Line between sledging and racism continues to blur

Jan 17, 2021

An invidious Sydney tradition surfaced again at the third Test match between Australia and India last week, with six spectators ejected from a stand for allegedly racist chants towards a nearby Indian outfielder.

To top that, the Australian captain Tim Paine was caught on a stump mic angrily sledging an Indian player as a “dickhead” and former captain Steve Smith was accused of deliberately scuffing the crease line used as a marker by an Indian batsman.

There is a doctorate in cultural studies here for someone. Sledging has a long history in Sydney sport (eg “Saw your missus up the Cross last night”) and repartee from the grandstand is part of the show here as in many other cities around the world.

“For more than a century abusive behaviour went unchecked at Australian cricket grounds as if it was some sort of slapstick sideshow,” Robert Craddock wrote in the Daily Telegraph. “Some of it was. Cricket is nothing without crowd involvement and we all love a good one-liner. But much of it was crassness masquerading as cleverness. Cowards have been hiding in the masses. There was somehow a feeling that taunts that would be ­totally unacceptable in offices, homes or any public space were somehow permissible when shouted from row 23 after two or three or 10 beers.”

Not any more, Craddock added, along with most other cricket writers. When Mohammed Siraj, the star bowler on the outfield between overs, had play stopped last Sunday because of hostile chanting, something changed. “Watching a Test match come to a standstill in Australia because of crowd abuse was distressing in one way but strangely comforting in another,” Craddock said. “Cricket has simply had enough of racist crowd behaviour — and not a moment too soon.”

Cricket officials and police are still trying to pin down what was said. Siraj said he heard “brown dog” and “monkeys”; others in the crowd including an Indian-Australian said they heard nothing explicitly racist like that, but teasing plays on Siraj’s name. Instead of dismissing it as “banter” or “heckling”, such writers as Gideon Haigh and Malcolm Knox effectively said, “come on, who are you kidding?”

“For a start, the Indian objection is cumulative, to the long-term boorishness of Sydney crowds,” Haigh wrote. “They were invited to report an ­instance if they heard such; Siraj did. And, frankly, who would willingly soak up such prolonged ­stupidity? Any reader who thinks so is invited to forward their work address: I’d be pleased to follow them all day shouting a drunken joke about their name, and taking pleasure in their misfortune and discomfiture. For another thing, racial epithets are not a precondition of racism. On the contrary, racism can be most pernicious where it is politest.”

Haigh and others pointed out that Siraj was particularly vulnerable: on his first tour and first long trip out of India, son of an auto-rickshaw driver from Hyderabad. When his father died six weeks ago, he remained on the tour rather than return for the funeral.

Then we have our politicians trying to paper over things, with NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian saying racist abuse against an Indian cricket player would be “so un-Australian” if proven to have occurred. To which Indigenous cricket star Dan Christian commented: “It’s not just an Australian cricket problem, it’s an Australian society problem.” And India’s Ravichandran Ashwin, who got the sledging from Paine, said racism had been part of his Australian touring experience for 10 years.

“Cricketers say they get abused all over the world but Australia is ground zero, its crowds the most hostile and abusive,” says Sharda Ugra, a senior sports journalist with sports channel ESPN Cricinfo. It also occurred in India. “That too without alcohol as an excuse, as it is not allowed in Indian grounds,” she wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday. “Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium’s fairly well-to-do North Stand has chanted racist abuse en masse at West Indian Mervyn Dillon and Australia’s Andrew Symonds (who in 2007 was also abused in Baroda).”

The “ripple effect of the Black Lives Matter was now forcing sport to face up to racism”, Ugra said. “Yet creating non-toxic environments, not just in Australian cricket but in India and elsewhere, depends on more than institutional codes or security ejecting yahoos. They can only be built and reinforced by the constant, vocal disapproval of everyone around a sport’s racists and bullies. Regardless of which seat they occupy. Even if that stuff once used to be part of the game.”

Sledging and heckling used to be just between us and the English, inaudible in the broadcast rooms. Now there are cameras and microphones everywhere, journalists from all around the cricketing world, and live play shown worldwide. Australian stars spend part of the year playing in the Indian Premier League for huge salaries. Hence Paine’s quick apology to Ashwin, and careful scrutiny of Smith’s crease scuffling, which brought back the ball-tampering episode in South Africa three years ago.

The Australian team is still on probation from that. “Some, predictably, have piled on to the Australian team, claiming three years of steady progress had all been undone by one bad day at the office,” wrote Ben Horne in the Daily Telegraph. “This was always going to happen. The first time the Australians stumbled, the baying mob would appear again.”

Deploying a strange metaphor, Horne said the Australians could not complain: “You may have only ever kissed one goat, but every time after that you allow your gaze to linger on a fetching specimen someone is going to think you’re at it again, but they’re not.”

Quite. But let’s leave with this summing up from Sharda Ugra about what far-off Indians see on their screens:

“In India’s long-distance view, there are two or three Australias. There’s MasterChef Australia, seen more regularly these days on Indian TV screens than cricket. Diverse participants, warm judges, mouth-watering feasts.

Then up pops live cricket, MasterChef Australia’s alter-ego: eye-grabbing, throat-constricting, high skill action, trite mouthing off between players and, in unsavoury leftovers from SCG 2021, half a dozen yahoos ejected for racist abuse.

A third confusing track runs alongside this: of Australian and English captains deciding not to take a knee last September followed by Cricket Australia introducing the Barefoot Circle and instituting the Mullagh Medal, in honour of Indigenous Australian cricketer Johnny Mullagh. Many times for Indians, Australia doesn’t add up.”

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