The protagonists and antagonists (whichever way you look at it) of the Monkeygate    Getty Images/AFP
The protagonists and antagonists (whichever way you look at it) of the Monkeygate Getty Images/AFP

January 2008, Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) witnessed one of the most controversial Tests of all-time. From umpiring errors to flouting the game’s spirit to racism, the Test is remembered for all the wrong reasons. The ‘Monkeygate’ ruled the charts, a controversy that threatened to spoil diplomatic ties between India and Australia.

Eventually it did not. However, match referee Mike Procter ended up being the villain of the episode, labelled a ‘racist’ and lost love and respect in a country he admires.

The background

Australia had toured India in October 2007 and Andrew Symonds, the only non-white player from the visiting squad, was subject to repeated monkey-chants from the crowd. It is believed that Harbhajan Singh had called Symonds ‘monkey’ during the series but the matter was resolved after the latter explained the Indian off-spinner why the term was objectionable to him. Harbhajan had promised that this would not be repeated.

During the Sydney Test, the then Australian captain Ricky Ponting complained to Procter about Harbhajan calling Symonds a ‘monkey’. Sachin Tendulkar was at the non-striker end when the incident took place. In the first hearing, Tendulkar denied hearing anything. Later he insisted that Harbhajan had actually said “teri maa ki c***”, a Hindi slang which was nowhere racist.

Ponting pressed charges against Harbhajan despite Indian captain Anil Kumble’s request to apologise. Harbhajan was slapped with a three-match ban.

Angry and hurt Indians threatened to boycott the tour. ICC appointed New Zealand High Court judge John Hansen to oversee the appeal immediately after the Test series. The tour commenced. Hansen would later trust Tendulkar’s testimony and conclude there was insufficient evidence for the racism charge against Harbhajan to be proved.


Quite an agony that Procter, whose flourishing international career was curtailed due to the apartheid, would be labelled a racist for banning Harbhajan. In his recently released autobiography (co-authored by South African cricket writer Lungani Zama), Caught In The Middle, the South African relived the Sydney Test in the chapter ‘Monkeygate and the mess that followed’.

It was very disappointing (Tendulkar’s role). If he had said that (him hearing Harbhajan say ma ki c*** and not monkey) upfront, it would have been a whole different version. If Sachin had said that he had heard this, it was to be one person s word against the other. It was going to create doubt and so he (Harbhajan) would not be (held) guilty on racism charges, Procter told Indian Express.

Excerpts from the book as Procter elaborates his side (as published in The Indian Express):

“Much has been said and written about the incident involving Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds, because it was a personal duel that had a lot of history. Symonds had previously accused the Indian spinner of racial abuse in Mumbai, and they unsurprisingly didn t have much time for each other. Of course, both players were crucial to their teams, especially in this particular match. Symonds century in the first innings had saved Australia s blushes, and then transferred the pressure on to India. Tendulkar, as he so often did, answered the call for India, with a magnificent century. Just when it looked like he was running out of partners, Harbhajan stuck around defiantly, mixing aggression with application. It was a terrific partnership, just the type that Australia didn t want, but one that the match needed.

“I can still see Ricky Ponting bounding off the field, and up the stairs in a real hurry. This usually meant an injured finger or, more likely, nature s call can t wait for the approaching tea break. But it was infinitely more serious than that. Symonds, who had been fielding at mid-off with Brett Lee bowling, had exchanged words with Harbhajan at the non-striker s end, and he was adamant that the spinner had called him a monkey .

“It was a massive allegation, given all the efforts that the ICC had undertaken to eradicate racism from the game, and encourage participation from all corners of the globe. Ponting ran straight into the home dressing room, and informed the team manager. He came across to me, and said they fully intended on laying a charge, and that Symonds was very upset.

Ricky Ponting (third from left) has a word with Harbhajan Singh and Sachin Tendulkar after the incident    AFP
Ricky Ponting (third from left) has a word with Harbhajan Singh and Sachin Tendulkar after the incident AFP

“Neither one of the umpires had heard the conversation, and nor had Ponting. Tendulkar also hadn t heard anything, but Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden were sure they had heard it. Things were escalating in a hurry, but play resumed after tea, and the match unfolded into quite a thriller, with Australia dramatically winning in the final over.

“The hearing was set for the end of play on day five, and due to the seriousness of the situation, India were told that they could bring in a legal representative from Sydney or fly one in from India for assistance One of the things that always stuck with me about the entire case was the lack of readiness regarding so many crucial elements.

“Firstly, we had a tape of the incident in question, but the sound had somehow disappeared. Given that the entire case rested on what had been said, it was not the greatest start. In our quickly assembled hearing venue, there was also no recording device, or even anyone taking down an official record. The final straw for me was in the appeal hearing that followed a few days later, when the judge who overturned the decision admitted that he had not been given any documents regarding Harbhajan s previous misdemeanours including Mumbai and went as far as saying that his decision would have been different if he had the full picture.

