As we’ve seen from the unprecedented media interest in the piddly first few Presidential primaries, the significance of anything that happens in January is always amplified massively for one simple reason – there just isn’t anything else in the news. And so it is that we’ve all spent an entire week closely following the story of one intemperate cricketer who allegedly said that another intemperate cricketer was a big monkey.
At a time when anyone with any sense is devoting most of their time to relaxing, and even our workaholic new Prime Minister has been chilling out in Kirribilli House (“reading briefing papers” – apparently his idea of a good time), the reaction has been nothing short of extraordinary. Tempers were already frayed by the ridiculous umpiring in the Test, and the Australian cricket team’s tiresomely aggressive approach to the game didn’t exactly salve the wounds Steve Bucknor’s decisions had left. There’s nothing quite like ugly Australian triumphalism to make your average Indian feel like flambéing a photo of Ricky Ponting.
The problem faced by umpires is not that they make mistakes – that’s inevitable, especially as they get older. It’s unfortunate than an umpire who was as good for as long as Bucknor has had his career tarnished like this. But sadly for the other men in white coats, advances in the coverage of cricket mean that it is now possible to tell with absolute certainly when they’re wrong. Whereas in the past, lbw decisions and snicks remained a matter of opinion even after replays, Hawkeye and Snicko have made them appear like a question of fact. Since the technology’s there, and pretty much impartial, it should be used whenever there’s a doubtful decision. That way umpires like Bucknor won’t be faced with the impossible task of getting every decision ‘right’ when they roll the replay. It’s completely unreasonable of commentators to expect umpires to never make mistakes when, for instance, Bill Lawry hasn’t been right in at least twenty years.
But the stench of racism is rather more enduring than the furore over a few bad decisions. The scandal has engulfed both nations, and made headlines around the world. Flags and effigies have been burnt, and the threat of cancelling the tour still looms in the air. I don’t know whether Harbhajan Singh called Symonds a monkey, and whether it offended him, or how serious it really was. But I do know is that it’s a truly ugly term, which has been the basis of shocking racial abuse in European football, with fans regularly throwing bananas at black players. It must be stamped out, and making an example of Harbhajan – if indeed he is guilty – is appropriate. Of course, it’s the people who throw around hurtful labels like that who are the ones who are actually unevolved.
But unsporting behaviour must be policed no less strenuously. Ricky Ponting’s post-match interview in Sydney was appallingly smug, with not a word of congratulations for an Indian team which had performed heroically and been desperately unlucky. Even the Fanatics must have felt uncomfortable, if they put down their annoying plastic trumpets for long enough to listen. Competitiveness on the field is one thing, but why Ponting has to behave like a petulant toddler off it is baffling. It isn’t exactly appropriate to gloat when you’ve just won your record-equalling 16th Test in a row. For all his love of onfield ‘mental disintegration’, Steve Waugh was always completely professional off the field. It’s a pity Ponting didn’t pay more attention. The current captain would also do well to spend some time helping orphanages in the subcontinent as well – he might make himself slightly less unpopular.
With luck, the whole thing will blow over, and seem in a few months like a storm in a tea-break Gatorade bottle. But someone in Cricket Australia needs to give the current leadership a good talking to. And if it has to be in the only language they apparently understand – sledging – then so be it. Because right now, nobody’s saying come on, Aussie, come on. And I know this because last night, Ricky Ponting’s mum told me so.