Thursday, January 10, 2008

SPORT/OPINION: Racism makes monkey of 'gentleman's game'

Last year, India marked its 60th independence anniversary. There was much fanfare, lots of boring speeches, and prayers in temples and churches and mosques across the country. But did India come to a standstill? Is the Pope Brahman?

The only thing that shuts down this powerhouse economy is a good old-fashioned religious riot. And this time, we poor West Islanders are in the thick of it.

Over the past week or so, Aussies have learned an important lesson in Indian religion. Forget Yoga, Kama Sutra, palmistry and that other new-wave stuff. India's biggest religion isn't celebrated with incense sticks and mantras, but rather with 15 boofy blokes on a large paddock playing with a pair of polished willow planks and a small hard round thing held together by stitches. And preferably not too much sledging.

Now we Aussies aren't the most religious bunch on the planet. The last Aussie Prime Minister to flirt with ultra-religious groups lost not only the election but also his own seat. He also fitted into that diminishing minority of Australians who show any interest in cricket.

And why shouldn't we be bored with cricket? I mean, we just keep winning match after match. Watching the sports news on TV has become so monotonous - "and in sports news tonight, the Wallabies get thumped by the Auckland High School Under-16s. And in cricket, the Aussies defeat Pakistan by an innings and 1098 runs".

Aussie cricket authorities and their patient sponsors have tried everything to increase interest. All in vain. Twenty20 has been a flop. Winter cricket under cover went down like a lead balloon. Most Aussies couldn't give a toss even about who wins the toss. Because we already know who'll win the match.

The Border/Gavaskar Trophy Series wasn't an exception. As usual, our cricketers were winning while the rest of us were busy joining the ever-present army of semi-clad Kiwi backpackers down at Bondi Beach.

But now something exciting has happened. And it doesn't involve Shane Warne, a cellphone and a pair of Kiwi babes.

The first stone was allegedly cast when Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh allegedly called Andrew Symonds a monkey. My God! How dare Singh insult Aussie Creationists with such Darwinian blasphemy!

Apparently Symonds' colleagues interpreted the remark as an attempt to poke fun at his mixed English-West Indian heritage. In fact, Indian crowds allegedly taunted Symonds by wearing monkey masks and making monkey sounds during the last Aussie tour of India.

The Indians have complaints of their own, blaming poor umpiring for their recent loss. The Aussies have been accused of triumphalism and arrogance.

Huh? Aussies being arrogant? Perish the thought. During the post-match press conference, one Indian journalist asked Aussie captain Ricky Ponting about a questionable catch he took. Ponting, showing all the humility and modesty our cricketers are famous for, responded:

If you are actually questioning my integrity in the game then you shouldn't be standing here.
Harbhajan Singh was found guilty of making a racist slur after a hearing by the match referee held in accordance with cricket rules. He was suspended for three games, but can play pending the outcome of his appeal. The Indians are furious and their peak cricketing body had suspended the tour.

Meanwhile, Ponting has been found guilty in a trial-by-media. Prominent cricket writers like the Melbourne Age's Peter Roebuck called for Ponting to be sacked for his arrogant and abrasive conduct.

Still, the Indians aren't exactly cleanskins. One Australian Indian organisation in Sydney has scored a century for community relations by releasing this statement:

Considering that the Monkey God is one of the revered idols of Hindu mythology and worshipped by millions, it is surprising it was considered a racist term.

Yes, how terribly insensitive of cricket referees not to factor in the intricacies of ancient Indian religious symbols. Next time, if Harbhajan Singh describes Shane Warne as an elephant, we should all presume Singh is referring to the Hindu god Ganesh.

And why stop at Hinduism? My Indian Parsee friends regard fire as sacred. So let's not get offended by Mumbai demonstrators burning effigies of Aussie players and umpires. And apparently in Pakistan, babies are regarded as cute and cuddly. Well take that into account when interpreting former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram telling the Hindustan Times that Australian cricketers are "cry babies".

Jokes aside, racism is serious stuff. Poking fun at someone's appearance is childish and offensive and brings into disrepute what is supposed to be a gentleman's game.

No player should have to tolerate racial slurs, whether from another player, a crowd or even a commentator.

Even if Harbhajan Singh's appeal is unsuccessful, both he and the Aussies should take a leaf out of the book of South African all-rounder and devout Muslim Hashim Amla, who is said to sport the most impressive beard in the game.

When former Aussie test cricketer and commentator Dean Jones was caught out saying on air that Amla was a terrorist, Jones humbly apologised and Amla graciously forgave. The same should happen now. Then millions of Indian devotees can return to cricket worship, while the rest of us head for Bondi Beach.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer whose highest batting score was 16 while playing for the St Andrews Under-14s. This article was first published in the New Zealand Herald on Thursday 10 January, 2008.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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