Sticks and stones

India versus Australia is modern cricket’s premier rivalry.It is a contest between two teams, which have zeal, passion, intensity and skill. And in ‘spectacles’ of this nature, played by gladiators in coliseums, which house thousands, ideals of ethics, sportsmanship and spirit of camaraderie among rival actors will often take a back seat.

On day three at the SCG, the veil of “all is well” was finally lifted and what was on display was unarmed combat. Interestingly, Sachin Tendulkar, addressing the media at the end of the day, tried once again to veil the unveiled by suggesting that the Harbhajan-Symonds slang match was nothing more than friendly banter.

Anyone who had watched on television the facial expressions of the exponents of the ‘banter’ and the forced intervention that it necessitated from the umpires, will know that there wasn’t anything remotely friendly about it.

The exchange was yet another mini mind game, spicing up the on field rivalry and making the contest into an iconic cricketing rivalry where everything is at stake.

I have been asked on a few occasions why it had taken eight Test match days for things to turn ugly. The answer in simple – a battle can only be fought among equals. One-sided contests don’t make for flayed tempers, let alone iconic rivalries.

On Boxing Day at the MCG, India were hardly a match for Australia. Having won a no-contest, the Australian magnanimity was on display. Comments like “India will surely come back in the second Test” were made in abandon and Australia was trying hard to justify their billing of a spirited world leader who play the game the way it should be – hard but ethical.

However, once things soured for Ponting and his men at the SCG, the ugly inner core of Australian cricketing pride made its way out.

Used to getting wickets with almost every bowling change and scoring runs at will, the Australians couldn’t bear a lower order batsman frustrating them for hours and in the process helping a master craftsman at work at the other end to seize the initiative. Harbhajan Singh had to be attacked. More because batting with him was Sachin Tendulkar, one even the Australians dare not target.

Harbhajan is volatile, feisty and at times reckless, making him a perfect recipe for provocation. Knowing full well that Harbhajan was crucial to India’s chances of leveling the series with the pitch offering some assistance to spinners on days four and five, Symonds targeted the Sardar from Amritsar. That Symonds and Harbhajan have already had their moments in India when Australia toured in October helped. Suddenly the crowd had more entertainment on offer.

Whether on not Harbhajan had made a racially abusive comment, as has been alleged by Symonds, is impossible to prove.

There were no cameras to record the conversation and it is simply one man’s word against another. At the same time it is time to ponder if Symonds, under fire for not walking off when he knew he was out and labeled ‘unethical’ by former Australian greats of the past like Neil Harvey and Alan Davidson, was attempting hard to divert attention towards Harbhajan.

His success is borne out by the match referee summoning only Harbhajan for a disciplinary hearing. This leads me to question why Harbhajan, who has denied the charge, would not press on a counter charge of ‘false incitement’ against Andrew Symonds.

With histories of bad behaviour recorded in their cricketing files, both Harbhajan and Symonds run the risk of exposing the deep-seated hostility between the two teams, and in the process getting the spectators to do foolish and unwarranted things inside the stadium.

For people in India, however, it is an opportunity to sit back and enjoy an enthralling contest.