Series review

Australia v India 2007-08

Greg Baum

Test matches (4): Australia 2, India 1
Twenty20 international (1): Australia 1, India 0

Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds: the two players who fuelled the series' controversies © Getty Images

"Bollyline" in Sydney will go down in history as a kind of cricketing sixday war. It was all too real and nasty while it was happening, but it was over almost as soon as it had begun. By the start of the next Test in Perth ten days later, there was such peace and harmony on the surface it was as if nothing had ever happened.

As in real wars, circumstances conspired fatefully. Questionable sportsmanship, poor umpiring and alleged racism set the Second Test at Sydney on a daily more precipitous edge, and tipped it over as Australia pursued a record-equalling 16th successive win on the last day in typically relentless fashion. They did snatch improbable victory from the jaws of stalemate, but it seemed to be made Pyrrhic in its moment by the engulfing firestorm.

There were casualties, not least among them the game's dignity. Harbhajan Singh was given a three-Test ban (later rescinded). Posturing Indian authorities threatened to abandon the tour. Commentator Peter Roebuck called for the sacking of Ricky Ponting. Steve Bucknor lost his umpiring commission, and seemed unlikely ever to regain it. India's captain Anil Kumble dramatically invoked the spirit of a previous cricket war when he declared that "Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game."

But the least-expected damage was collateral. Up and down the country, there was an outpouring of anger at the disposition of the Australian side. Roebuck's controversial call for the captain's head polarised the public in a way that shocked the team. More broadly, this war deepened unresolved tensions between Australia and India, cricket's on-field superpower and its financial powerhouse. Their scramble for the high moral ground made for an unedifying spectacle.

An animus had been brewing for months, since the World Twenty20 championship in South Africa. Some of the Australians thought India's victory celebrations in that tournament were disproportionate to the achievement: Andrew Symonds was one who said so publicly. During a subsequent one-day series in India, the crowds taunted the distinctively daubed and dreadlocked Symonds with monkey chants, perhaps imitating the European soccer many of them now watch on pay TV, prompting a clampdown by the authorities. Later, the Australians alleged that Harbhajan also taunted Symonds on the field. Publicly, Harbhajan said the Australians were in no position to complain; they were as vulgar as ever. Behind-thescenes manoeuvres to broker a peace between Symonds and Harbhajan evidently failed. But Symonds seemed unaffected; he played brilliantly in India and was named Man of the Series.

India's preparation for their tour of Australia was short and rushed, and they were thrashed in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. But there was little sign of rancour. Some of the tourists remarked on how pleasantly surprised they had been by their warm reception in Melbourne, and on the Australian public's deep affection for Sachin Tendulkar. The spirit between the teams appeared passably good. Kumble was the first visiting captain to accept Ponting's standing proposal that the teams should take each other's word about low catches, since technology had shown itself to be manifestly inadequate.

Outwardly, the humour remained intact as the teams moved on to Sydney for the New Year Test. In its unfolding, it was a classic, with a century every day - including a gem from Tendulkar - and a breathtaking denouement, with occasional spinner Michael Clarke taking the last three wickets in five balls when all seemed drawn.

But at another level the match was slowly deteriorating. A series of shocking decisions by umpires Bucknor and Mark Benson had an unsettling effect. It began on the first day when Ponting was wrongly given not out and then wrongly given out, to Harbhajan, his bête noire. The Australian captain registered his dismay, which was something of a cheek in the circumstances and an act he said later he regretted. It became item one of the evidence when Australia's sportsmanship was at issue later in the match and after it.

Later that first day, the impressive teenager Ishant Sharma was denied Symonds's wicket from an edge so obvious that even Symonds subsequently admitted he had hit it. He was 30 at the time; he made 162 not out. The preponderance of bad decisions was against India, though not all. Tendulkar was haplessly lbw to Clarke when he was 36; he made 154 not out.

More troublesome decisions followed. Partly, the players had only themselves to blame, as much intemperate appealing put pressure on officials already losing confidence. Superficially, the spirit between the sides remained intact. Sharma congratulated Symonds on his innings, Lee congratulated Tendulkar on his, and Ponting refused to claim an apparent catch from Rahul Dravid at second slip because he was unsure whether it was clean.

But there was a quickening undercurrent. As Harbhajan played a defiant hand in support of Tendulkar, which propelled India into a first-innings lead, a slanging match erupted. Principally, it was between Harbhajan and Symonds, whose mutual dislike was now well known. Ponting reported to the umpires that Harbhajan had uttered a racist epithet, perhaps "monkey" or "big monkey". Some said Ponting acted preciously, even provocatively, given Australia's history of waging so-called "mental disintegration". Unsustainably, some even alleged that Ponting seized on the race card in an effort to rid himself of Harbhajan, whose bunny he had become (he fell to him twice more in this match). Others, including Ponting, said he did only what he had been enjoined to do by the ICC in its anti-racism campaign.

A hearing before referee Mike Procter was set down for the end of the match. Tension escalated. The last day was at once ugly and memorable. Ponting extended Australia's second innings, gaining Mike Hussey another century but seemingly leaving himself too little time to bowl India out again. Playing for time, India used elaborate and cynical ruses to slow the overrate, which would remain problematic throughout the series. Left 72 overs to survive, India faltered, but time was tight, and two dropped catches looked likely to cost Australia dearly. Both sides felt the heat. After tea, Bucknor gave Dravid out caught at the wicket from a ball that plainly brushed only his pad. India were doubly enraged - that there had been an appeal in the first place, and then that it was upheld. Shortly afterwards Clarke, backed by Ponting, claimed a low slip catch from Sourav Ganguly. The batsman stood his ground, but was given out. Later, India would argue that, despite the agreement between the sides about catching, they were under no obligation to take the word of Clarke, who the previous day had refused to walk when cleanly caught at slip first ball.

The Age reacts to Matthew Hayden's verbal assault on Harbhajan Singh © The Age

This contretemps led to another between Ponting and Indian journalists after the match. Victory, gained in long shadows with nine minutes to spare, prompted unbridled jubilation among the Australians, leaving Kumble, who had played a gallant unbeaten innings, to cool his heels. "That's about as good a win as I've been in," chortled Ponting. But at a press conference soon afterwards, Kumble charged Australia with a lack of sportsmanship as grievous as Douglas Jardine's in 1932-33. It was an overwrought claim: though Australia had behaved less than nobly, India were also guilty of breaches of the game's spirit. Indians objected to Australia's triumphalism at the end, but forgot the exuberance of Harbhajan upon dismissing Ponting in the second innings, when he ran almost to the pavilion and performed two inelegant forward rolls on the turf before team-mates caught him.

In the small hours of the next morning, after a long hearing, Procter suspended Harbhajan for three Tests. Meantime, India brought a countercharge against Brad Hogg for referring to them as "bastards". The next few days were inglorious. India's authorities claimed, bizarrely, that it was impossible for an Indian to be racist. They threatened to call off the tour unless Harbhajan's ban was overturned, and the team, instead of travelling to Canberra as scheduled, took refuge in their Sydney hotel. The ICC called in their chief referee Ranjan Madugalle to broker a truce between Ponting and Kumble. They also replaced Bucknor with Billy Bowden for the next Test, saying they were acting in the best interests of the umpire and the game, but - absurdly - denying that they had yielded to pressure from India.

Meantime, Roebuck's demand for the removal of Ponting reverberated around the country, prompting fulminations on letters pages and websites worldwide. One of the noteworthy aspects of this controversy was the role of the internet in fanning it so widely and quickly. In the cacophony, many ill-considered voices were raised. In his newspaper column, Indian legend and ICC cricket committee chairman Sunil Gavaskar questioned Procter's role, saying "millions of Indians want to know if it was a white man taking the white man's word against that of the brown man". Symonds scarcely helped by saying that a bit of racial teasing between friends was fine, but not between strangers.

A frivolous debate arose about the word "monkey" and whether or not it was a pejorative in India. Protagonists asked us to believe that crowds in India were possibly offering Symonds endearment. The idea that the ill will between the teams was all down to cultural misunderstanding was the greatest nonsense of all. International cricketers travel widely, make friends across team divides, and learn to grasp cultural nuances. Whatever Australia and India said and did to one another in Sydney, they meant it. The "spirit of cricket" is unambiguous in any language.

At length, cooler heads prevailed. Harbhajan was given leave to enter an appeal, which - conveniently - would not be heard until after the series. The Indian board's threat to abandon the tour had always been fatuous anyway, given the television interests involved. The Indians moved to Canberra for their tour match, then on to Perth. Madugalle met Ponting and Kumble, and negotiated a peace of sorts, each captain declaring that the game was more important than any individual. But, curiously, the pact on low catches was torn up. The Hogg hearing was set for the night before the match, but at the eleventh hour, the Indians withdrew the charge in what was widely praised as a magnanimous gesture.

Still, twists remained. Having been cleared to play, both Harbhajan and Hogg were dropped anyway, not for the sake of goodwill, but because the WACA pitch looked to be back to its fast, bouncy old self, and each side wanted an extra paceman. (Both had been paradoxical performers: Hogg had made a valuable 79 at Sydney, but not taken a wicket on the last day; Harbhajan was good for only three wickets a match but, likely as not, two were Ponting.) The effect was to remove from the game two of the central players in the Sydney drama, and the sacking of Bucknor made it three. Benson, the other umpire, had not been scheduled to stand in Perth anyway. Following the anthem ceremony on the first morning, all the players on both sides shook the hand of every other. So, notionally, did Bollyline finish, ten days after it began.

Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds and Matthew Hayden at Harbhajan Singh's hearing, Adelaide, January 29, 2008 © Getty Images

The twists were not quite done yet. India won the Third Test, the first Asian side ever to win at Perth, snapping Australia's winning streak at a record-equalling 16. To what extent Australia were distracted by the minicrisis of Sydney was impossible to say; Ponting thought not at all. To what extent India were galvanised was also impossible to say; some of the Indians thought plenty.

But India won the match wholly on their merits. They outplayed Australia in their own conditions. Both sides misread the pitch, which was bouncy but only moderately paced. Shaun Tait, replacing Hogg, proved a liability, and two weeks later announced that he was quitting cricket for the time being. Irfan Pathan, replacing Harbhajan, won the match award. Australia secured victory in the series after a high-scoring draw in the Adelaide Test, Adam Gilchrist's last. The next day, an independent hearing before New Zealand judge John Hansen downgraded the charge against Harbhajan from racism to abusive language, rescinded the ban, and fined him half his Sydney match fee instead. Justice Hansen said that in such a serious case, a higher standard of proof was necessary: the word of three Australian players was not enough. He made it clear that Symonds had been the provocateur. He also amplified confusion about whether Harbhajan had said "monkey", "big monkey", or "teri maki", words in Hindi that sounded similar.

For the previous week, the former Indian board chairman I. S. Bindra had been in Australia, negotiating with Australian officials. Simultaneously, Indian board vice-president Lalit Modi was reported to have said that, unless Harbhajan was cleared, the tour would be cancelled and India would reconsider future engagements with Australia. He also said that an adverse finding would affect the prospects of Australians in the new Indian Premier League. Australian players muttered anonymously about how India's money was now ruling the game, which was a bit rich - pun intended - since many of them were greedily eyeing the vast spoils available for the new Twenty20 tournament in India. Justice Hansen indignantly denied media reports about a deal between the two countries, or that he had been under pressure to reprieve Harbhajan for the sake of future series, and rebuked the Indian authorities for even allowing that impression to form. He had, he said, reached his decision independently. But Hansen regretted the ICC's incomplete data about Harbhajan's disciplinary record, which might have affected his sentence.

So ended Bollyline - for now. Three things were clear. Hypocrisy still drags the game down. The ICC remains toothless. And India, failing to learn lessons from long periods of powerlessness, are intent on throwing their newly acquired weight around at every opportunity.

Match reports for

Tour Match: Victoria v Indians at Melbourne, Dec 20-22, 2007

1st Test: Australia v India at Melbourne, Dec 26-29, 2007
Report | Scorecard

2nd Test: Australia v India at Sydney, Jan 2-6, 2008
Report | Scorecard

Tour Match: ACT Invitational XI v Indians at Canberra, Jan 10-12, 2008

3rd Test: Australia v India at Perth, Jan 16-19, 2008
Report | Scorecard

4th Test: Australia v India at Adelaide, Jan 24-28, 2008
Report | Scorecard

Only T20I: Australia v India at Melbourne, Feb 1, 2008

1st Match: Australia v India at Brisbane, Feb 3, 2008

2nd Match: India v Sri Lanka at Brisbane, Feb 5, 2008

4th Match: Australia v India at Melbourne, Feb 10, 2008

5th Match: India v Sri Lanka at Canberra, Feb 12, 2008

7th Match: Australia v India at Adelaide, Feb 17, 2008

8th Match: India v Sri Lanka at Adelaide, Feb 19, 2008

10th Match: Australia v India at Sydney, Feb 24, 2008

11th Match: India v Sri Lanka at Hobart, Feb 26, 2008

1st Final: Australia v India at Sydney, Mar 2, 2008

2nd Final: Australia v India at Brisbane, Mar 4, 2008

© John Wisden & Co.