“I am glad to say that things have changed since then, and the laws pertaining to such incidents and hearings have since been changed. A hearing of such a serious nature can no longer be held by a match referee, but by an appointed legal counsel, be it a QC or a judge appointed by the ICC. But we were definitely on the back foot in that sense. The ICC followed English law, and so the hearing took the pattern of a trial.


“The formal evidence started, with the umpires confirming Australia had to give their evidence first, confirming that an incident had been reported to them on day three, by Ricky Ponting. The Aussie skipper was the first witness, and he said that he had been told by his players that they had heard Harbhajan calling Symonds a monkey.

“The Indian manager, Chetan Chauhan, was then invited to ask Ponting any questions relating to the matter, which he duly did. His question was more of an allegation, as he accused Australia of making up the whole racism incident, simply because they wanted Harbhajan off the tour, because he kept getting Ponting out. The entire Australian party was stunned by the allegation, but Chetan was not done just yet. He informed Ponting that the racism charge was completely made up, because as Indians, it was just not possible for them to be racist.

“I was staggered because, in my world experience, I had seen racism from all corners, regardless of culture. Australia had come to me with an allegation against India, and the visiting team had done nothing to counter that serious allegation. My job was to rule on the matter given the evidence provided. On that count, India s silence left me with very little choice. To throw out Australia s charge on the assumptive grounds that it was impossible for India to be racist would have made a mockery of the entire hearing. I was simply doing my job to the best of my abilities, and India never once defended or explained what had happened out in the middle.

The Harbhajan Singh-Andrew Symonds showdown that threatened the relations between India and Australia
The Harbhajan Singh-Andrew Symonds showdown that threatened the relations between India and Australia

“I didn t quite know where he was headed next, but Chetan then produced an album of photos, with princes and princesses in regal dress, but with monkey heads. He said that monkeys were an Indian deity, further reiterating their point that the entire episode had been made up, because they wouldn t want to insult monkeys.

“Once the room had settled down from that opening salvo, Clarke and Hayden testified that they had both heard the word said. The cross-examination for both of them basically centred on the fact that they simply weren t telling the truth. Gilchrist said he hadn t heard it, but went back to an incident in Mumbai, where Harbhajan had called Symonds a monkey, and apologised. The pair had shaken hands back then, and the matter was considered closed at that point. Harbhajan was then invited to give his evidence, but Chetan, the team manager, responded by saying that his spinner wouldn t be testifying, because he didn t speak English.

“For the second time, several people in the room were left absolutely astounded. Nigel Peters QC then said we were happy for Harbhajan to give evidence in his native tongue, and then get one of the present party to translate. Tendulkar, or Kumble or even Chetan himself all spoke very good English as did Harbhajan, or so I thought until the hearing. It was important for him to give some sort of testimony, obviously. India were adamant that he was not giving evidence. I was no law expert, but the simple logic was that there was only one side prepared to give their version of the story.

The main parties involved    Getty Images
The main parties involved Getty Images

“Nigel Peters QC also asked Sachin Tendulkar, who was the other batsman, if there was any chance that he had heard anything. Tellingly, Tendulkar said he couldn t hear anything from where he was, and that was quite understandable. The Sydney Cricket Ground holds over 40,000 people, and it must be almost impossible to hear each other out in the middle without shouting. If the umpire hadn t heard it, there was every chance that Sachin hadn t either. He only walked towards his partner when he saw that something was up. Tendulkar s subsequent insistence at the appeal that he had very clearly heard Harbhajan say teri ma ki c*** , an abusive, but not racist, term in Hindi, baffled everyone who was at the initial hearing.

“Ricky Ponting said as much in his autobiography a few years later, sharing the astonishment that Tendulkar, one of the great voices of world cricket, didn t state this when first invited to do so during the hearing. It goes without saying that his belated evidence would have changed my judgement on the incident, given the plausibility of it.

“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. 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 the pair would have been 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 that incredible assessment that Ponting wanted Harbhajan out of the series for his own benefit. They gave me absolutely no defence and, subsequently, little alternative when it came to deciding on the matter. I went to the umpires room to consider my verdict. At the back of my mind, I guess I had been hoping that there would be reasonable doubt that there had been any racial abuse involved. However, Australia had several witnesses who were adamant, and India gave nothing to refute the narrative. It was a weighty matter, and one that had serious implications. A player had been accused of racial abuse, and several witnesses had confirmed that they had heard it. The defendant, in this case, had simply shouldered arms. I had a job to do, but I could only do it with the evidence that had been put in front of me.

“What really confused me is why India were going so far out of their way to make matters difficult. To say that Harbhajan didn t speak English already bordered on the farcical, but to then offer no counter-argument to the Aussies accusations was beyond belief. I couldn t understand it. If someone accused me of anything especially something as serious as racism I would stand up and defend myself vehemently. Harbhajan simply said nothing, and left me with very little to work with. I sat for about half an hour, more in confusion at India s stance in the hearing. I called in the judge to help me draft my findings, and then we called both parties in.


“The press were scathing in their appraisal of the situation. The late Peter Roebuck a writer who was respected worldwide asked why the ICC had let Australia get away with acting like a pack of dogs, and bemoaned us for targeting a man (Harbhajan) who was feeding a family of nine through the game. I felt that the press had got the wrong end of the stick. In hindsight, I almost wish the facts had been put out in public, in order for them to form an enlightened opinion on proceedings. I was later quoted as saying only one team is telling the truth , or words to that effect.

