While my cricketing heart has always beaten to the pulsating fortunes of the Indian team, in my head I have long admired the way the Aussies played the game: hard but true and fair. They were the ultimate examples of a thoroughly professional approach to the game under demanding modern conditions. Somewhere along the way, they lost the plot. It is sad to see a team of champions stooping to conquer. Moreover, in a curious combination of the bully and tantrum-throwing spoilt brat syndromes, they can dish it out but not take it. They seem to believe in a God-given right to determine unilaterally just where the boundaries of good and impermissible behaviour lie.
At the end of the disgraceful farce in Sydney, I felt proud to identify with Anil Kumble's dignity in undeserved defeat against Ricky Ponting's smugness, triumphalism, and precious protestations of innocence in unearned victory. Indeed only one side played in the spirit of the game, and all cricket fans throughout the world know it. One team stands diminished, and it isn't the Indians. An online poll in The Age (Melbourne) on the morning of January 8, no matter how unrepresentative, showed 81 per cent of respondents believe Australian cricketers are bad sports. In his regular column for the same paper on January 8, Peter Roebuck suggested in a strongly worded article that Cricket Australia should sack Ponting for his "arrogant and abrasive conduct." Certainly Ponting's ongoing comments show that he still doesn't get it and therefore Roebuck's advice is germane.
India was beaten comprehensively in the first Test in Melbourne. No Indian - player, manager, journalist, or fan - claimed that the result was due to anything other than the team's own abject performance. Perhaps the Indian cricket board deserved some blame for not scheduling adequate preparation time before matching up with the acknowledged world champions on their home ground. The tag of sore losers doesn't wash.
To its credit, the team picked itself up from the depths of demoralisation in Melbourne and came out firing on all cylinders in Sydney. They were gutted by umpiring errors and unsporting behaviour by Australian batsmen, including the captain, on the first day itself. And still they picked themselves up magnificently once again to make a game of it, only to be destroyed by still more umpiring blunders on the final day. A record-equalling triumph? They are welcome to it. Instead of adding glory to their previous triumphs, this will rather tarnish the quality of their early victories.
Marginal decisions that do eventually even out one can understand. Umpiring blunders of this magnitude and series-deciding impact are something else. Lacking the judgment and sense to retire gracefully, Steve Bucknor should have been put to pasture after the World Cup. Astonishingly, in the Sydney Test his fellow umpire matched him in gross incompetence and was joined also by the third umpire. As for the adjudicator giving the man of the match award to Andrew Symonds, I like his sense of irony-laced humour.
And now we have the injustice meted out to Harbhajan Singh. If the match referee was going to do his job properly, he should have found Yuvraj Singh guilty of dissent in the first Test and fined him substantially for it. To add insult to injury, they have taken the collective word of the Australian team against that of the Indian team. The match referee thus joins the on and off field umpires in this travesty of serial provocations to India. Ponting's cheek in registering dissent at being given out long after he had been allowed to bat on despite being out, and knowing he was out, was exceeded only by Symonds' chutzpah in complaining about Harbhajan's remarks. Someone should explain to Ponting, Symonds & Co. that their approach to the game casts far more aspersions on their nation than any comment anyone else may make.
Harbhajan is a hot-headed young man who needs to curb his exuberance and control his temper. There is nothing in his record, however, to suggest he initiates confrontations. By contrast, the Australians are notorious the world over for their provocative sledging and are also acquiring a reputation for not being able to cope with retaliation in kind. Little wonder that former Pakistan great Wasim Akram has called them "cry babies" for their performance in Sydney.
A just outcome would have seen India win the Sydney Test and square the series. An acceptable outcome would have been an honourable draw against the rub of monumental umpiring mistakes. A series-deciding loss is intolerable and should be treated as such by the Indian Board.
Unless Bhajji's teammates are lying to the Indian press and people, neither they nor the umpires heard anything to corroborate the Australians' charge. The match referee decides that the Indians are lying and Australians telling the truth. Please. The ICC must move away from rank amateurishness and select people with some grasp of due process and diplomatic skills that will help to defuse tensions instead of inflaming them further. For that matter, the ICC is an antiquated arrangement, managing the equivalent of a major multinational corporation, whose work method seems to be to lurch from one crisis to another instead of providing strategic leadership. It suffers from a severe bout of the head in the ostrich affliction: "What, me worry?" The BCCI should accept nothing less than "not proven" at best and a total reversal of the conviction and punishment of their player.
Secondly, if the result of Sydney is to be allowed to stand, then the two Boards should agree immediately to an emergency fifth Test in order to restore some credibility and life to the series. Since so much of the bad behaviour is widely attributed to the growing commercialisation and commodification of the game, it is worth putting the argument in the language of business. The cricketing ‘industry' is supported by a global base of consumers, most of whom are concentrated in the subcontinent. They pay generously to maintain the wealthy lifestyles of the cricketers, the umpires and the officials. The ‘product' delivered to the paying spectators in Sydney and the worldwide television audience was defective. They are entitled to demand an exchange of the goods or else must be given a full refund.
Thirdly, and still on the commercial theme, Indian firms and sponsors should withdraw contracts and product endorsements by the Australians. That is a language, perhaps the only language, they understand. Their brand value stands much diminished in the Indian market.
Fourthly, Mr. Bucknor should be thanked generously for his contributions to the game - which have been enormous over a considerable length of time - and invited to spend quality time with his family. Mark Benson should be relegated to officiating at appropriate levels until he gains more maturity and experience.
Finally, they should bring in immediately the challenge system used in tennis which is a fair compromise between using technology without recklessly delaying the game. Each team could be permitted up to three challenges per innings communicated to the umpire through the captain. If a challenge is upheld by the third umpire, the number of challenges remaining in the team's credit ledger is not changed. If it is rejected, one challenge is deducted.
An additional option would be to build on the captains' agreement that did not quite work as hoped for in Sydney. If in doubt, umpires could be empowered to ask the batsmen concerned directly if they had nicked the ball. With modern technology that will quickly catch a lie out, this would make it difficult for batsmen, who usually know whether or not the bat touched the ball on the way through to the wicket-keeper, to be dishonest. Yet it neither wastes time nor undermines the on-field umpires' authority.