well, expected, writes Kadambari Murali.

india Updated: Mar 18, 2007 16:23 IST

The drama over Sunil Gavaskar's comments about Australian behaviour was, well, expected. Two reasons. One, his penchant for carefully planned, gleeful 'white' baiting — because of which much of the 'brown' cricketing world reads his columns with relish but which has managed to irritate cricket's first world no end.

And two, the Australian (and English) tendency to consider themselves frank and fearless and say what they feel like about the rest of the world, but when anyone else does so, to say it is "in bad taste."

The Australian players and media have reacted particularly angrily to Gavaskar's mention of the David Hookes incident, which led to the former Australian player's death. Hookes died of cardiac arrest after an altercation with the security staff in a Melbourne hotel bar.

Though there were contradictory witness accounts about what happened on the night of January 19, 2004 - whether Hookes threw the first punch or boxer-turned-security guard Zdravko Micevic overreacted - Micevic was later acquitted of the charge of manslaughter.

But Gavaskar didn't seem to be casting aspersions on Hookes's character - he was probably using the incident as an extreme example of what "ugly" Aussie behaviour can do. Of course, his dragging in Hookes's name was unnecessary.

The reaction to his "anti-Aussie" statements was not unexpected. Cricket is still a largely conservative game and the people who populate its world are divided along racial lines. India's spectacular rise as the economic power centre of cricket has only resulted in these lines being more deeply etched - even if most first-world cricketers get fabulous pay-packets courtesy Indian/India-fuelled TV networks.

The great divide is visible elsewhere too. Two years ago, I sat in the stands of Edgbaston and watched people of Australian origin cheer their team in the Champions Trophy semifinal against England. The "effing-Pom" expletives flew as fast as the beer flowed, but despite a few edgy snipes, it was mostly good-natured ribbing.

The group I was near was made up of men born and raised in England but wearing their Australian identities on their sleeves. And most importantly, they were allowed to. No one told them to "go back to Australia," called them "bloody Indians" or "f***** Pakis" or questioned their loyalty to St. George’s Cross.

They were accepted by the white, "sporting" Englishmen as mates, good blokes who were allowed their idiosyncrasies on the field of play. As one Englishman told me, "For the English and Aussies, sport and the team you support is a deeply personal choice, no reflection on your national loyalties outside the stadium or in times of war."

Well, then the Aussies are a favoured lot, despite the nations' intense Ashes rivalry. Just hark back to what Conservative politician Norman Tebbit said nearly 20 years ago, "A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?"

Tebbit suggested that ethnic minorities' loyalty to Britain be judged by who they supported at cricket grounds, a test that was not put to white minorities.

There has been lots of water under the bridge since that suggestion was made, but the divide remains. Gavaskar (or someone else) will probably make this kind of remark again in reaction to what he perceives as years of a white-dominated cricketing ethos. And every time a Gavaskar makes this kind of remark, the battlelines will be drawn anew.

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First Published: Mar 18, 2007 16:19 IST