There are two parts to this post: the first, unsubtle and emotional, the second nuanced and, uh, emotional. Let’s to it:
1. Matthew Hayden is an absolute idiot. No, I don’t care that he called Harbhajan an “obnoxious weed,” partially because I think he’s justified. Indian players are worshipped and adored, and too many of them — Yuvraj, I think, in particular — act as if their reputations will absolve anything (see Dileep Premachandran’s horrifying post about India’s crazed younger cricket players and their “attitood”). So, Harbhajan may not be that cheery a guy. Whatever.
No, my problem is this: if you actually listen to the entire radio interview with Hayden (available here), he comes across just as obnoxiously (and racist) as Harbhajan supposedly does. For one thing, he crudely mocks Ishant Sharma’s accent, mimicking the 19-year old saying “I’m playing for my country” like some sort of Apu.
Now, this was the same person who called Harbhajan out on the pitch after he supposedly called Symonds a monkey. “It’s racial vilification, mate,” he said, “and you know it.” So, as Kadamburi Murali writes, Hayden, with all his experience, surely knows better than to say what he did, and at 36, he really shouldn’t find “funny accents” all that funny anymore.
As if all this wasn’t enough, hear Hayden’s false apology after being reprimanded by Cricket Australia:
“I maintain my innocence,” he says, “My intentions were never to denigrate cricket or anyone. That said, the umpire has made his decision and, in the spirit of our own code of behaviour and our great game of cricket, I respect and accept this decision.”
Now, of course, if Hayden really respected the umpire’s decision, he would not maintain any innocence. He hasn’t accepted anything; the umpire just found him guilty but Hayden happily rolls on.
(**Sidenote: As the interview proceeds, the conversation yields a no less bizarre moment. Incredibly weirdly, Hayden is asked if he gets final approval on what his wife can and cannot wear. He replies, all faux-macho, that he blithely approves of his wife’s appearance every time he’s asked. Now, I realize that Hayden loves an Old Testament God, but really, someone ought to tell him — and these antediluvian interviewers — that the women’s movement happened a long time ago, even if wonderful Queensland has yet to hear about it.)
The most infuriating part about the interview, however, is the radio announcer’s plea that the Indians just shut up and get on with the cricket. Australians have long been known for off-field antics to influence the on-field action (cue the “mental disintegration”), and in doing so, they have expanded what counts as “cricket” and what doesn’t. As several observers have noted, Hayden’s comments could just be part of a larger game strategy, which means, well, that all the name-calling and India’s complaining is as much about cricket as anything else. More ironically, this request (to stay on the cricket) comes just moments before Hayden criticizes Harbhajan’s personality (rather than his doosra).
2. This brings me to my second, larger point:
There was one silver lining to the never-ending Symonds-Singh fracas: it focused cricket fans’ attention on the racial undertones of the game and their societies. For many, including me, the racial aspect of the game is a crucial element, and even if British imperialism is no more (except for a few unsuspecting Pacific islanders and, um, the Argentinians), the history cannot be avoided.
So when people — like Adam Gilchrist, or this radio announcer speaking to Matthew Hayden — complain that they want to focus on cricket, they’re missing a huge point. As CLR James famously asked, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” As in, if you think this game is just about bat against ball, you’re thoroughly mistaken.
Australians should understand this better than most; the Ashes series retains so much of its prestige and importance because of the often bitter relations between Britain and its ex-colony. And who can forget the Victorians and colonizers, who repackaged cricket as a great civilizer for lower classes and even lower subjects, teaching them the rule of law with the unquestioned umpire at the head of the pitch and gentility with the custom of “walking.”
I’m not saying cricket is racist; I just think its development and framework offers a very interesting (and very pertinent) window into racial relations. Only one sport unites South Africa, England, India and Australia, and that’s bound to cause some friction. So, in response to Gilchrist and Hayden, who want just to talk about cricket, I say, this is cricket. Precisely because it’s just a game, the charged words and racial slurs and frayed moods are all the more revealing and true. As James put it:
I haven’t the slightest doubt that the clash of race, caste and class did not retard but stimulated West Indian cricket. I am equally certain that in those years social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games… From the moment I had to decide which club I would join the contrast between the ideal and the real fascinated me and tore at my insides. Nor could the local population see it otherwise. The class and racial rivalries were too intense. They could be fought out without violence or much lost except pride and honor. Thus the cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance.