It has been over a decade since that fateful Sydney Test, and yet cricket fans — especially Indians — need not be elaborated on exactly what had happened. Of all scandals involving Indian cricket, Monkeygate was among the most-followed, and continues to be the most-remembered.
Let us first separate the two controversies that occurred during the Test. First, the umpiring was atrocious, bringing about quick ends to the careers of Steve Bucknor and Mike Benson. There was little Procter — or anyone — could do about it during the match.
But then, errors do happen even in the age of neutral umpires, though Bucknor and Benson were terrible during the course of the Test. But that was nothing compared to the other issue — that of racism. Mike Procter, match referee for the Test, has dedicated an entire chapter to the incident in his autobiography Caught in the Middle.
At this point Harbhajan uttered something at Symonds. The close-in fielders converged made a beeline for the two men, as did Tendulkar. And almost immediately, Ricky Ponting left the ground and rushed up the stairs. “This usually meant an injured finger or, more likely, nature’s call [that] can’t wait for the approaching tea break,” recalled Procter. “But it was infinitely more serious than that.”
Ponting met the team manager. Harbhajan had apparently called Symonds a monkey. This was an offence of the highest order. ICC had made single-minded efforts to eradicate racism from the sport. Even during the match, anti-racism posters were spread across the ground. Procter himself was in responsible for the strategic placement of these posters.
It transpired that neither of Bucknor, Benson, Tendulkar, and Ponting had heard Harbhajan say anything. On the other hand, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden were both adamant that they had Harbhajan call Symonds a monkey.
Procter could obviously not place a judgement based on contradictory statements. He scheduled a formal hearing after the Test. As things turned out, India lost the Test with an over to spare after at least two fourth-innings dismissals went their way, which left them fuming even before the hearing was held.
Procter was not new to controversies. Just over a year ago, he had officiated in The Oval Test, where an obstinate Darrell Hair’s actions had led Pakistan to walk off and eventually concede a Test.
ICC, who followed the English law, appointed Nigel Peters QC to attend the hearing. Peters, a member of the London Bar Council, was also a member of the MCC committee. However, there was something extremely unusual: there was no recording device, and nor was anyone taking notes despite it being a proper trial. In fact, there was little attempt to chronicle exactly what went on during the three-hour long session.
The witnesses included Symonds, Gilchrist, Hayden, Michael Clarke, captain Ponting, and manager Steve Bernard for Australia; Harbhajan, Tendulkar, captain Anil Kumble, and manager Chetan Chauhan, and assistant manager MV Sridhar for India; and the umpires, Bucknor and Benson.
Bucknor and Benson both testified that they were aware that something had happened, but only after the commotion. None of them knew exactly what had taken place.
Then Chauhan was asked to question Ponting. The questions took a form of allegations, where Chauhan accused the Australians of finding a way to put Harbhajan out of the tour. Indeed, till that point, Harbhajan had dismissed Ponting twice in three innings (before the hearing he got him again). In fact, nobody dismissed Ponting more than Harbhajan in his Test career.
If the allegations came out of the blue, what followed was even more astonishing. Chauhan told point-blank that “it was not possible for them [Indians] to be racist.”
Then Chauhan displayed an album, with pictures of “princes and princesses in regal dress but with monkey heads.” He pointed out that the monkey was an Indian god [he surely referred to Hanuman], and it was simply not possible for Harbhajan to insult Symonds as one.
Hayden and Clarke were up next. Both men insisted that they had heard Harbhajan call Symonds a monkey. Gilchrist’s version was hazier. He admitted that he had not heard anything, but recalled an incident in Mumbai where Harbhajan had called Symonds a monkey, but the matter was buried with a handshake. It is to be noted that Gilchrist had earlier claimed — as per Procter — that he was sure of the use of the word during the Sydney Test.
Harbhajan was summoned next, which was when Chauhan dropped yet another bombshell. He claimed that Harbhajan could not speak English, leaving everyone gobsmacked.
