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Shades of racism

No cricket tour is free of its share of trouble these days and the India-South Africa three-Test series was no exception. The uglier side of cricket was brought into sharper definition by a team which should know well enough that its actions will be always under scrutiny given the country's past. What an Australian started way back in the 70s is slowly beginning to manifest itself again; whereas he preferred the spoken word, those who practise it nowadays have taken it to its logical conclusion.

Racism is not a pretty word. It is ugly whenever it happens, be it in so-called civilised society or on the playing field. It is the cancer which leads to a slow fissure developing, one that can ultimately destroy anything in its path. South Africa have come back into the sporting fold after 21 years and just a few years down the line one finds some of their players indulging in acts that do not add to their reputation.

Some history first. South Africa's exclusion from world cricket happened in 1971 soon after they had doled out a 4-0 thrashing to Australia in a four-Test series. England had been scheduled to tour South Africa in 1969 but when the South African authorities learned that Basil D'Oliviera, a coloured cricketer, was part of the squad, they first asked that he be substituted. Thanks to the media, England refused and the tour ended up being cancelled. Upto that point, South Africa did not condescend to play against non-white teams; it must be noted that soon after the D'Oliviera incident, the Australian board was more than willing to send a team over.

Sanity returned the following year when South Africa was banned from international cricket. That should have been done years ago but then it must be remembered that Australia itself had practised a whites-only migration policy for years. England was not overly keen on the matter and these were the two major powers in world cricket. The fairness of apartheid was never questioned. Everybody just went along with things. It was very convenient and everybody could also plead their inability to change anything -- the country was run that way was the standard excuse.

After the dismantling of apartheid, South Africa came back into world cricket. India was the first country which they visited. The tours have continued. There have been incidents both on and off the field but three incidents during the series which just got over deserve some examination and comment. They seem to be unnecessary and given South Africa's past seem to have a tinge of racism.

Ian Chappell was the one who introduced sledging into the game, the practice of swearing and cussing at players who were batting. Sledging always took an upward curve when the West Indies visited Australia. Chappell was a slip fielder and so was well-placed to abuse the batsman in an undertone and be heard. Geoff Lawson was one among those who made this an art form. Maybe the South Africans learnt from this example. In any case, given their background, they don't really need an example. They have better tutors at home.

Consider the following: Cronje completes a run during the first Test. Srinath is in his way well beyond the crease. The South African captain has grounded his bat but does not stop running; he bangs into Srinath and makes it appear as though the Indian bowler has got in his way. Glares are exchanged and the umpires do not notice a thing. Srinath does not forget and whenever he comes on to bowl to Cronje, he produces a bouncer and similar looks are exchanged.

Incident two: Pollock appeals for an lbw against Azharuddin which is granted. Azharuddin was shaping to play the ball to mid-on; it was swinging and seemed to be going down the legside. Umpire Peter Willey raises his finger. Even before this, Pollock has told Azharuddin what he thinks of him; there is an angry gesture with the hand. Azharuddin looks puzzled and then his anger begins to show. He stares at Pollock who does not back down. They continue to exchange stares as Azharuddin walks off and Pollock continues muttering. Willey does nothing. It is left to the square-leg umpire Cyril Mitchley to come over and talk to Pollock.

An inquiry is held and, according to reliable sources, Azharuddin saves the day for Pollock. On entering match referee Barry Jarman's room, he says, "One thing I must make clear Barry, there were no words exchanged out there." This settles the matter, for Jarman cannot take action now that Pollock has been cleared by the man whom he wronged; the referee decides to bank on Azharuddin's goodwill and censures the Indian player. Azharuddin takes it in his stride. Whether Pollock has got the message or not is unknown.

Incident three involved Lance Klusener and is not limited to one occurrence. He seems to have a habit of cursing players whenever he feels that they have been lucky to escape while he is bowling. He generally feels that he should get at least two wickets in a spell so the incidents are numerous. Klusener gets particularly livid when the batsman at the other is a tailender; probably, he feels it is his right to get the wicket of a man who bats at nine, 10 or 11. One can't say exactly what causes these outbursts.

Cronje was a captain who made a great impression during the World Cup. While many were cribbing about pitches, accommodation and travel, he remained a perfect gentleman. He praised the organisers and said that he had enjoyed playing in Pakistan right through. This was a gesture of a man who was worthy of leading a team who hail from a country headed by Nelson Mandela. But that phase of Cronje's career seems to be over. He does not seem to mind these displays of racism disguised as natural aggression. In fact, he seems to encourage it by not even talking to the player concerned. Of course, he should first be talking to himself.

There are sufficient problems in world cricket today without one more being added. South Africa should take a lesson from Germany which is careful to keep its past in mind at all times and guard against anything which might help people to see those days as a period of glory. The South Africans need not believe that all people are born equal. But they must at least ensure that they behave as if they do so when they are on the field of play. Cricket is a gentleman's game. There is no place for racists.