“Though I can t remember saying those exact words, I can certainly recall thinking that only one team was playing ball, if you will. India simply didn t budge from their initial allegations to Ponting, and didn t bother producing any evidence to defend Harbhajan, or at least counter the allegations levelled against him Former Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar, who I had considered a friend from our duels in our playing days, tore into me in the papers, too. He said I was always going to go against the brown man, when he was up against the white man. I took that quite personally, because it was a massive generalisation, and one that went against every bit of my moral fibre.”

(Sunil Gavaskar wrote in Hindustan Times: 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. )

“India moved on to Adelaide for the appeal, and legend has it that they had a private jet on standby, in case the appeal went against them, too. The appeal, chaired by Judge Hanson from New Zealand, decreed that the matter was a re-hearing, and cast aside what had happened in the initial proceedings, deep into the Sydney night. All our running around, preparing a venue for the hearing, and then the hours and hours of deliberation, had suddenly been reduced to being a footnote. It had been one of the most stressful nights of my life, and I distinctly remember climbing into bed just as the sun was about to come up.

“The whole Monkeygate scandal started to make sense to me in the months and years that followed, as I learnt that Cricket Australia had leant heavily on the players to take the racism allegation away, and instead make it a matter of abuse. 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.

Justice Hansen's hearing    AFP
Justice Hansen’s hearing AFP

“That, to me, was incredible. How a national board could try to convince senior players to downgrade an allegation as serious as racial abuse, in order to maintain ties with another board was mind-boggling, but it was the first time I realised just how much of a stronghold India had on the game. I had always known they were the biggest market in terms of fans and television money, but I obviously had no real grasp of how much power they exerted, even over traditional powers like Australia.

” I think Cricket Australia was intimidated by the Indian Cricket Board, Symonds was later quoted as saying on the Cricinfo website.

“Even to me, it was quite illuminating to see the lengths Cricket Australia went towards appeasing the Indian team and management, when it was apparent that it was an Australian player that had been wronged. Former captain, Allan Border, was also outspoken on the matter, in his book, Cricket As I See it. Border was a board member at the time, and he said the matter never sat well with him. He felt that Cricket Australia let Symonds down, and the player was never the same afterwards. Border also criticised the fact that Cricket Australia and the ICC encouraged players to report abuse, and then did nothing when those reports came forward. Incredibly, Andrew Symonds became the fall guy in a sense. I certainly didn t think he was an angel, but he was made to appear as if he wasn t telling the truth.

“The thing, I think, that was grinding on me the most was the lying. Because the allegation was that this hadn t happened, and it had. Then the lies started, and then it became political. The captain (Ricky Ponting) was made to look like a fool, and that should never have happened, and the other players too. If truth, honesty and common sense had prevailed, then there d have been a punishment for the player. It would have been dealt with and there would be a precedent for the future, he said in the same Cricinfo interview.

“Worse was to follow for the 2009 IPL, which was held in South Africa, due to the elections in India at the same time. I had been sent a contract to sign to be a match referee, and that was awaiting the accompanying signature of Lalit Modi. I had even been sent the itinerary for the whole tournament, and I was looking forward to being involved. And then, just like that, the plug was pulled and there was absolutely no explanation. It didn t take long to figure that there must have been an eyebrow raised at MJ Procter being match referee after everything that had happened in January 2008.

“The entire episode left a very bad aftertaste, and I for one was not happy with the brush that I was tarred with. I still insist that I was just doing my job at the end of that chaotic New Year Test at the SCG, and I have been paying a silent price ever since.”

Tendulkar’s version in his autobiography Playing It My Way:

I want to state very clearly that the incident arose because Andrew Symonds had been continually trying to provoke Bhajji and it was inevitable that the two would have an altercation at some point. While walking up to Bhajji to try to calm things down, I heard him say Teri maa ki (Your mother ) to Symonds

The hearing was conducted rather strangely, it seemed to me, with the Australians and Indians asked to testify separately, without the other side being present in the room. This certainly didn t improve the trust between the Indian and Australian players. I was the principal witness because I was batting at the other end from Bhajji and I recounted the incident to the match referee in detail

I stated exactly what I had heard and seen and also said that I had taken exception to us being labelled liars by the match referee, Mike Procter, who had mentioned in his statement that I believe one group is telling the truth. That he banned Bhajji for three Test matches seemed to us to show which group, in his opinion, was lying. It is never a pleasant thing to be called a liar and I was extremely angry.

In the end justice prevailed.

All that ends well…

While Procter paid the price, Symonds and Ponting were united with Tendulkar, Kumble and Harbhajan in the Mumbai Indians camps in the IPL. Symonds and Harbhajan became friends. While the Indian off-spinner called Symonds “a good man”, the latter said, “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.

Ponting joined the Mumbai camp in 2013 and mended bridges with Harbhajan and coached them to their second IPL title in 2015.