Procter and Peters had no option but to let Harbhajan speak in “his native tongue”, allowing one of the Indians to translate it to English. They all “spoke very good English — as did Harbhajan, or so I thought until the hearing,” recalled Procter.
Harbhajan obviously denied the allegation. Tendulkar confessed that he had not heard a word. This was possible, for as Procter mentioned, there was a continuous murmur from the forty-thousand-strong Sydney crowd.
Guilty, was Procter’s verdict. He banned Harbhajan for three Tests: “Australia had several witnesses, all of whom were adamant that they had heard it. We replayed the video to check proximity, and given that they were very close to Harbhajan and Symonds, you couldn’t rule out that they could hear the conversation. After all, it was highly unlikely that they were whispering to each other.
“India, on the other hand, offered absolutely nothing in terms of evidence. Instead, they came with allegations of a witch-hunt, including the incredible assessment that Ponting wanted Harbhajan out of the series for his own benefit. That gave me absolutely no defence and, subsequently, little alternative when it came to deciding the matter.”
The cricket fraternity erupted. Sunil Gavaskar tore into Procter in his column, calling the ban the act of a white man against a brown man. Peter Roebuck blamed ICC for letting Australia get away despite them acting like a pack of dogs and at penalising Harbhajan, a man who fed a family of nine (it is not clear why that bit of information was relevant).
India first threatened to abandon the tour. Later they appealed against the decision, and the re-hearing at Adelaide was chaired by Judge Hanson of New Zealand. And it was here that Tendulkar stunned all and sundry by adding to his testimony. He had apparently heard Harbhajan utter “teri ma ki ch**t” (choicest of Hindi abuse whose translation is utterly irrelevant here).
These were offensive swear-words in Hindi, but were certainly not racism, and were not treated with as much strictness by ICC. The offence was suddenly not as serious anymore. That turned the entire case on its head, and the ban was lifted.
Procter had reason to feel let down: “Where was this testimony when it was originally asked for? … [The new testimony] baffled everyone who was at the initial hearing … The words ‘monkey’ and ‘ma ki’, heard 22 yards away, must sound very similar, and that entire episode could have been a high-profile case of lost in translation. But Tendulkar never came forward with that version to us in the initial hearing, which left me with very little choice [but to ban Harbhajan].”
The new verdict did not go down well with the Australians. Ponting, in his autobiography, expressed disappointment at Tendulkar for changing his testimony. Allan Border, forever outspoken (and a CA member at that point), later confessed that he was not comfortable with the entire course of events.
However, Symonds was affected more than anyone. “I think Cricket Australia were intimidated by the Indian Cricket Board,” he would later tell ESPNCricinfo. We do not know whether Symonds’ allegations were true. However, as Procter suspected, “the looming threat of India pulling out of the tour would have major repercussions for Cricket Australia, and a potential lawsuit from the big broadcasters.”
Border insisted that Symonds was not the same cricketer anymore after the incident. His confidence was shattered, for his own board did not stand by him. Ponting and Gilchrist shared the same opinion.
Procter was not spared, either. He maintained that he found Harbhajan guilty of racism only after he found sufficient evidence. There was no question of Procter the person calling Harbhajan a racist.
However, queer things started happening. Cricket Club of India (home to Brabourne Stadium) had made Procter an Honorary Life Member in the 1990s. Later, when Procter made an attempt to find out whether he was still a member, he never got a response. When he sent a friend to verify, the friend was told that there was no record of Procter ever being a CCI member.
IPL came to South Africa in 2009. The committee decided upon Procter as one of the match referees. He had received a contract and the itinerary. And then, all of a sudden, the tournament went ahead without Procter.
“I still insist that I was just doing my job at the end of the chaotic New Year Test at the SCG, and I have been paying a silent price ever since,” Procter concluded. It was probably not what he deserved.
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