"But who is Ricky Ponting anyway?"
The question, from a very naive instructor at the gym, had me slow down the speed on the treadmill.
We'd been discussing the whole Harbhajan-Symonds racism controversy for a few minutes, and I'd fielded his questions comfortably. This guy followed cricket but wasn't a big fan and didn't know a lot about the game, evident from his questions, but this one came out so innocently and simple.
I wanted to reply, "he's a f**** cheat" but that would've confused this guy further. So I explained the scenario to him, as I saw it, that the laws of cricket had been sidelined, that there was clear-cut evidence showing Ponting was wrong with his "I play fair" claims on international television, and that Australian cricketers have gotten away with close to murder in the past, while subcontinental players received fines and bans and what not.
Clearly, this Sydneygate has gripped India like nothing else matters.
And what we have here is a failure to communicate. The umpires failed to communicate between themselves on Sourav Ganguly's 'catch' by Michael Clarke, a decision which swung the final session on day five Australia's way, and at the root of Harbhajan v Symonds we have communication.
By not consulting Steve Bucknor at square leg, and asking Ricky Ponting if Clarke took the catch, Mark Benson erred grossly. He turned a blind eye to the laws, to technology, and to the spirit of the game. This was the same Clarke who only a month earlier claimed the most blatant of bump catches, at square leg, in a Chappell-Hadlee Trophy match. On that occasion replays repeatedly showed the ball hit grass before his fingers, and the on-air commentators questioned Clarke's credibility.
And Benson asked the same Ponting, who didn't walk when he edged Ganguly, and who claimed a catch at silly point that replays showed clearly hit the ground, if HE though Clarke took it? Why didn't he ask his umpiring colleague? Why didn't he go upstairs? It baffles the mind.
The same Ponting then had the audacity to tell senior Indian journalist G Rajaraman, in a post-match presser, that there was no way in the world he grassed the catch. Ponting said, and I quote: "Sorry, I think you got something wrong there. There is no way I grounded the ball! If you are actually questioning my integrity in the game, you should not even be standing...."
Did he not see what millions saw on TV? How in the world can that man look himself in the mirror every morning? REPLAYS SHOWED HE GRASSED THE CHANCE. He lied on international TV. Nothing more to it. Clarke's attempted catch was not as evident, but there was enough doubt there to merit a referral to the third umpire. If you have technology, why not use it?
Australian cricketers have gotten away with plenty over the years. The same Michael Slater, who sat alongside Sunil Gavaskar and Harsha Bhogle in the Star Cricket booth at the SCG and spoke of being fair on the field, committed arguably the most offensive act back in 2001 during the Bombay Test. Arguing that he had taken a catch at midwicket cleanly - the third umpire ruled it not out - Slater walked up to umpire Venkat and furiously wagged his finger in his face. It was appalling. Given that the code of conduct forbids you from questioning a decision, how could Slater argue with the umpire? The third umpire had made his ruling. Final word. Done. Slater even followed Rahul Dravid back to his crease, telling him just what he felt. And the most disgusting? Steve Waugh, the revered Australian captain, stood on and did nothing as Slater shouted at Venkat. Only Jason Gillespie, far from captain or vice-captain, walked up and pulled Slater away. So much for Waugh and his damn fine spirit.
Even Ponting, in an ODI between Australia and Bangladesh in early 2006, told a batsman (it was either Aftab Ahmed or Rajin Saleh) that he was out and should carry on back to the pavilion despite waiting for the third umpire. When the batsman was given not out, Ponting had strong words with the on-field umpires. How can this man get away with this?
Clive Lloyd, the former West Indian captain and ICC Match Referee, told The Wisden Cricketer recently that he had very little tolerance for players who stretch the laws. "Anyone who is punished during the game shouldn't be able to take any further part in it," he said. "When you get a red card in football, you don't keep tackling and passing, you're off. We should have sin bins at international games. Then we could do away with all this stuff of waiting until the end of the game ad handing a guy a piece of paper."
Lloyd makes a vital point. If Harbhajan did really make a racist remark to Symonds, or Brad Hogg called someone a bastard or whatever, and if the stump microphones heard it, then the match referee should be able to say look mate, you've been reported, we heard it, and you're going to miss a session, half a day, match, whatever.
But without hardcore evidence, how can you hand someone a three-Test ban? You're going to take the word of five Australians to that of two Indians? Come on.
"It is a shame that this issue has come to dominate the Test because from my point of view I believe that overall both the Melbourne and Sydney Tests were played in terrific spirit," said Ponting. Hah. The man who cries every time Australia are pushed on the field, the man who doesn't walk, the man who claims bump catches. If you've ever played cricket, even in the office, back yard or gully, you know when you've taken a catch. Sorry, Ponting, you have no argument.
But he goes on: "Since I took over from Steve I have taken it on myself to personally ensure that each new member of the team is fully aware of his responsibilities to the game."
Clarke, supposedly the heir apparent to Ponting, obviously wasn't listening. Adam Gilchrist is supposed to be Australia's hallmark of integrity. Hang on, wasn't he involved in the utterly incorrect and influential decision against Dravid on day five?
The Australian's Mike Coward wrote that the Australian cricketers regarded themselves as hard-nosed and aggressive but failed to understand that many in their own country and beyond found their antics "boorish, arrogant and ungracious". Correct. Australia's long-standing proclivity for sledging has indeed helped introduce such aggression into the game. Which is incorrect. Australia's on-field behaviour has been extremely unsportsmanlike.
And what about this race angle? Cricketers, all sports persons, have a duty to inculcate the right attitude in people. Like Lloyd said, provocation is not an excuse ... you don't see colour in sport.
Is the Courier-Mail, an Australian daily, putting Symonds' head on a picture of Hanuman not racist? Is Navjot Singh Sidhu, the former Indian batsman turned commentator/analyst, terming Symonds a "savage barbarian" in 2006 not racist? Its the same as Darren Lehmann calling Sri Lankan fans "dirty black c****".
Where are the yardsticks to measure and respond to racism?
I think the Deccan Herald's R Kaushik has got it right: "[ICC Match Referee] Mike Procter has set a dangerous precedent with his logic-defying verdict. Having admitted that umpires Benson and Bucknor had told him they had heard nothing, the South African has probably unwittingly pioneered a trend that could become infectious if personal scores are to be settled by using the race card."
India’s anger and dismay is not unsurprising. What is, however, is the ICC's first reaction. Why should the ICC remove Bucknor or bow to India's threats to return home? Yes, India is the richest cricketing nation but they do not run the game? I firmly disagree with India flexing its financial muscle with a threat to boycott the tour unless Harbhajan's suspension is reversed. Instead of disputing Harbhajan's punishment, India should condemn racism.
This whole mess has escalated into a complete sham. Its gone beyond 61-year-old Bucknor's gaffes or racist comments.
Thankfully India had Anil Kumble as captain during this controversy. A weaker man would have had it much rougher. Dravid would have probably broken down, Dhoni would have wilted and said something stupid, Ganguly would have been furious and said something in vain, and Sachin Tendulkar ... well, he would have gone straight to Gavaskar. Kumble kept his composure and acted like a true ambassador for Indian cricket.
Cricket has been relegated in the middle of all this. What happens in Perth remains to be seen.