The Dhoni-Sehwag rift may have been true or blown out of proportion by the media. However, far from being unique, discords such as this have been commonplace in the history of the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks at some of the most famous feuds of cricket. This episode deals with the thunder bared bitterness between Indian off-spinner Harbhajan Singh and Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds
When spinners put you off
Australians never quite liked off-spinners. Perhaps it all started when Jim Laker knocked over 19 of them at Manchester in 1956. Barely three years later, Jasu Patel pitched on the footmarks left by Ian Meckiff and Alan Davidson and bowled India to victory at Kanpur. Decades later, Muttiah Muralitharan had for long been a man they loved to hate. And finally, they stumbled across a firebrand finger-spinner named Harbhajan Singh.
As far back as 1998, when India and Australia met in Sharjah, Harbhajan got Ricky Ponting stumped and ordered him to the pavilion, with something more than polite pleasantries. Ponting responded by snarling back and making offensive gestures. Both were docked substantial portions of their match fees.
During the historic 2000-01 series Harbhajan captured 32 wickets, including Ponting in all five innings, while the batsman struggled to accumulate 17. Later, the spinner publicly proclaimed that he had the measure of Ponting.
By the time the two sides met Down Under in 2007-08, Ponting was the captain of Australia and did not really welcome the Indian tweaker with open arms. Neither did too many of his teammates, least of all Andrew Symonds.
When the Australians lost to India in the semi-final of the inaugural Twenty 20 World Cup, a war of words was witnessed on the ground.
Harbhajan recounts, “They clearly did not like (it). They are a very good cricket side, but that does not mean that they can do whatever they want to do ... I don't have any problem with chitchat on the field, so long as it is about the game. But when it is very personal and vulgar, that is not on. They think you cannot fight back and they do not like it when you do.”
Symonds, on his part, was less than impressed by the excessive adulation shown by the Indian fans when the side returned from the T20 triumph. “Something has been sparked inside of me, watching them carry on over the last few days. We have had a very successful side and ... watching how we celebrate and how they celebrate, I think we have been pretty humble in the way we have gone about it.”
When the Aussies toured India in October 2007, Symonds, the only non-white player in the squad, was subjected to repeated monkey-chants from the Vadodra crowd during the fifth One- Day International. It became even worse two matches later at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai, where four men were arrested for taunting Symonds and making monkey gestures.
It was also claimed that Harbhajan had called Symonds ‘monkey’ during the series, but the matter seemed to have been amicably resolved with a promise that it would not be repeated. Symonds had supposedly explained to the off-spinner why the term was objectionable to him.
Before the 2007-08 tour got under way, the two teams made a deal with the appointed match referees to play in the right spirit. The nature of this deal has been disputed down the line. While the Australians claim that it stipulated against racial comments and the use of the word ‘monkey’, the Indian officials insist that it also put an embargo upon abusive exchanges.
The Sydney showdown
The two teams met in Sydney for what turned out to be the bitterest encounter among all their tussles over the years. The tension in the series had risen to a crescendo and Steve Bucknor was there in the background, diligently providing his own brand of accompaniment.
When Symonds batted in the first innings, he was wrongly given not out three times, on 30 by Bucknor off an edge to the keeper, on 48 by third umpire Bruce Oxenford against a more or less straightforward stumping, and once again on 148 by Bucknor for a stumping that he refused to refer upstairs. The fortunate batsman went on to score an unbeaten162.
India also had their share of luck due to poor umpiring by Bucknor when Sachin Tendulkar was ruled not out when struck low on the pads while on 36.The match witnessed many more controversial decisions, which have been dealt in an earlier episode.
However, the ugliest of the incidents occurred on the third afternoon, when Harbhajan had joined Tendulkar at the crease.
A Brett Lee snorter was edged by the Indian off-spinner over the slips for four. As the disappointed bowler stood on the pitch at the end of the over, Harbhajan patted him his backside with his bat saying, “Hard luck.”
Symonds found this unacceptable and decided to intervene. The stump microphone recorded his voice saying, “We don't need it, do it to your teammates.”
During the exchanges, even as Tendulkar walked up to calm things down, the Australian thought Harbhajan had used the word “monkey” yet again.
Symond’s voice once again rings through on the stump microphone recording, “You called me monkey again. You don't know what you've said.”
He was then joined by Hayden whose voice can be made out, “Twice, you’ve got a witness now champ.”
When Harbhajan protested that Symonds started it, Hayden retorted, “Doesn’t matter, mate. You know this is a s**t word ... racial vilification.”
Soon Ponting got into the thick of things as well saying, “You have had it, mate!”
Michael Clarke was next to enter the fracas, approaching umpire Mark Benson and reporting, “It's not the first time. He did it in India and got into strife. That's the second time he's done it.”
Ponting then asked Benson to report it to Bucknor straight away.
The Procter examination
Umpires Bucknor and Benson reported the incident to match referee Mike Procter, charging Harbhajan with breaching the ICC Code of Conduct by using language ... that offends, insults, humiliates, intimidates, threatens, disparages or vilifies another person on the basis of that person's race, religion, gender, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.
