There is, said Peter Roebuck in his latest essay, a fine line between teasing and taunting. Peter’s a fine bloke, besides being the most balanced of journalists writing in the Australian media space [his Brit origin likely has something to do with it; Peter manages to avoid the rabid parochialism that underpins the writings of his peers there].
Here is what Peter wrote after the infamous Sydney Test on our last tour Down Under:
Make no mistake, it is not only the reputation of these cricketers that has suffered. Australia itself has been embarrassed. The notion that Ponting can hereafter take the Australian team to India is preposterous. He 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.
Harbhajan Singh can be an irritating young man but he is head of a family and responsible for raising nine people. And all the Australian elders want to do is to hunt him from the game. Australian fieldsmen fire insults from the corners of their mouths, an intemperate Sikh warrior overreacts and his rudeness is seized upon. It might impress barrack room lawyers.
In the past few days Ponting has presided over a performance that dragged the game into the pits. He turned a group of professional cricketers into a pack of wild dogs.
Which is why, as I revisited the clip above [and this is merely one of dozens of such clips I could throw up, all of them featuring Australia on one side and assorted opponents on the other], I found myself wondering: where exactly is that line drawn? Who is supposed to draw it? Who ensures that players of all nationalities remain on the right side of that line? And most importantly — just when will this happen?
On which side of that line, incidentally, would you put a succession of Australian bowlers in the clip above? Which brings us to this:
Ironically, the match referee who handed out the ban to Gambhir then, and to Benn now, while gently slapping the concerned Aussies on the wrist, is the self-same Chris Broad. His comments after the latest incident are classics of their kind. Here’s one that takes the biscuit for its unadulterated wtf nature:
Benn has the right to appeal and Broad said there was every chance he would have received a lesser penalty had he pleaded guilty.
Broad, in fact, is a master of such gibberish:
South Africa’s coach Mickey Arthur described Ricky Ponting’s team as “masters” of putting pressure on umpires with their “histrionics” and Chris Broad, the match referee, said they pushed the boundaries of fair play but not crossed them.
Brilliant, that. Australia does not cross the boundaries, it merely moves them further away? I wonder if you can do that while fielding? What if a fielder needing to take a catch who is perilously close to the rope kicks the rope further away to make space — pushing the boundary of play but not crossing it, so to speak?
Anyway. After that impromptu riff on the principles of jurisprudence in general, Broad gets specific:
“It was an incident which could have been avoided. No one likes to see cricketers pointing bats at their opponents or pushing each other away. It is not the sort of example that players should be setting at any time, least of all in a series which is being played in a great spirit and being followed by millions around the world on television.
“The decision to find Benn guilty of a Level 2 offence is indicative of the fact that conduct contrary to the spirit of the game is completely unacceptable. I hope Mr Benn has learnt his lesson and will be careful in the future.”
Absolutely unimpeachable statements, those. Especially the one about pointing bats not being the kind of behavior anyone wants to see on a cricket field. But, um, just who was batting at the time?
The over began with a run-in between the bowler Benn, who was moving across to field a drive, and the non-striker Johnson, who was taking off for a single. The contact seemed incidental, with neither man at fault, but Haddin appeared to inflame the situation after completing the run, when he pointed his bat at Benn.
Uh oh. So at the end of an accidental contact between opposing players Brad Haddin — who was not the player who was pushed, even accidentally — made it his business to make a physically threatening gesture at his opponent. That is not, as Broad so vehemently says, the kind of behavior you want to see on a cricket field — so of course the law came down hard and heavy, with a 25 per cent of match fees fine.
Presumably, the law does not want to see on a cricket field a player standing still for bats to be pointed at him — which must be why Benn attracted the heavier punishment of a Test match ban. Again:
There appeared to be some incidental contact between Johnson and Benn when Johnson moved to position himself between his partner and the bowler. Things became even uglier when Johnson pushed Benn away, following the initial contact. After stumps the West Indies captain Chris Gayle said he felt Benn had not initiated the physical clash.
Again, Benn’s physical involvement is being described as ‘incidental’; Johnson’s response as deliberate, and deliberately physical. So naturally, Johnson gets docked 10 per cent of his match fees. It all makes perfect sense, no?
When my friend Karunakaran [on Twitter] pointed out these anomalies earlier in the day, I told him the whole thing reminded me of this story of the mother who took her son to school on his first day. “My little Brad Johnson is sooooooo sensitive,” the mother cooed to the teacher. “If he ever does something wrong, just punish the kid next to him — he’ll get the message.”
Chris Broad operates along similar lines. Recognizing the extreme sensitivity of Aussie players, he hands out salutary punishment to the other bloke, confident that the message will get across loud and clear to the real culprits.
Jokes aside, there are two issues here. The first is the ICC’s lack of will to draw the line and to hold it firmly against all comers. [Before you remind me, there is a ‘Code of Conduct’. Here is the concise wiki entry; I have too much concern for your well being to link to the gibberish-laden full version].
The bigger problem is the match referees’ idiosyncratic application of whatever norms do exist — and no one is more idiosyncratic than Broad. [Irony alert: In his playing days, Broad was the poster boy for bad behavior, smashing the stumps with his bat after being bowled in the Bicentenary Test in Sydney; on the infamous 1987-’88 tour of Pakistan that was signposted by the famous Mike Gatting showdown, Broad stood at the crease for well over a minute after being given out LBW; on one occasion he was even dropped from the England side because the management couldn’t stomach his constant mouthing off].
For instance, note that “inappropriate and deliberate physical contact between players during play” is deemed a Level 2 offence; note that there was nothing appropriate about Johnson pushing Benn; note that the prescribed fine is 50 per cent of the match fees and/or a ban for one Test or two ODIs. And finally, note that Johnson got away with a mere 10 per cent of his fees.
Had there been a review system for match officials, Broad would have been put out to pasture ages ago. There isn’t, so he isn’t.