A welcome stand

TWO countries mired in turmoil are playing a series full of verbal jousting and physical posturing. That, you might say, is how all sport is played, or indeed should be played and yet that isn't right.

HARSHA BHOGLE

TWO countries mired in turmoil are playing a series full of verbal jousting and physical posturing. That, you might say, is how all sport is played, or indeed should be played and yet that isn't right. Both South Africa and Pakistan display a fair bit of passion on the field, both teams have provocative elements to them but cricket is not about squaring up eyeball to eyeball like bouncers in a nightclub might, or more acceptably, rugby players might. Every sport has its identity, cricket does too, and while disappointment, anger, frustration are all part of sport, standing up provocatively alongside an opponent or picking up a bat isn't.

Shahid Afridi has to be calmed down by umpire Steve Bucknor after his row with Aravinda de Silva (right) during the ICC Champions Trophy match between Sri Lanka and Pakistan at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, in September, 2002. Provocations on the cricket field are on the rise and frankly, the time has come to slip a red and a yellow card into the umpire's kit, says the author. — Pic. TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

Worse still was the suggestion that this is a man's sport and that there is nobody in skirts out there. We have strange notions of masculinity and stranger ones of femininity. Presumably playing hard but without the need to square up, look a person in the eye and threaten physical action is feminine. And passing a comment at a batsman after he is out, and therefore cannot retaliate, is masculine. We say strange things in the name of sport.

Provocation of the kind we have seen in Pakistan will hasten the move towards red cards and frankly, the time has come to slip a red and a yellow card into the umpire's kit. It isn't the way a lot of us would like it to be but a lot of what passes for a man's sport isn't what we would like it to be either. A card isn't a gun to be fired at the slightest annoyance, merely a message to the cricketer that a weapon exists. It is no more radical than use of television replays or 30-yard circles. The game must move on and if it cannot self-regulate, authority must be imposed.

That is why Cricket Australia's tough stand against sledging is welcome; as much to tell the cricketers what they cannot do as to tell the public, whose needs are so ignored in our part of the world, that their voice falls on receptive ears. Cricket in Australia competes with a lot of other sports for viewer attention and sponsorship money. It needs to have the right image and while their players have done a fantastic job in demonstrating their superiority, they haven't quite taken the right image into people's houses.

Australia is a very interesting country. On the surface, Aussies might seem to be in-your-face, people who come hard at opponents, who display aggression openly but having been there a few times, I believe that is a minority camp. A majority of the people are fairly traditional, concerned with loutish behaviour and who show an appreciation for the supposedly softer human qualities like grace, good manners and chivalry. It is these people who bombarded Cricket Australia with protests over the way their national team sometimes behaved. And it is these people who have led to the creation of a fairly hard code of conduct. But having established such a code and, in a sense, demanded standards of behaviour from their players, you can be sure that Australia will now demand it of others. Australians have been stung by the comments made against them and will be ready to highlight such deficiencies in others. And India will see that in a month and a half. Watch out especially for the close-in fielders running towards the umpire ball in hand, one of the outlawed actions in Australia.

It is the reverse of what happened with drugs in sport. Australia were among the first countries to take a stand against drugs and to demand severe penalties for abuse. The Chinese athletes copped an earful and for a while it seemed that a Chinese swimmer couldn't get into a pool without a few pokes of the syringe. But the world was less impressed with the action taken against Australians found guilty. That led to the strong stand against Warne and now, I suspect, against sledging.

It is something we need to look at very closely in India as well. The general view among cricket lovers is that sledging is something practised by cruel foreigners while the Indian players are vulnerable lilies merely taking and offering nothing better than a cheek in return. It is a romantic, maternal thought but like many such thoughts, a bit removed from reality. We need to have a firm stand against sledging in junior cricket as indeed we need to against bent-arm bowling actions.

And we need to absorb the importance of image in our cricket. Already our players are closer to their fans thanks to Amrit Mathur's initiative of asking them to be available to the media; though I think the day is not far when Amrit will demand tape recorders be used at press conferences.

And I think the people must demand better facilities at stadiums. They pay good money, they must get more and their voice must be heard. Even the most powerful brands can get humbled when they take their customer for granted. That is something the cricketers need to know too and this could be a season of turmoil or triumph. In many ways, Indian cricket is approaching the threshold of high performance. New ball bowlers are coming through, the odd opener has been sighted, the most experienced batsmen are still only 30, the administration is turning over a new leaf, fitness standards are looking up. Now India need a good tough away performance. It might just be the tipping point in Indian cricket. As long as they keep the referees idle.