I meant to blog about this when it came out — clearly, I can’t keep up with the Internet’s fast pace — but Albie Sachs’s opinion on the Gambhir-Watson merits some reading from cricket fans. I don’t know what kind of reaction “Gambhir-gate” attracted in India, but if I knew any better, I’m sure it echoed the hysteria that the BCCI displayed when the ban was decided.
Let’s review: Gambhir and Watson get into each other’s faces during the 3rd Test Match. Then, when returning for a second run, Gambhir coyly puts his elbow out and lets Watson — reportedly, a very, very big man — have a little touch. A one-match ban takes effect for one; a fine for the other.
Now, this is clearly a violation (or two) of those much talked-of but rarely-seen principles of cricket, and Gambhir admitted as much when he pleaded guilty. Chris Broad, however, felt that the physical contact went too far and could not be ignored, and so settled for the penalty he chose (apparently, he originally wanted a two-match ban, because of Gambhir’s run-in with Afridi, but he compromised after the umpires told him just how mean and nasty Watson and Co. were).
Gambhir appealed, but Albie Sachs deferred. The BCCI gets angry, and cry upon cry is raised about the hypocrisy of the whole system. I think both sides have some merit, and I want to offer that kind of nuance into the debate:
First, the BCCI is absolutely wrong to talk about “natural justice” here. As Sachs rightly puts it in his decision:
“The right to be heard in terms of natural justice does not necessarily imply the right to an oral hearing.”
As an appeals judge, Sachs’s job wasn’t to verify fact from fiction; he noted that there was already adequate documentation provided (and Gambhir’s own plea helped in this regard). He didn’t need to have another hearing, and there was certainly no need for more lawyers to get involved. Moreover, the cry for legal representation and another oral hearing sounded like a stalling tactic to allow Gambhir pad up in the final Test, only days away. Sachs, no doubt alert to this not-so-subtle manipulation of the process, said no. He’s right to do so.
That said, his judgment does have some shortcomings, as does Chris Broad’s. Anil Kumble argued that Gambhir should be let off because Asians do not consider swearing as part of a game; instead, they put a high cultural value on language reflecting respect. Broad agrees, but he then shoots back that if this is the case, Gambhir should not have sworn back at Watson. Sachs writes:
Chris Broad concluded that if one doesn’t want to be sworn at, then one shouldn’t swear in retaliation.
This doesn’t really make much sense, and it smacks of “blaming the victim.” Even if you find swearing offensive, it seems entirely appropriate to use the offender’s language to put him in place. In fact, if you did truly find swearing offensive to the scale that Kumble suggests, you would lose all control; you would, in fact, over-react, as Gambhir did. The onus should be on the guests, not the hosts here.
Sachs’s opinion has another slight drawback. He says he does have a certain amount of sympathy for Gambhir because the Indian centurion was provoked with “inordinate” and “continuous” verbal abuse and even physical mocking. Still, he says, “one form of unbecoming conduct cannot justify another.” So, he finds Gambhir’s penalty appropriate; physical abuse has absolutely no place in cricket and it cannot be tolerated.
The shame here, though, is that Sachs could not enforce a bigger penalty on the “verbals” that he clearly dislikes. At one point in the opinion, he hints that verbal assaults seem just as bad as physical ones, and he longs for a case that would question whether “sledging has any place in cricket at all.”
If that were the case, he should have upheld Gambhir’s penalty, and increased Watson’s as well. It seems too precious to argue that a player can be subjected to constant abuse and still have to turn the other cheek, let alone concentrate on playing the game. If you are serious about the spirit of the game, you would see absolutely no distinction between physical and verbal assaults; they would be of the same kind. When Sachs writes,
However severe the verbal assaults on them may be, players are obliged not to give vent to their anger through physical retaliation…
he clearly underestimates how difficult and tormenting it must be to play under such conditions, especially if your culture finds it demeaning. Deal with the cause, and the effect, Sachs. Throw the book at both of them.
(Incidentally, I have a huge amount of respect for Albie Sachs. I had to write an essay on South African constitutionalism once, and Sachs came up often. He has an inspiring biography, and I highly recommend the man’s books, even if this judgment disappoints me slightly.)