On A Racist Pitch

Ponting’s memoir expresses dismay at Harbhajan badmouthing him. A case of the pot calling the kettle black?

WrittenBy:Dr. Ashoka Prasad
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There is a strange kind of tragic enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still racism persists, real and tenacious. – ALBERT MEMMI


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I have been following the reactions in the Australian media to the recently released memoirs of their former cricket captain, Ricky Ponting. The ex-Australian cricketing ace has taken to badmouthing Harbhajan Singh again and has taken potshots at Sachin Tendulkar. He has gone to the extent of suggesting obliquely that the Indian legend was part of an elaborate cover-up and unethically attempted to shield Singh for an action which Ponting clearly believes was unacceptable.

Ponting has also raked up another hithertho unknown aspect of the unhappy saga. According to him, Singh had hurled the same racial epithet at Symonds a year earlier in India.

For the Australian media at large, the Indian team was entirely at fault – and this was their position ever since the controversy broke. Except for the late Peter Roebuck, every newspaper went out of its way to castigate the Indian players and their stated positions. Despite the passage of time, the demeanour of the Australian media has not changed. Ponting is being projected as a hero and Indians are being seen as unreasonable and indifferent to the disgraceful practice of racism.

We all can recall the disgraceful events during the Sydney Test where Harbhajan and Andrew Symonds were involved in an altercation. Symonds had accused Harbhajan of using racial epithets against him which lead to a great deal of bad blood between the two sides. Matters were aggravated by the unprecedented display of sub-standard umpiring and a shabby display of unsportsmanlike behaviour by the Australian players. Prominent among them was someone called Ricky Ponting who knowingly appealed for a floored catch. Adam Gilchrist claimed a catch off Rahul Dravid’s pad which proved to be the turning point in the match. While Gilchrist later claimed that was an innocent error, I believe I am not the only one who has difficulty accepting his explanation. Michael Clarke refused to walk even though he was caught not behind the wicket but in the slip. Symonds went on to claim daringly that he was aware that he had been out on an Ishant Sharma delivery but was pleased not to walk.

It is noteworthy that apart from Roebuck, not a single Ozzie mediaman found anything wrong in the conduct of the Australian team.

I am no fan of Harbhajan Singh. I find his conduct immature and childish and bordering on insolent. The epithet that he admitted he had employed for Symonds was disgraceful and thoroughly merited censure. What bugs me here is the condescending attitude that has been adopted by Ponting and his colleagues and the Australian media and their shabby attempt to project Australians as completely innocent and intolerant of any brand of racism.

Racism is a foul practice and deserves to be actively eliminated in the same manner as terrorism. It demeans everyone – victims, perpetrators and observers. Indians themselves are no less than guilty than the others and it would be absurd to subscribe to the Sharad Pawar position that no Indian can ever be guilty of racism. Yet, it must also be remembered that India was until recently very much an underdog and in no position to enforce its prejudices in the international arena.

The Australian position of denying that racism is a factor in their country deserves to be taken head-on and it astonishes me that it has not yet been done so.

Malcolm Knox, author and well-known Australian journalist was on the mark when he stated – “Racism in this country is insidious and unadmitted. But it is everywhere.”

And so it is. I personally find it odiously hypocritical when Ozzie cricketers spout their distaste for racism. My own generation is old enough to recall the expletives Dennis Lillee employed for his fellow cricketers with more pronounced melanin in their epidermis. Most of those far exceeded anything Harbhajan ever said or attempted. And he always enjoyed the complete support of his cricket board and captain, Greg Chappell. I can also recite some other colourful expressions used by half a dozen top cricketers of the time, most of whom enjoy a legendary status.

But here is something we all need to remind Cricket Australia of to puncture their attempts of feigned innocence. I recall following the Sri Lanka-Australia series in 2002. An Australian player by the name of Darren Lehmann walked into the Sri Lankan dressing room and called them “black—-” in the presence of several witnesses. The Australians immediately recognised the gravity of this action and he was made to offer an apology. The Sri Lankan Cricket Board acted very graciously and pleaded for leniency with the referee Clive Lloyd. And all this while all that the Australian Cricket Board could think of was to suggest counselling.

Lehmann’s fellow players stood up for him describing him as a “very good man”. It was only after an international uproar that he was banned for 5 ODIs. He returned to the Australian side, was made the captain of the one day team and is now the national coach. So much for the Australian clamour that Harbhajan should have been given a life ban. I also distinctly recall some Australian newspapers made Sri Lankans the villains as they felt the Lankans had been unsportsmanlike by complaining

It was again Peter Roebuck who very astutely remarked – “To believe this was the first time Lehmann used this terrible language about black people is to show the indulgence of a parent who believes their teenager’s ‘it was my first joint’ defence. Lehmann’s misfortune is that he is the man who got caught revealing the unwitting racism that infuses not only Australian cricketing culture but mainstream Australia. Lehmann’s supporters cannot understand the difference between calling someone a ‘—’ and a ‘black –’. Nor, presumably, can they understand that it is offensive for media commentators to speak of the Sri Lankans as ‘babbling’ in the field, as ‘leaping about with great big smiles’ or as ‘little guys’. Monkeys babble. Little black sambos have great big smiles”.

And how right he was.

In order to tackle racism effectively, one has to accept that it exists and exists everywhere. To adopt a pontificatory position smacks of hypocrisy. While it is time the International Cricket Council took on the scourge of racism more actively, it is also time for ex-cricketers to stop taking cheap potshots – especially when their own records do not smell like roses.

Full disclosure: I have personally taken on the Australian medical profession openly and accused some of their leaders and establishment as being wilfully indifferent to blatant racism.

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