Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Just not cricket

In a recent cricket match played between India and Australia in Sydney, the Indian cricketer Harbhajan Singh was accused of hurling a racist insult at Andrew Symonds, an Australian player who, I learnt recently, is of Caribbean descent. Symonds had been the subject of insulting taunts and gestures by some spectators in the stadiums of India where the Australian team had toured a few months ago. On January 4, 2008, in the middle of a tense game situation in Sydney, there was an exchange between Symonds and Harbhajan, after which Symonds accused Harbhajan of calling him a 'monkey'. This was backed up by two of his Australian team-mates, Matthew Hayden and Michael Clarke. Harbhajan Singh denied using any racist insults. The two umpires did not hear anything and the microphones attached to the stumps did not pick up the insult either. Harbhajan's batting partner and cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar also said later that Harbhajan had not used any racist language. The matter was reported to the umpires, who eventually brought it to the attention of the off-field match referee. A hearing was held by the referee after the match was over; he found Harbhajan guilty as accused and handed out a three-match ban.

The ban unleashed a furore in India. The TV channels were outraged. Predictably, a few effigies were burnt for the benefit of the cameras. Websites were flooded with the outbursts of Indian cricket fans. Everybody and his uncle weighed in on the matter. The Indian cricket board, by far the wealthiest and most influential of such boards in the cricket playing countries, made threatening noises about calling off the tour if the ban were not lifted. An appeals process exists in cases such as these, so an appeal was filed. The international body that manages cricket, the International Cricket Council (ICC), decided to postpone the appeal hearing till the end of the month in order to salvage the two remaining matches in the test series. On Tuesday, January 29th, the appeal was heard by a commissioner of the ICC who also happens to be a judge from New Zealand. He found that the charge was not proven. Harbhajan was however convicted of a lesser charge of using abusive language.

This bare summary hardly does justice to the story. In order to get a fuller picture, we have to recall some background. Cricket is played extensively in very few countries - all of whom were formerly part of the British empire. Introduced by the British into the colonies of the empire, it was initially meant for and played by the elites. From the start of the 20th century, international games were run by the English and the Australians via a body called the ICC - the Imperial Cricket Conference. An Indian team, usually captained by a maharaja, started playing international games in 1932. After the departure of the British, cricket steadily gained popularity in the countries of the subcontinent. Pakistan started playing international cricket soon after 1947, Sri Lanka did so in the 1980s, as did Bangladesh in the 1990s.

The way that the game is played in India has no resemblance to the genteel version of it imagined fondly by the Victorians who played it and built up its mythology and cliches - cricket was 'a gentleman's game'; whatever was not fair was 'just not cricket'. Today, the game is played by large numbers of people in the streets of the subcontinent, most often with barely any equipment save for a bat and a ball and with scant regard for obscure rules, leave alone codes of behavior. Television has taken cricket to rural India as well. The game is easily understood, does not require great athleticism, and captivates people thanks to the many fluctuations in fortune during a typical game. In addition, since international contests are between national teams, there is a great deal of nationalist pride and posturing involved - India-Pakistan games during the 1980s and 1990s were more or less treated as wars by other means. All of this has led the sociologist Ashis Nandy to remark only half-jocularly that cricket is an Indian game accidentally invented by the British.

In the last couple of decades or so, fuelled by the television revolution in India, cricket has meant big money. Players for the national cricket team sign lucrative advertising contracts and become stars in the process. Their record of successes in the game is mixed at best, but the celebrity-obsession of the 24-hour TV channels and most of the print media ensures that they are never out of the limelight. The Indian cricket team also carries the misplaced burden of national pride with it. This has been toned down a little bit in the last year or two, but the players do risk their effigies being burnt or their houses being attacked if they lose particularly badly.

The rivalry between the Indian and Australian teams has been quite intense for the last several years. While the Indian team has many talented players, Australia has quite clearly been the best team in the world for many years. During the last decade, it has won the 1999, 2003 and 2007 world cup one-day cricket championships and has twice had long strings of victories (16 matches in a row) in the five-day version of the game. Yet, India has challenged this supremacy several times. The two long victory strings were broken by India. India was the losing finalist in the 2003 world cup. In 2007, India won the world championship in Twenty20 cricket - the newest, most exciting, and shortest form of the game. It beat Australia in the semi-finals.

A tour of India by Australia in September-October 2007 saw a lot of bitterness. Verbal clashes between players on the field were magnified by the ugly behavior of spectators. Australia won the series of one-day games easily, but lost the only Twenty20 encounter, allowing India to claim that their victory in the world cup clash was not a fluke. It was during the course of this series that Symonds was called a monkey by some spectators. At first, the Indian board denied that such a thing could happen, but upon being confronted with photographic evidence from an enterprising Aussie journalist, belatedly issued condemnations and asked authorities to prosecute the culprits.

