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Lost in translation

This is at one level a salutary tale of how the “donkey”, a much loved if somewhat slow and docile friend of children in England, was transformed into the gadha, a term of mild abuse in India.

Phir Team India ko apman kiya hai — Hussain ke nazar main khiladi nahi gadhe khelte hain (He’s insulted Team India — he says players don’t play for Team India, donkeys do),” raged a Hindi news channel. It repeated Nasser Hussain’s comments no fewer than three times — and provided Hindi sub-titles over his English commentary.

Hussain, the 43-year-old former England captain who now works as a TV commentator for Sky Sports and in print for the Daily Mail, is both upset and angry at the way he feels his words have been twisted to whip up a row in India.

When approached by The Telegraph he said he would not be drawn into the “politics and shenanigans back in India”.

“I am not going to fuel the flames anymore,” was his initial reaction. “I am not going to lower myself to comment on what is just a bit of cricketing slang. If India and the Indian public and the BCCI want to stir up things... well, it’s up to them.”

So, has Hussain really hurled a racist insult at Indians? Or is it that Indians are perhaps too quick to be offended when no offence is intended?

The controversy recalls Sir Winston Churchill’s quip: “Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.” What Hussain actually said when Parthiv Patel misjudged Kevin Pietersen’s catch off Munaf Patel’s bowling was: “I would say the difference in the fielding is, England are all-round a good fielding side. I do believe that India have three or four very good fielders… and they have one or two donkeys in the field still.”

The sense of it is: “England are a very good fielding side. No exceptions. India have three or four very good fielders but one or two of the Indian players are slow. Let’s say they are not exactly racehorses.”

Any student of English analysing his remark would conclude he has not insulted the entire Indian team. He is just making the point that “one or two players” could be better fielders.

It’s been donkey’s years (a long time) since there has been an Indian cricketing row such as this. Egged on by the news channels, Indian personality after personality got on to their high horse to condemn Hussain. The BCCI’s vice-president-cum-Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Shukla was quick to slam Hussain too: “The comment was totally uncalled for. One should adopt restraint while making observations about players. We will definitely look into it.”

Hussain has never been one to hold back. He had already been in an argument with Ravi Shastri about India’s decision not to agree to the umpire’s DRS (decision review system).

“Ravi, I just want to pick you up on something you said on a show yesterday, questioning my right to call non-use of DRS a disgrace,” Nasser declared on air. “Well, I’ve earned that right after 96 Test matches to voice my opinion on the game of cricket.”

Hussain was born in Madras on March 28, 1968, of an Indian father, Juwaid Hussain, and an English mother, Patricia, who had met in England and come back to live in India. After the family settled in England in 1975, Hussain attended a well-known local fee paying institution, Forest School, before reading natural sciences at the University of Durham. He captained England for 45 Test matches from 1999 to 2003.

He has always been fiercely loyal to England and once wondered why the country did not have the support of many British-born Asian cricket fans. “For others, maybe it isn’t so clear where their loyalties lie, but for me the position is easy — everything I am is English.”

In his autobiography, Playing with Fire, Hussain described himself as “complex, contrary, restless, introvert, insular and abrasive”. His father, “Joe”, became a coach in Essex and pushed his son. “I played because I seemed to be good at it and my Dad pushed me into doing it,” noted Hussain, now married to Karen, with two sons, Jacob and Joel.

It will be recalled that in the film Patiala House earlier this year, Hussain played himself. Having been bowled out thrice by a local Southall lad, he pushes successfully for Pargat Singh Kahlon aka Gattu (played by Akshaye Khanna) to be picked for England. Hussain, who utters a few lines in Hindi, would hardly have been targeted for the role had he not been considered a sympathetic character by the director, Nikhil Advani.

And he has always heaped praise on Indian players who are class acts. In one of his recent newspaper articles on Rahul Dravid, he said, “I didn’t think Rahul Dravid could rate any higher in my estimation before this series but so exceptional has he been throughout, that his stock has risen even more... he is up there with Sachin Tendulkar as a legend of the world game.”

In another article he admitted that he had hoped he would be the one in the commentary box when Sachin Tendulkar got his 100th 100 at the Oval. “But now I think it is best for India that he got out when he did (for 91). If the piece of history had come now, the whole of India would have been celebrating and the partying could have gone on for days. And that would have papered over the cracks in Indian cricket and overshadowed all that Rahul Dravid has achieved this last month.”

Maybe it’s Hussain’s fault that he tells the truth as he sees it without fear or favour.

As for the “donkey crisis”, he told The Telegraph last week: “I have had about 500 calls from India and news channels… — (it’s) absolutely ludicrous. I mean, all the things that go on in India that they should be worried about and concerned about. It can’t be a news flash that someone says that India has one or two slow fielders.”

He argued that donkey is “a cricketing term that is used in every dressing room around the world — ‘push him in the outfield, he is a bit of a donkey’. It does not mean that the person is an animal of any kind. It is cricketing slang and there are some people in India, there are very clever people, that should have picked up on that.”

He said: “All I have heard is negative, negative. I have had enough of it. It has been a long and hard season. I know if I talk on it and comment on it, it will just go on and on and on.”

It certainly will — until we find another cricketing “controversy” to chew on.

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