At the end of the third day, Indian captain Anil Kumble requested Ponting not to press charges, offering to apologise for the entire episode. However, the long history that Ponting had with Harbhajan perhaps played its part, and the plea fell on deaf ears.
Kumble later said that although he explained that no racist remarks had been made, the offer of an apology was interpreted by Ponting as an admission of guilt.
At the end of the Test match, which was won by Australia under severely controversial circumstances, Procter listened to the testimony of Hayden, Symonds, Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Tendulkar and Harbhajan, and in a surprising declaration stated that the Indian spinner would be banned for three Test matches.
Additionally, his final report included the following words that the Indians found extremely objectionable, especially given that it was a direct dig at Tendulkar’s version of the incident, I believe one group is telling the truth.
This verdict was severely condemned in India, with Sunil Gavaskar making the national sentiment abundantly clear in his Hindustan Times column: Millions of Indians want to know if it was a 'white man' taking the 'white man's' word against that of the 'brown man'. ... This is what has incensed the millions of Indians who are flabbergasted that the word of one of the greatest players in the history of the game, Sachin Tendulkar, was not accepted. In effect, Tendulkar has been branded a liar by the match referee.
Tour suspended for a while
Following the decision, the Indian team announced that they would discontinue the tour pending the outcome of the appeal against the ban. They stayed back in Sydney while The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) stated that the unfair decision would be challenged.
Amidst the furore caused by the allegations, BCCI chairman Sharad Pawar equated it to an attack on the country itself, against people who had a history of fighting against racism.
The ICC, headed by CEO Malcolm Speed, reacted with uncharacteristic promptness by appointing New Zealand High Court judge John Hansen to oversee the appeal immediately after the Test series. With this assurance, the BCCI decided to continue with the tour.
Harbhajan did not play in the third Test at Perth as India opted to field only one spinner on a quick wicket. Against the run of play, India won the match comfortably. For the final Test at Adelaide, Harbhajan was recalled even as his appeal remained pending.
On January 28, 2008, Judge Hansen concluded that there was insufficient evidence for the racism charge against Harbhajan to be proved.
Symonds was unable to say conclusively whether Harbhajan had used the word monkey or a similar sounding Hindi slang. Clarke's account also did not tally with the rest of the Australians, making their statements questionable.
Harbhajan's three-Test ban was overturned. He was ultimately fined 50% of his match fee for using abusive language.
Symonds admitted that he had provoked the incident by reacting angrily to Harbhajan’s act of patting Lee. When Symonds defended himself saying that a Test match was not a place to be friendly, Judge Hansen remarked, “If that is his view I hope it is not one shared by all international cricketers. It would be a sad day for cricket if it is.”
Hansen also trusted the testimony of Tendulkar, who, according to various camera angles, seemed to be the player closest to the conversation. Lastly, the judge made it clear that he was not bowing to pressure exerted on him by any cricket board.
Divided in reactions
While the Australians managed to get a few supporting voices at home, most of the barrels of criticism around the world were turned against them.
Former Pakistan fast bowler Wasim Akram blasted the hypocritical Australians for reporting Harbhajan in spite of their own on field image, calling them the “worst sledgers” in the world and labelling them “cry babies”.
John Morrison, former New Zealand spinner, accused Australians of “running off to the teacher”, while his former team-mate Dipak Patel, of Indian origin, said that he had been called “a lot worse than a monkey”.
Christopher Martin-Jenkins, chief cricket correspondent for The Times, described Australians as nonpareils of world sledging .
English journalist Simon Barnes writing for The Australian alleged that Australia has long promoted mental disintegration; as a result, we are facing the disintegration of the game of cricket.
Even Jeff Thomson, the former Australian fast bowler not really known for his exemplary on-field behaviour, said: The Aussies act like morons and bullies and they can't cop criticism from someone like myself. I think it was appalling that none of the Australians went over and shook Anil Kumble's hand at the end of the SCG Test. They just played up and carried on like idiots like they normally do.
However, Paul Marsh, the chief of the Australian Cricketers Association, felt that the only reason Australia was being targeted by the media and opposition teams was that they had been dominating world cricket for too long.
In response to worldwide censure, The Australian posted a video of the sixth ODI during the 2006 English tour of India on their website, in which Harbhajan stood his ground after being clean bowled by Kevin Pietersen while swearing at the bowler.
And then they were mates
Symonds went on record saying that the verdict of Judge Hansen had driven him into a state of disillusion and depression, leading him to take refuge in alcohol.
However, the auction rooms of the Indian Premier League (IPL) proved to be the binding agent as both Harbhajan and Symonds landed up in the dressing room of the Mumbai Indians. Since then, the spat seems to have been forgotten and both claim to be the best of buddies.
According to Symonds, “Bhajji and I have talked about what had happened between us. We have sat down and worked out things. We get along well now. We party, socialise, we get sloshed.”
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)