The Australian team is notorious in cricketing circles for being utterly and completely obnoxious - several years ago, they elevated the dubious practice of 'sledging' to a regular feature of their game. Sledging refers to insults, abuse and harangues directed by a team's players against an opposing team's player on the field. This is supposed to unsettle the opponent and get him out - and it very often does. Over the years, other teams have also adopted this practice, leading to a great deal of unpleasantness. In the last year or so, some of the Indian cricketers are dishing it out just as well as they are receiving it - in fact, perhaps way more than necessary. Harbhajan Singh is one of them. In October 2007, after the bitter series with India, the Australian captain was surprised by this new found aggression among the Indians, whom he called "fairly passive sort of people".

All of this helps us understand why the reaction in India to one of their players being labeled a racist is so strong. The reaction that I see on the web, in user comments on Cricinfo (an encyclopedic cricket website) and, to take one example, on the Guardian's website, makes for interesting reading after you eliminate the obviously idiotic comments. I think that much of the difference in opinions comes from being unable to recognize that several things are simultaneously true:
  • Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Indians can be quite racist.
Just like any group of people, Indians are capable of enormous amounts of prejudice - on the basis of religion, caste, language, appearance, skin color and nationality. At one extreme, the horrendous mob violence unleashed against minorities every now and then in India is the ugliest manifestation of prejudice. At the other, on a relatively more harmless scale, is the preference for 'fair' skin and 'fairness' creams.

The in-built prejudice is strong and does not evaporate with exposure to greater numbers of people of diverse appearance - I have met many Indians in the US who use the terms kallu for black people and chinku for Asian-Americans.

Of course, this does not mean that all Indians are racists or that Harbhajan is a racist. On the contrary, I think that most Indians are actually very comfortable with differences and actually seek out and love diversity. And many of them are militantly anti-racist. Nevertheless, the point is that just because we are brown-skinned, or that a fair number of Indians are themselves dark-skinned, or that we have a legacy of fighting against colonialism/racism- does not mean that we are immune as a group to racism.
  • Australian cricket players have been obnoxious for many years.
A famous incident from 5 years ago, involving the now-retired Glenn McGrath sledging Ramnaresh Sarwan of the West Indies, showed that on-field provocation could spiral out of control. Cricket folk lore has added dialogue to the incident which remains unconfirmed, but is probably not far from the truth. Curiously, there was considerable support for McGrath in Australia, despite the fact that he started the whole thing with what was a patently offensive remark - even the Aussie Prime Minister jumped in to defend McGrath.

And just a few months before that, Australia's very own Darren Lehmann became the first player to be suspended for 5 games for a racist outburst in which he reportedly called Sri Lanka's players "black c***s".
  • The word 'monkey' may not be very offensive in India but carries strong racist overtones in the English speaking world.
It is true, as many Indians have pointed out, that Indians often call their kids 'little monkey' fondly. In addition, Michael Holding, the great bowler of the 1980s and of Caribbean origin like Andrew Symonds, was quite dismissive of the term being racist. This means that context and intent are critical when deciding if something is racist. Nevertheless, I suspect that Harbhajan was aware that calling someone a 'monkey' was racially offensive - it had already caused controversy earlier. Also, he is familiar enough with English (as this interview shows) to have realized that.
Even though context and intent are critical, the Indian team's counter-complaint against Brad Hogg (later withdrawn) calling them 'bastards' seems a bit disingenuous to me. Among the English-speaking urban crowd in India, from which a majority of its cricket players are still drawn, 'bastard' is used frequently. I remember it being used more or less as a filler among students when I was in college. On the other hand though, you could easily get roundly thrashed for calling someone 'harami' in Hindi.
  • There is one likely explanation that reconciles different versions of the event.
Harbhajan Singh may very likely have said 'Teri Maan ki ****' - a common, though harsh, gaali (abusive phrase) in northern India, not unlike the 'Tu Madre' in Spanish. This could easily have been misheard by the Australians as 'monkey'. This is one explanation that squares with all the available evidence - nothing caught on the mikes, nothing heard by the umpires, the strong accusations of the Australians, and the vehement denials by Harbhajan. It is apparently also the version of events given by Sachin Tendulkar in the appeal hearing.

This swearing in Hindi and/or Punjabi is not uncommon on the cricket field - especially in India-Pakistan games. The generously provided voice-over for a video of this clash between Gautam Gambhir of India and Shahid Afridi of Pakistan may have been imagined, but is very close to the truth, as the lip movements synchronize perfectly with very well-known gaalis in India and Pakistan.

The end result is that the Australian team and public are utterly convinced that Harbhajan did call Symonds a 'monkey' and then got away with a rap on the knuckles, thanks to the financial muscle of the Indian cricket board and the small-mindedness of the ICC and Australian boards. Most Indians are equally convinced that Harbhajan is being victimised, and is at most guilty of abuse under provocation. Adding to their sense of injustice is the fact that at the first hearing, the burden of proof was not demanded of the Australians by Mike Procter, a white, former South African player, who has generally been harsh on subcontinental players and lenient with Australians.

What Harbhajan said to Symonds on that day will perhaps remain a mystery, but I am intrigued by how slippery the truth can be. Faced with imperfect knowledge, we imagine what must have happened. This imagination is overwhelmingly based on cultural steroetypes, our experiences in life and our perceptions of the people involved.