Australia is the best cricket team in the world, winning Tests and one-dayers almost at will, but in what was an astonishingly poor show of sportsmanship, they had cricket lovers around the world—including on the home ground—cringing in their seats. Over four days at the Sydney Cricket Ground, they also proved that a champion team can be a rogue team, singlehandedly shifting the focus of the cricket world away from the sport to its own ugly image. Needless to say, it was a bad call in these days of TV hegemony. Every wrong decision, every 'grassed' catch, every nick that wasn't was there for all to see. The bad press came in doses, and by then a united, angry India had been made to flex its muscle in world cricket.
And this image will stick well after Aussie captain Ricky Ponting fades into history. It is perhaps a reflection of the Australians' onfield behaviour that few remember that as many as five batsmen scored centuries in what was a gripping Test match, and that Kumble finished as the most successful bowler, with eight wickets. Instead, the new year's first Test will always carry a bad taste, made worse by what was some atrocious umpiring by Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson, as well as abominable behaviour by the Australians. As Kumble said poignantly at the post-Test press briefing, there was only one team out there playing cricket in the right spirit.
Antic space: Harbhajan after nipping Ponting in the 2nd innings
Ponting has in the past cried himself hoarse saying he wants his team to be the most loved and most respected sporting side in the country. "That's always been one of my aims and it will continue to be," he said. "I've been conscious of making sure the guys are remembered as being good people as well as great cricketers. In the last 2-3 seasons especially, we've actually started to change the perception, the way in which the public sees us. It has been less (players reported). We're ultra-conscious of how we play the game and the spirit of cricket which we all signed on to."
Noble intent is a fine thing, but you wouldn't have known the man on the final day of the second Test against India. The Australian captain was at his hostile best, kicking the ground, pressuring the umpires into making decisions. Unfortunately, it was a series of bad days at the office for the umpires too, perhaps why Australia got them to cow down so easily. Ponting was active off the field too, racing to match referee Mike Procter with a complaint of racial abuse against his nemesis Harbhajan Singh. This, after Andrew Symonds had successfully baited the tempestuous Indian into "expressing himself". It later came to play that Kumble had called Ponting to discuss the episode, but the latter had already "acted on it". So, all this talk of thrashing out issues with his counterpart first was just that—all talk. When it didn't suit his team, he was quick on the trigger.
Incidentally, Ponting has always disliked referrals of close catches to TV umpires and on occasion has even convinced visiting captains on the need to take the fielder's word at face value. Kumble had also been lured into believing this, that the Australians would be fair in making such calls. But it seems Ponting's desperation to win a 16th successive Test match, and thereby equalling the win record of Steve Waugh's 1999-01 side, got the better of him. First, Adam Gilchrist, who in another avatar wants to be known as the patron saint of 'walking' (if he's nicked a catch), claimed a catch off Rahul Dravid when the ball had only brushed past the batsman's pad. Then, Ponting's heir apparent Stuart Clarke sent Sourav Ganguly on his way with a dubious claim. Worse, Ponting himself grassed a catch and then appealed!
Then again, such behaviour from the champs is neither new nor unexpected. Back in '05, Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer had drawn the world's attention to how Australians appeal, crowding and creating a subconscious pressure on umpires. "People can say an umpire gives a decision on what he sees rather than the appeals, but I disagree," Woolmer said. "The appeal is very much a part of it. It is a very fine line." The comments came after his team was at the receiving end of umpiring decisions on a tour of Oz. The then Pakistan coach reckoned that his team had been done in by a 29-5 margin.
The Aussie captain was especially riled when this correspondent asked him to explain his erratic behaviour on different days of the Test—letting Rahul Dravid bat on on the second day when he wasn't certain he'd taken a catch cleanly; and when it was getting apparent that India was stealing a draw, appealing for a catch off M.S. Dhoni after the ball had obviously seen grass. "There's no way I grounded the ball!" he claimed. "If you are actually questioning my integrity to the game, you should not even be standing here.... Okay, I'd say if I wasn't 100 per cent sure of having taken the catch, I would not claim it. In any case, the umpire ruled him not out, didn't he?"
The aggrieved tone, though, hasn't fooled anyone, not even the home fans. Peter Roebuck, a widely respected Australian columnist, minced no words when he wrote that the senior players in the Oz team seemed oblivious to the fury they had raised among many followers of the game in that country and beyond. "Doubtless they were not exposed to the messages that poured in from distressed enthusiasts aghast to see the scenes of bad sportsmanship and triumphalism presented at the SCG during and after the Test," he wrote. "It was a wretched and ill-mannered display and not to be endured from any side, let alone an international outfit representing a proud sporting nation.... He (Ponting) has shown not the slightest interest in the well-being of the game, not the slightest sign of diplomatic skills, not a single mark of respect for his accomplished and widely admired opponents."
The vastly-experienced Mike Coward, a great admirer of India and its cricket, was among those who said the Australians had an image problem. "Its hardness is often construed as boorishness and arrogance and there is no doubt Ponting and his men again have an image problem, which will need to be addressed before Perth," he said. An Indian player, easily among the best spokesmen for this sport, said the team had no problems with Australia playing hard cricket but what they found hard to stomach is that the Aussies strut around as if they were the custodians of the spirit of the game.
Criticism came from other quarters too. Sport Australia Hall of Fame chairman John Bertrand called for a search of the team's moral compass. A sailor who won the America's Cup in 1983, he sought a meeting with Cricket Australia to let them know that their side should be showing more respect. "We have a lot of clout in the sporting community and we will be saying to Cricket Australia that people need to step back and reassess what is happening here with a cool head. The pressure to win out on the field has become too hot, and that pressure is all about winning at all costs. That is not what sport is about.... The fallout that we are seeing at the moment is not acceptable. It's clearly damaging international relations and clearly a lot of people are upset." Bertrand, Herb Elliott and Robert de Castella are among other legends of Australian sport who believe the current cricketers are too arrogant and need reminding that sport is only sport, not war. In fact, as the issue dragged on, it was good to see the Aussie media had not lost its sense of humour. One of the dailies here, in deference to the drama being generated, has started referring to the series as 'Bollyline', a pun on the infamous Bodyline series of the 1930s.
Coming back to Ponting, his behaviour has come in for so much flak that even his parents are taking the brunt. They had to change their home number after receiving unpleasant crank calls. An unfortunate corollary but it's a lesson Ricky would want to keep in mind: what goes around, comes around. So what of the future of the series? Will the remaining two Tests and the tour be clouded by the recriminations of this one? In the interests of the gentleman's game and the tradition of great contests, let's hope everyone keeps the bails on this one.