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Shut up, Sree!
Prem Panicker
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October 16, 2007

I don't know about you, but speaking for myself, I am heartily sick of the amount of discussion and debate that currently centers around "mind games". To quote the latest instance, Peter Lalor on the Fox Sports site dissects the remarks of Australian captain Ricky Ponting [Images], to show how he slips the knife in.:

RICKY Ponting is the master of the dig, the little psychological aside, delivered with a grin but designed to sink in and unnerve the opposition.

Listen carefully to what he says in press conferences and interviews: "Sachin Tendulkar [Images] is the best I've ever seen, good on him for playing 400-odd games - still it's a bit easier when you don't have to field in half of them."

Tendulkar had been off the ground for the entire fielding innings the game before. Ponting didn't like that.

"Mahendra Singh Dhoni [Images] is a good batsman," Ponting said on the eve of the win in Nagpur. "But didn't he say he wanted to get up the order and get an ODI 100? Why does he stay down at five and six?"

The Australia captain said that the India batting disaster in Vadodara was a perfect chance for his opposite number to move up the order.

What exactly is startlingly original about any of these comments? What is there in any of this that is above the level of the sort of taunts you hear in the schoolyard? How much of a genius - "master of the psychological dig", no less - do you have to be to come up with this sort of stuff anyway? I mean, Ponting had to sit out a couple of the early games and yet Australia won; the team's only loss was after he resumed the captaincy and the number three slot. Any of the Indian players could use that to taunt him with, but such taunts wouldn't merit the Nobel in psychological warfare, surely?

A senior player in the team, sometime back, mentioned the Aussie habit of chattering non-stop, and made the point that most of it was childish name-calling - "Their vocabulary hasn't progressed beyond words beginning with F and C", was how he put it - not worth a moment's heartburn. Sure, a few of the younger ones occasionally get wound up, but that is part of the learning curve, and in the final analysis, all this on-field natter has very little impact on the actual game. You wouldn't think so, though, if you judged solely by the amount of analysis this stuff is getting in the press, both here and in Oz.

Ian Chappell recently wrote a column suggesting that Sreesanth [Images] is an accident waiting to happen, and that the BCCI needs to take action - suggestions that appear to have riled people in various quarters. Again, I am not sure why - he is a columnist/commentator, and is expressing his personal opinion. Fair enough - Sunil Gavaskar [Images] has written a dozen columns on the bad behavior of Aussies (including a below the belt dig at the late David Hookes). Thus, commentators will say what comes into their heads - and the average fan will notice that none of these commentators actually address the real issue; Sunny will take off on the Aussies; Chappell, an Aussie, will ignore the bad behavior of his own team but do an entire piece on the Indians; this sort of slanted "analysis" will earn these columnists some more money, but not bring us an inch closer to understanding the real issue, let alone finding a solution. Given that, surely all we need to do is read the stuff, and move on?

My problem is not with columnists doing their thing, so much as it is with players responding to all that they read. Consider Sreesanth's response to Chappell, for example:

I don't need a ban, he says, as though the nature of punishment is ideally determined by the offender himself. And then there is this absolute gem:

"It's not a new Sreesanth. I am trying to find that exact limit between really bad and really good. See how far I can go."

What is that supposed to mean, anyway? It's a bit like saying 'Yes your honor, I am guilty of assault and battery but I don't think I need jail term, I was merely trying to determine just how far I could go before I actually killed the guy'.

This is exactly why the team needs a good, tough media manager, who can guide the players through the tricky shoals of commenting in public. Most of the players are unused to public speaking, and their lack of expertise leads them to open their mouth wide and gaffe it with their foot. Each time that happens, we renew calls for the appointment of a media manager; as regularly, the BCCI says such an appointment is a "matter of top priority". This current administration said those exact words, two years ago when Pawar first took over - but in the 24 months since, no more than lip service has been paid to that "priority", quite likely because the BCCI can't see in such an appointment anything more than a waste of money. Someone meanwhile needs to take Sreesanth aside and point out to him that since he has enough empirical evidence to quantify what makes for really bad bowling, maybe it is time he shut up and bent his energies to determining what really good bowling is all about; plumping the depths of bad behavior out of a spirit of scientific curiosity is not what he is being paid to do.

