Like a lot of other cricket fans, I too followed the sad unravelling of the Indian team’s fortunes in the second test against Australia at Sydney last night. In the rush of justified condemnation against the umpiring standards in this test, it would be remiss not to comment on our brittle and unpredictable cricket. Yuvraj Singh, who had a goodish tour of Australia the last time, and Wasim Jaffar, who scored a couple of half centuries in England & a century in South Africa last year, have left their runs behind in India. There seems to be a good strategy against Tendulkar, despite his 154 n.o. in the first innings at Sydney. We are susceptible to second innings pressure, especially on foreign soil (though we did stave off defeat at Lords last year). We flag easily whenever decisions go against us, as it did with Symonds in the first innings. When we do get lives, as Rahul Dravid, Jaffer & Yuvraj did in the first test, due to no-balls &/or umpiring errors, we leave legitimately soon after, being the good guests that we invariably are.
As the forums got clogged with righteous Indian indignation, I was disturbed to see ethnic disparagements of Steve Bucknor, the West Indian umpire officiating this test, & the man responsible for the Symonds caught behind let off on the first day, and Andrew Symonds, who was himself the target of ugly taunting by sections of the Indian crowd when Australia toured India late last year. Sadly, while our so-called fans perpetuate the image of closet racism in India against darker skin, the Australian media go ahead their mission of bringing down visiting teams with their unique mental disintegration skills with the mix of subtlety and brazenness, as Ian Healy and Mike Slater does in the Channel 9 commentary box, or Ricky Ponting does with his high-minded and sanctimonious ad-nauseum upholding of the ‘spirit of the game’. That Symonds was declared man of the match, justified by looking at his scorecard but not when wondering what might have been if he was given out rightly by Bucknor in the first innings as he confessed after the first day, added salt to a wound that will take time to go away.
Fortunately, there were some voices of reason among the more experienced cricket writers in Australia. Mike Coward wrote in The Australian:
“Both captains need to remind their players of the collective responsibility to the series, the game and to the welfare of Test cricket which, pretty well to a man, they profess to love above all other forms of the game. If this is the case, they should publicly demonstrate their affection for it and play in a dignified manner and show greater respect.”
“While there is little to excuse the contretemps between Symonds and Harbhajan there can be no doubt that the poor umpiring of Bucknor and Benson dramatically affected the mood of the players and therefore the tenor of proceedings. While the Australians will emphatically demur, it was unjust that India lost. There is no doubt the rub was against India from the time Symonds was allowed a bonus 132 runs in the first innings. This was the moment that changed the course of the match.”
Meanwhile in the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Roebuck was similarly, but more equivocally, disappointed:
” India have been dudded. No one with the slightest enthusiasm for cricket will take the least satisfaction from the victory secured by the local team in an SCG Test that entertained spectators, provided some excellent batting but left a sour taste in the mouth.
It was a match that will have been relished only by rabid nationalists and others for whom victory and vengeance are the sole reasons for playing sport. Truth to tell, the last day was as bad as the first. It was a rotten contest that singularly failed to elevate the spirit.”
Two incidents that reek of cricket trivia stood out the morning after when I went through the match reports like the ones above.
Anil Kumble’s comment at the end of the game that “Only one team was playing with the spirit of the game, that’s all I can say” was almost an echo of what Australian captain Bill Woodfull told England’s manager ‘Plum’ Warner after being hit on his chest by Harold Larwood during the Adelaide test of the infamous 1932-33 ‘Bodyline’ tour: I don’t want to see you, Mr Warner. There are two teams out there, one is playing cricket. The other is making no attempt to do so. The game is too good to be spoilt. It is time some people got out of it.”
India’s team manager yesterday was Chetan Chauhan, the erstwhile opening partner to Sunil Gavaskar who somewhat reluctantly walked off with Gavaskar during the Melbourne test of 1981. The provocation was a contentious LBW decision off Dennis Lillie which Gavaskar contended was an inside edge and Lillie with few choice words and gestures gave his side of the argument. The game finally continued, and Kapil Dev gave India a famous vistory taking 5 for 28. Meanwhile, Gavaskar continued fighting the good fight on TV, as reported widely in the Indian press, against what he has always maintained to be uniquely Australian boorishness (which unfortunately manifested last year in an ill-conceived, and rightly criticised, comment on the 2004 death of the David Hookes). Between the two openers, most people would still prefer Star’s Gavaskar over Channel 9’s Slater.
The former was a watershed event in cricket history, while the latter was the first public display of disaffection by an Indian team. Let us hope things don’t go further downhill, as rumors are flying around of the Indian team flying back home and Bucknor being replaced for the next test at Perth. To stand up and be counted when things don’t go your way, to fight a good fight when everyone seems against you, that’s what shows strength of character. The steely glint in Anil Kumble’s eyes, the unwillingness of a Dhoni or a Dravid not to give up even when not in the best of batting forms, the nervelessness of a Sachin Tendulkar batting with the tail, the sheer poetry of a Saurav Ganguly taking the fight to Australia despite his perceived ‘weakness’ against fast bowling, that’s what it is about being men among boys. And the ‘boys’ in this team have many men among them ready to be counted. Now is the time, and this is the place.