Monday, January 7, 2008

Sachin tells Pawar: No Bhajji, no Perth

Team India raised the spectre of a tour boycott on Monday, insisting they would stay on here in Sydney till the “racist” label against Harbhajan Singh has been removed. Sachin Tendulkar reportedly even sent BCCI president Sharad Pawar an SMS assuring him of Harbhajan’s innocence and suggesting that India should play the third Test, in Perth, only if the punishment is revoked. When the ICC on Monday morning confirmed that the off-spinner had indeed been hit with a three-Test ban following Sunday’s late-night hearing with match referee Mike Procter, there was an explosion of outrage in the squad. At a players’ meeting on Monday morning — held minus the tour management — it was decided that unless the “racist” tag was taken off the bowler, there would be no further participation in the series.

The BCCI, meanwhile, considered various options at an emergency meeting at Mr Pawar’s residence in New Delhi on Monday, including pulling out of the series, and then directed the Indian team to stay put in Sydney. [According to PTI, Sachin Tendulkar’s SMS to Mr Sharad Pawar reportedly read: “Harbhajan is innocent and I can assure you on this. In this hour of crisis, the board should stand by him. I suggest we should play in Perth only if the ban is lifted.”]
Mr Pawar, speaking to reporters in New Delhi, said, “We are expecting (a response) from the ICC by tomorrow (Tuesday). We also have a working committee meeting, so we will take the final decision tomorrow.”

In Sydney, an official accompanying the team fumed, “Had the racism angle not arisen, there would have been no problem. A severe fine would have served the purpose. We are here for the cricket, not to take part in squabbles. But Procter went ahead on the basis of just two statements — those submitted before him by Andrew Symonds, an interested party, and Michael Clarke, whose integrity the whole world has seen.”

The official added: “There was no video evidence. There was no audio evidence. Both umpires flatly denied hearing a thing. Even Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist testified that they had heard nothing. So where — in the absence of any concrete evidence whatsoever — did this severe sentence come from? Is there more to it than meets the eye?”
There was anger across India and widespread protests. Jammu and Kashmir cricket association chief Farooq Abdullah said the tour should be abandoned if the game was not played in its right spirit.

“The BCCI president should call a meeting. If this treatment continues and they continue to win matches in this fashion, then our team should not play,” Dr Abdullah told reporters here, adding that if the BCCI was concerned about losing TV revenue and that was stopping it from recalling the cricket team, then “it would be a shame to play with the nation’s honour”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh avoided comment on the developments in Australia.

“It is not proper for me to comment on matters on which I do not have full details,” Dr Singh told journalists on the sidelines of a function at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Monday. Team sources in Sydney told this newspaper that a Punjabi swear-word closely rhyming with “monkey” was the reason Symonds had complained in the first place. If so, it is no different from the routine torrent of invective that rains on a batsman from close-in fielders almost all the time in top-flight cricket.

The question is, how did Procter arrive at his conclusion that Harbhajan had indeed used racist abuse against Symonds? Said Procter afterwards, “I am satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Harbhajan Singh directed that word at Andrew Symonds and also that he meant it to offend on the basis of Symonds’ race or ethnic origin.” There was no word of explanation, or proof, on the basis of which Procter, a South African who chose to stay in the fold of the boycotted apartheid regime of the 1960s and 1970s, arrived at his conclusion.

Symonds himself — before being hit by a Cricket Australia gag order on Monday — had admitted that he “had a crack” at Harbhajan, but blamed the Indian for his predicament. According to Symonds, Harbhajan had hit Brett Lee while batting, following which he had an altercation with the Indian. “I’m a firm believer in sticking up for a teammate, so I stepped in and had a bit of a crack at Harbhajan, telling him exactly what I thought of his antics,” Symonds was quoted as saying. “He then had a shot back, which brings us to the situation we’re facing,” he added.