In the midst of all the ink that is being wasted on juvenile behavior by those who really should know better, Dileep Premachandran comes up with a silver lining of a piece, that focuses on the good players can accomplish - and often do, away from the gaze of reporters busy studying "body language" (While on that, rewind to that glorious century Yuvraj Singh [Images] scored earlier in the series. Mitchell Johnson finally gets the wicket, throws up his hands in celebration, and an instant later, as he runs past the departing batsman, you hear him say 'Well played, mate'. And as Yuvraj walks away, you see Aussie after Aussie run up to him to congratulate him, pat him on the back, acknowledge a masterpiece that had them on the ropes. How many newspaper accounts the next day even mentioned this in passing? If you write whole columns on bad behavior, surely it is equally part of your job to notice, and acknowledge, the good?).

Back to the Dileep piece: In message boards, you often see people cribbing about selfish players making inordinate amounts of money; nowhere, though, do you read a good word said for the time, and money, cricketers spend on various charitable causes. When I pointed this out to a friend, he suggested this was because the fans didn't know. "You guys don't write about such stuff, so how will fans know?", he asked. That is not true either - newspapers and even television channels have reported on the visits by players to ailing fans, to schools for the disadvantaged, and such; in the cynical age we live in, though, people dismiss such events as attempts by players to seek publicity. And the players, knowing how we react, prefer to keep their charitable acts to themselves, rather than see them tainted by this mass cynicism.

On another note, this whole racist abuse business is showing signs of developing into another of those media circuses, with opinions flying all over the place, most of it to little purpose. Kadambari Murali, in the Hindustan Times, attempts to parse the "taunts" - were they "racist", or merely puerile, is her question. IMHO, to even debate that question is to do us, as a nation, a disservice. When Senator George Allen called the young political worker Sidharth a 'macaca', did we pause to wonder if that was racist abuse or merely ham-handed humor gone horribly wrong? The Indian American community reacted, quite rightly, with outrage; even newspapers in India front-paged the incident, accompanied by outpourings of indignation.

Why is this incident any different?

An insult is in the mind of the victim; if the Vadodara crowd made monkey noises and taunted Andrew Symonds [Images], that was flat out wrong, and the right - in fact, only - course of action was for the officials to immediately apologize to the player and the team on behalf of the people. Ad hominem responses that argue that Aussie crowds are equally racist if not more so are graceless; so too is this descent into a debate on the exact nature of the insult; so too asking why Cricket Australia has not officially protested, and interpreting that lack of official protest as a comment on the seriousness, or lack thereof, of the incident.

As a nation - and, with reference to the BCCI, as a cricket administration, there really is only one option - the right one, to wit, assuaging the feelings of a player whose feelings have been hurt. Instead, as Kadambari points out, the BCCI responds in typical bureaucratese: "We have not received the letter from the ICC [Images]," says Shah, in typical 'I am the secretary and if something is not in front of me in triplicate it does not exist' fashion. Then again, after all these years, why expect the BCCI to do the right, the graceful, the correct thing?

While on the subject, Patrick Smith's take on Fox Sports is equally off the mark. As Chappell did with the issue of Sreesanth, Smith here merely looks at the problem of racism in one part of the cricketing world. He questions why India and Pakistan don't do something to address the problem; and adds a few digs at the impotence of the ICC. (A parallel, if you think back, is the issue of match-fixing. When the story first broke, this was the exact same reaction in the rest of the cricketing world: corruption is endemic in the sub-continent, it is those dirty Indians and Pakistanis, what can you do, India uses its money power, blah blah. And then it turned out that the lily-white Hansie Cronje was among the worst offenders; that the likes of Mark Waugh [Images] and Shane Warne [Images] had added weather prediction to their skill sets, and only then would the ICC and various national cricketing establishments admit that perhaps the problem was not limited to one country, one culture).

Yes, India needs to put its house in order in this respect; a nation that prides itself on its "unity in diversity", on the peaceful co-existence of different races, colors, castes and cultures doesn't need the 'racist' stigma attached to it - but to suggest that racism in sport is a purely Indian problem is to ignore similar, or worse, incidents that have happened in Australian grounds - incidents that have involved players (Hullo, Darren Lehmann?) and spectators in flat out racist abuse. Racism is a global issue, not a sub-continental one; using this incident to beat up on one section of the cricket playing world might give a writer's jingoistic impulses an infusion of adrenalin, but it does little to address a problem that needs to be addressed before something irrevocably ugly happens.

In passing, two links worth your while: one, to an extended interview with Yuvraj Singh; the other to an interesting Aussie engaged in documenting the ongoing tour. Enjoy.

Australia's tour of India 2007
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