November 23, 2006

“Ugly Australian” image in need of ICC plastic surgery

H Natarajan

Ray Robinson, among the elite and respected cricketers, wrote in his book, The Wildest Tests: “If a Bengali and a cobra confront you on a road, you kill the more dangerous one first – the Bengali. “ Robinson was quoting a friend who apparently told him that this was an old Indian proverb – something that I have never heard before or since from any other source. The Australian writer was prudent by adding a note of caution: “Though not qualified to uphold this as an axiom or dispute it as a slander, ever since I witnessed their fervor at a Test match in 1956, I have placed Bengalis first among the world’s most volatile cricket-watchers.”

If any writer in today’s world had to write in such inflammatory tone about any particular community or country - even if it’s a proverb, assumed or otherwise - he would have to be prepared for a severe backlash. The uproar would have gone beyond hurting the sensitivities of the Bengali. It could have created a diplomatic row between the two countries.

If there is any doubt, one has to only recall Dean Jones’s “terrorist” remark about Hashim Amla a few months back when doing TV commentary. Though Jones made the remark in jest and in the mistaken belief that the live telecast was in the middle of a commercial break, he still had to cop the sack from Ten Sports amid an avalanche of strong reactions world wide.

The Aussies are a breed apart. Their casualness about social etiquette can shock citizens in parts of the world that adhere to social norms widely prevalent.

It’s difficult to find more caustic critics of the Aussies than a true Brit. There is no love lost between the English and Aussies. Ian Botham exemplified that when he said before the 1992 World Cup that he would love to beat the old enemy in front of 100,000 convicts at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Botham’s vitriol was with reference to Australia used as a penal colony in the 17th and 18th centuries to ship out convicts.

The irreverence of the Aussie towards authority is legendary. At a ceremonial introduction of the team, Dennis Lillee shook hands with Queen Elizabeth with the words: "G'day, how ya goin'?" It was a shocker, to put it mildly.

Well, this was not the only time “Dennis the Menace” treated the Queen as if he was bumping into his next door neighbour at the Harrods. Yet another formal introduction in public, he asked the royalty for her autograph. The Queen turned down the request, though she obliged him later in private.

Sunil Gavaskar said that an Australian player greeted Sharad Pawar with “Hiya, mate” at the post-match ceremony of the Champions Trophy in Mumbai. Now those words would be perfectly normal in Australia, where even the Prime Minister is greeted in that fashion, but it would not be acceptable in most parts of the world. In any case, there is no player in the Australian team, I am sure, who is on back-slapping terms with Mr Pawar to be addressed in that manner.

To attribute such casualness to Australian culture and parade that as an excuse is simply not acceptable. When in Rome do as the Romans. In many countries, including among the upper crust in India, men and women greet each other with cheek-kissing, but if someone was foolish enough to do the same in a conservative Muslim country, he could get himself into serious trouble. What is the norm in one nation would be taboo in another. If players are ignorant of these norms, it’s the duty of the respective boards to educate them.

Did the Aussies act in an uncivilized manner, showed up as poor role models and horrible ambassadors of their country in front of globally televised audience? The answer is a resounding yes. Players have copped bigger punishment for comparatively minor transgressions. Brian Lara was once suspended and docked 50% of his match fee for merely requesting the on-field umpire to refer a dubious decision to the third umpire. But neither the ICC nor Cricket Australia thought it fit to censure the damning acts of Ricky Ponting and Damyn Martyn. Even the apology came grudgingly and belatedly after the issue snowballed and threatened to have grave repercussions on the cricketing ties between the two countries. And given the solidarity of the Asian nations, it could have been really serious.

The Australians had every right to celebrate as a team, but emotional surges cannot be an excuse for lapses in etiquette. Pawar was not an intruder into their celebrations. As the President of the hosting board and as one of the senior most politicians in the ruling government, he was accorded the honor of giving away the trophy. He was only doing a job. It was the duty of the Aussies to show due respect to him, and that included posing with him and the Champions Trophy for photographers of the print and visual media.

Diplomacy is not the Aussie’s strong point. And with outsourcing the buzz word, maybe they should outsource some from this part of the world! Even Allan Border, not exactly from the Ian Chappell school of the “Ugly Aussies”, sent sanity and diplomacy flying out of the window at Hove in 1993 when he barked at a press conference: "I am not talking to anyone in the British media ... they are all pricks." In one sweep, he labeled every single mediaperson - and that included several respected former Test cricketers - with an epithet not commonly used by international captains in a public forum.

Talking of the “Ugly Australian” image, there was none worse than Lillee. He once kicked non-striker Javed Miandad in a Test match, which enraged the Pakistani so much that he raised his bat in a bid to assault the Aussie paceman. Incidentally, Lillee’s disgraceful act got the support of his captain, Greg Chappell. The man given the chance to shape India’s cricket fortunes condemned Miandad’s reaction as the “most disgraceful” he had seen on a cricket pitch and claimed that it was all part of a Pakistani plot to ensnare Lillee. It’s another matter that Miandad himself was no paragon of virtue. In fact, both Lillee and Miandad are two of the greatest example of flawed geniuses.

On another occasion, Lillee gained stalled a Test match by coming out to bat with an aluminum bat and gained copious, but cheap, mileage by flinging it on the ground when he was told that he cannot bat with it following protests by the English team.

In my book, the ICC has let Ponting and Company off the hook for a serious breach of protocol. An unhealthy precedent has been set and the culprits have escaped with a meaningless “sorry” – it was neither spontaneous nor sincere. Would the ICC have overlooked a similar breach had an Indian, Pakistani or a Sri Lankan captain pointed fingers irreverently at Queen Elizabeth or pushed her aside?


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