Gilchrist, Ponting and Claims of Racism in the Sydney Test Match

November 08, 2008

I guess it is not remarkable that books by players who participated in the series in Australia earlier this year discuss the events surrounding the Sydney Test Match in detail. What is remarkable is the element of revelation which is implicit in these offerings. Take Ricky Ponting's Captain's Diary for that tour, as excerpted here on Cricinfo. Ponting writes,

"On the night after we made our on-field report about Harbhajan, I had a phone conversation with a senior member of the Indian touring party, who asked me straight to drop the complaint,"
Why is this news? Why is this some sort of conspiratorial revelation? Didn't the Indian Captain, Anil Kumble make it clear that he himself (there can't be a more "senior member" of the side than him - he was captain! - unless Ponting is referring to the Indian team management) spoke to Ponting after the incident?
"On the other events so far, I can only say that I spoke to Ricky that day and having heard from Bhajji and Sachin before that, I was convinced that there had neither been any racist remark made, nor intended. I asked Harbhajan why he started it and he said he hadn’t, Symonds did and goaded, he responded. But he insisted he made no racist comment.
Ricky, meanwhile, was just not willing to listen, nor see my point. When I offered to apologise as Bhajji’s skipper, it was only to smooth things over. At no stage did I admit that he had made a racist remark, in fact, I said he had not.
Unfortunately, these days, when someone apologises, it is seen as either a sign of weakness or an admission of guilt. I am neither unnerved nor are we guilty. In the larger interests of the game, if an apology could help build bridges and smooth things over, then it is better made than left unsaid because of egos."
If Ponting did mention this conversation in his published diary, why is his subsequent conversation with a "senior member" significant? Is it because this "senior member" was ambiguous about Harbhajan Singh's guilt?

What seems to emerge from Gilchrist and Ponting (as publicity for their books) is this apparent belief that Australia were screwed at Sydney, never mind the ridiculous inquiry conducted by Procter (which even Judge Hansen damned with faint praise in his final judgement).

The whole "don't do it again" side of this episode is the most bizarre aspect of it. This allegation of "racism" is bothersome, because it is serious. Does something become a racist taunt simply because Andrew Symonds says it is racist? Let's assume for a moment that Harbhajan Singh did call Andrew Symonds a monkey. Is Symonds's association of that term with racism the fault of the members of Harbhajan Singh's race? Isn't there a difference between Harbhajan calling him a monkey and a white man calling him a monkey? Would it be the same if a fellow Australian with a West Indian heritage called him a monkey? Would that be racist too? Is Symonds claiming some sort of equivalency between Sikhs and the white man?

These are extremely loaded questions, and very complex ones. I do not claim to have an answer to these questions. Neither am i suggesting that simple yes or no answers to these questions suffice. But the one thing that has bothered me about the whole Sydney affair (as aspect which i had refrained from writing about so far) is the fact that everybody seems to accept with absolute certainty that Harbhajan Singh calling Andrew Symonds a monkey would be a racist comment.

And so what if Symonds had explained to Harbhajan Singh once before that being called a monkey was especially offensive because it held racist connotations for Symonds? Doesn't the fact that Symonds actually had to explain this to Harbhajan Singh itself suggest that he understood that Harbhajan probably didn't intend it in a racial way the first time?

Is it seriously the Australian claim, that something Harbhajan said in the heat of the moment, was absolutely and deliberately an intended racist epithet, simply because Symonds may have told him it was so? Doesn't such a claim completely trivialize the serious and offensive nature of racist behaviour - where racial epithets become racial epithets, precisely because they carry with them all the antecedent hostility of one race towards another? Is it seriously the Australian claim that the Sikhs of Ludhiana, Punjab bore any meaningful and consequential (in any serious socio-political sense) racial hostility towards Australians of West Indian descent?

As far as the incident itself goes, isn't there also the small matter of an agreement between Symonds and Harbhajan that they would not talk to each other on the field? Didn't Symonds himself break that agreement first?

Even this discussion on this post, couched as it has been in one question mark after another, is one which i make with a great deal of trepidation, precisely because i consider it to be an absolutely serious charge, not merely because it was made so publicly about an Indian cricketer, but because as someone with some experience of living in cosmopolitan, multicultural environments all my life (just like many of you readers), i am especially mindful, and interested in understanding the idea of racism and prejudice.

Nobody apart from Andrew Symonds heard him say it. Nobody apart from Andrew Symonds was able to recall a single other word that Harbhajan Singh supposedly said to Symonds. So it is far from clear as to whether or not the offending term was actually used. So, maybe Ponting and co. might want to be more humble about their righteous claims.

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Gilchrist, Ponting and Claims of Racism in the Sydney Test Match


Author: Kartikeya


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Roshan Ariyaratnam
November 8, 2008
03:51 PM

Couple of mistakes - Hayden heard him say it - 'Youve got a witness now champ'

Would you consider, going up to a black man in Brixton, London and calling him a monkey. Just because your Indian (and not white) doesnt mean he isn't going take serious offence to this taunt, and promptly want to cause grievous bodily harm to you.

The whole mumbai crowd were chanting Symonds is a monkey, ( I have seen the footage on youtube (type in An aussie goes bolly)). Don't try and pretend, they are endearing Andrew Symonds in the same respect as Hanuman. That is pure nonsense. They were doing it for purely abusive purposes, and it is racially motivated, because it is a taunt making direct reference to Andrew Symonds' colour. The crowd doing it is one matter, and it is difficult to control. That harbhajan singh thought it was smart to do the same thing, suggests that he had the same intentions as the crowd - ie. to racially abuse Andrew Symonds in retaliation for previous verbal jousting.

Racism is not an acceptable form of retaliation in the face of sledging, neither should it be considered to be by an indian or anyone else. In the same way, its not acceptable to stab someone in response to criticism of their weight.

At the end of the day, the cricket world was enlightened to the character of Harbhajan Singh a few months later, when he slapped his own national team-mate. The BCCI must have really felt like fools for backing him.

November 8, 2008
04:01 PM

1. It was never established that the errant word was said. Hayden is suddenly an uninterested witness?

2. This was in the context of a Test Match, Harbhajan is not responsible for the behaviour of a mumbai crowd. So i disagree with your comparison with walking up to a stranger in brixton or the bronx.

3. Im not disputing whether or not the word monkey was offensive, im questioning whether the accusation of racism stands irrespective of the racial identity of the person using the term.

4. Im not for a momentum attesting to Harbhajan Singh's character...

I don't see how Harbhajan as an Indian Sikh who grew up in Punjab calling an Australian of West Indian descent a monkey is in any way racist, simply because it is racist for a white man to call an Australian of West Indian descent racist - this is the key reference in this case.

Its offensive sure - but probably not anymore offensive than your average school yard taunt.

This is not an argument about harbhajan's character, this is an argument about what should constitute "racism".

Abhinav Khemka
November 9, 2008
12:24 AM

News: - Ponting tells of request to drop Harbhajan complaint
November 8, 2008

Hi ..

Where is ICC?

A sitting caption of Australia is saying that ICC have done wrong in there last decision and they are keeping mum. Is there any rule/law for this grave disagreement in the book of rules of ICC?

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