Sydney sinners

Anil Kumble accused his counterpart Ricky Ponting (celebrating Sourav Ganguly’s dismissal with team-mates ) of not playing the game in the right spirit, singling out dubious claims for a slip catch by Michael Clarke — which resulted in Ganguly’s crucial dismissal for 51.-AP Anil Kumble accused his counterpart Ricky Ponting (celebrating Sourav Ganguly’s dismissal with team-mates ) of not playing the game in the right spirit, singling out dubious claims for a slip catch by Michael Clarke — which resulted in Ganguly’s crucial dismissal for 51.

The Sydney Test controversy has severely dented the popularity of Ricky Ponting and his men. This Australian team is not widely loved in its own land. By Kevin Mitchell.

When Ken and Barbara Symonds, schoolteachers from Birmingham, emigrated to Australia in 1975, they might fleetingly have wondered how their brown-skinned, three-month-old baby boy would be treated in a society not renowned for racial tolerance. But Barbie and Ken can hardly have imagined that one day their Andrew, whom they had adopted, would grow up to be a cricket star embroiled in an international race row with a Sikh.

Symonds, who has never fully explored his roots, does know one of his biological parents was West Indian, and his dreadlocks, combined with his Aussie drawl, inspired West Indies Mr. Cool, Chris Gayle, to observe he was “the only meat-eating Rastafarian in the world”.

But Symonds is assertively, unapologetically an Australian. From the sun-block on his lips to the swagger in his walk, as a member of the most in-your-face team in cricket, a batting all-rounder and thrillingly agile fielder who flirted briefly with the possibility of qualifying for England before hearing the call of the surf and returning to Queensland after a stint at Gloucestershire, Roy, as he is known, is what they call “true-blue”. He has divorced himself from his past to establish his own identity in a new, brash world. And he has embraced the culture of his country and his sport to the full.

After years of inconsistency, Symonds, at 32, has finally established himself as one of the irresistible forces in international cricket. Now, though, the tale that ought to be blessed in sunshine has turned sour.

When India arrived in Australia before Christmas, there were hopes the tour might replicate some of the drama of the wonderful tied series three years ago. It has. But not as anyone would have predicted.

In the tense closing stages of the second Test in Sydney, Symonds unintentionally set off a major hubbub when he accused India’s Harbhajan Singh of calling him ‘monkey’. The bowler denied it, was not believed and was banned for three Tests for racially insulting Symonds.

Did Symonds, who had a similar run-in with Harbhajan in India recently, hear him clearly? Did Harbhajan, an excitable and combative character, call Symonds a monkey? Did the Australians seize on the indiscretion to deflect criticism of their own belligerent mien?

If any of this constitutes the bowler’s defence when he appeals against his three-Test ban for racially abusing Symonds, the hearing, in front of a High Court judge imported from New Zealand in a transparent and clumsy nod towards even-handedness, will truly descend into the absurd.

The match, which Australia won with seven balls to spare on the final day as India’s batting collapsed, ought to have been a joyous celebration of cricket at its best. It was Australia’s 16th Test win in a row, a record to be savoured — and unchallenged in the foreseeable future. But a string of poor umpiring decisions by the West Indian Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson, the former Kent and England batsman, marred the contest and angered the tourists. India’s captain, Anil Kumble, a fair and intelligent man, also accused his counterpart Ricky Ponting of not playing the game in the right spirit, singling out dubious claims for a slip catch by Michael Clarke — which resulted in Sourav Ganguly’s crucial dismissal for 51 — and Clarke’s reluctance to ‘walk’ when clearly out, caught in the slips.

When Clarke took three quick wickets with his part-time, left-arm spin to demoralise the Indians just as they were in sight of a draw, the Australians, understandably, went barmy. However, they then ignored their opponents and went into a frenzied huddle of celebration. It might not have been an intentional snub, but it looked like one. And it was in stark contrast to the conciliatory gesture by Andrew Flintoff when he draped an arm around the shoulder of Brett Lee after the Australian had come so frustratingly close to seeing his team home to victory at Edgbaston in the Ashes series of 2005.

Symonds had added to the losers’ wounds by conceding he should have been given out on 30 before going on to score an unbeaten 162. This galling admission convinced the Indians they had been on the wrong end of every wave of fortune throughout this Test match and the one in Melbourne, which they also lost. There followed more intrigue. The Indians, whose financial hegemony in the sport has risen extraordinarily in recent years, threatened to go home if there was not some retribution. The International Cricket Council quickly caved in and dropped Bucknor from the third Test in Perth, even while trying to claim it was not related to the Symonds incident. But, as everyone knew, it was the alleged racist slur against Symonds that brought all of the seething resentment to a head.

Neither umpire heard the remark. Nor was it picked up by TV microphones. But, when Symonds told Ponting, the captain reported it to the South African match referee Mike Procter who accepted the Australians’ version of the incident rather than the denial of Harbhajan and his revered team-mate Sachin Tendulkar, who was within earshot. Procter’s handling of the incident, not to mention his verdict, ensured there would be no immediate amicable settlement. This was not just about right and wrong; it was about a perceived counter-slur on the integrity of a team and a nation — unfortunately for everyone concerned, on the back of a decision handed down by a player who’d been on the outside looking in during the racist highpoint of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

In the days since the Test, the controversy has raged in the Australian and Indian media, and beyond. At the heart of the matter is an internal debate that has grown louder by the day: are these wonderful Australian cricketers, and more specifically Ponting’s team, too brutal, too arrogant, too remote from the sensibilities of opponents who, consistently, have failed to stretch them? The answer would seem to be yes.

Peter Roebuck stirred emotions vigorously in the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ when he suggested Ponting should be sacked. More than 60 per cent of readers agreed with him. This is a team not widely loved in its own land. They have their defenders, though. In ‘The Australian’, Malcolm Conn wrote: “If there are any sinners in this sorry episode Ponting and his brilliant team are a long way down the list. Harbhajan, the BCCI officials and all those who support their stand should hang their heads in shame.”

Harbhajan might well be playing word games, but Symonds is no innocent; towards the end of an already fraught Test, he could have let it go, yet he chose to reignite the rancour which so marred Australia’s one-day tour of India. Kumble has emerged as the more conciliatory captain, offering to meet Ponting, whose credentials have been damaged by his macho intransigence. And the officials on all sides have, as always, been posturing apologists, dithering between platitudes and inaction.

Steve Waugh, who virtually invented modern Test sledging, but generally kept a lid on its excesses, reckoned the row highlighted the cultural differences between Australia and India. It did. But why should there be such continued misunderstanding? What it also demonstrated was how weak leadership under the intense pressures of modern international sport allows matters to drift then blow up. As a template on how to turn a tiff into a diplomatic incident, the Symonds Saga is right up there with the best of Mr. Bean.