Time for reason, not hot passions

ROHIT BRIJNATH

SOME weeks ago, so goes a story, two journalists called the Australian Cricket Board offices asking if match referee Ranjan Madugalle was planning to take or had taken any action against Steve Waugh.

This appeared a reasonable query, since Waugh's questioning of umpire Darrell Hair over his run-out appeared to breach both the rules and etiquette.

Subsequently, Waugh apparently learned about the telephone call and allegedly (a useful word in such situations) was livid. As if the media's enquiry had instigated the match referee to act.

The complete truth of this incident may be more complex. Nevertheless, if true, Waugh's reaction suggests the media is devious (I can hear many cricketers worldwide applauding), the match referee inept (one presumes he can recognise an act of dissent when he sees one) and he of course blameless.

Some weeks later Waugh and the press collided again. Shaun Pollock was informing the media that Steve Elworthy, felled by a McGrath bouncer, had been taken to hospital for a precautionary scan. In his now infamous aside, Waugh, standing close-by, was heard to quip, "And I bet they didn't find a brain either," or some such thing.

All sorts of hell broke loose. His comment was described variously as ill-advised, insensitive and rude. In some quarters it was suggested he was no longer captaincy material. Exaggeration has had better days.

It has opened up a variety of debates.

In the dissent incident, Waugh claimed there was more to the issue but rules forbade him from speaking out. In the Elworthy incident he embraced Lele's Law and said he was misquoted. In neither case did he admit to any wrongdoing. This itself is intriguing if not unfortunate.

Waugh is a compassionate man (his Calcutta project confirms that), a batsman whose courage runs deep and a cerebral captain. On the field he is unbending, and perhaps off it occasionally too. He has an idea and runs with it to exhaustion. Sometimes a pause for reflection is useful. An apology, at least in the first incident, would have been suitable. It would not have diminished him, in fact possibly the reverse.

Waugh in the last two seasons has been raised to a status that exceeds the heroic and embraces the reverential. Not quite Tendulkar-ish but thereabouts, but for different reasons. He has been anointed cricket's resident "statesman", and more often than is necessary the phrase "man with a sense of history" is affixed to his name. Not all of this is inaccurate, but reverence is a dangerous game.

It suckers men into believing in their own myths, and forgetting that falls from grace are quicker than the rise itself. We do not know if Waugh is guilty of such naivety (nothing about him suggests so), still he has never complained about the media support. He used us well too, for when it came to playing mind games with the opposition we were the delivery boys.

But perhaps he is taken aback by the pitch of reaction now. Saint has suddenly turned sinner. Some of it is valid, some not so. He has been courageous and bold enough to point fingers at people: he has not held back about Ganguly, about India's problems in South Africa and cricketing matters in general. Yet he would be foolish to think that he will be forgiven all his own transgressions.

Perhaps the press should step back too. A man cannot be infallible one day, and so deeply flawed the next. In India, we have recently seen a lighter version of this with Tendulkar. Without his asking for it, he was granted iconic status. Except there has been some grinding of teeth about his failure to win matches for India and he has taken some stick for that. It is said he is perhaps not as good as he has been made out to be. But who made him out to be that good but us? If we are going to censure him, let it be gently done.

That said, on the matter of Waugh, the furore over the "no brain" comment was unreasonable. It's the most obvious joke to make in such a situation and only Mother Teresa may have not been guilty of it. In the old days, when Indian players (some in particular) said they had broken a finger, instead of sympathy we laughed that it was because they didn't want to field (Of course, in some cases that may have been true).

Furthermore, a private comment should remain just that. A string of words pulled out of context suddenly sound more ominous than perhaps was intended. An American journalist once sat in a booth at a pizza parlour, and overheard Andre Agassi, in the adjoining booth, criticising the Davis Cup or some such thing. The journalist printed the story but the ethics of it were questionable. In earlier times eavesdropping was merely poor manners.

Lines must be drawn. Else a player will draw one.

When I once requested a one-on-one interview with Waugh I was told there was no need, a press conference was sufficient. Not quite, but mostly it was, for he avoids the mundane, measures his answers, owns strong opinions on most subjects and is unafraid to articulate them. The statesman tag was largely earned through such encounters.

It makes him unusual, for captains are not necessarily the most ready communicators. If Tendulkar had a weakness as leader and ambassador (he has few, if any, on the field), it was his impassive reluctance to pursue conversations on any topic that was even vaguely contentious. Controversy worried him when it shouldn't have. He speaks intelligently on the game in private; in public he taped his own mouth.

Thus, slinging rocks at Waugh has inherent dangers. He could retreat into cliches or silence and the game will be lesser for it.

This is scarcely an argument to coddle him. If his form remains poor, and his team struggles, and it is required that he be hidden in the field, all manner of debate on his continued utility is essential. Similarly, if his conduct is unbecoming then he must pay the price without sulking like a schoolboy who can't get his way. But for both us and him, it is a time for reason, not for hot passions.