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O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN

- Dhoni and righteousness

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, abetted by the BCCI, tried and failed to get Jimmy Anderson severely punished for swearing at Ravindra Jadeja and allegedly pushing him during the Trent Bridge Test. Judge Gordon Lewis, the ICC’s judicial commissioner, dismissed the charges against Anderson (and the tit-for-tat charges against Jadeja) on the ground that there was a lack of credible evidence. Everyone who testified, he said, was plainly partisan and in the absence of a neutral witness or video footage, it was just one man’s word against another.

Thwarted, the BCCI tried to get the ICC’s chief executive, Dave Richardson, to appeal the verdict of its own commissioner. Richardson refused to go down that road, so Dhoni had to deal with the fact that his high stakes bid to make an example of Anderson had failed. Questioned about it, he declared that he regretted nothing. “I did something that was right and I stand for what’s right and what’s wrong. If something wrong is happening, I will go against it, irrespective of who is doing it.”

Connoisseurs of desi self-righteousness will remember 2014 as a vintage year.

Dhoni, the Indian press and the Indian cricketing public became partners in outrage. Indian journalists itemized a list of desi grievances against the verdict. Anderson had “previous”: he had repeatedly sworn at Indian players in the past. Bruce Oxenford, one of the umpires at Trent Bridge, told Judge Lewis that Anderson had, in his hearing, called Dhoni a “f****** fat c***” and Anderson didn’t contest Oxenford’s testimony. Also, Anderson didn’t deny pushing Jadeja; he merely claimed he had done it in self-defence. So, having implicitly accepted that he had both abused the Indian captain and made physical contact with Jadeja, it followed that his getting off without even token punishment was a terrible miscarriage of justice. Further, argued Indian journalists, Justice Lewis had set a dreadful precedent that was bound to lead to further confrontation on the field because cricket’s justice system had failed to take a hard line against unacceptable behaviour.

The reaction of the English press to Judge Lewis’s verdict was denounced. Some English newspapers reporting on Justice Lewis’s exoneration of Anderson headlined their stories, “India Humiliated”. This was criticized as unseemly triumphalism. Similarly, the bluff line taken by commentators like David Lloyd that the two teams should have sorted the matter out between themselves and “left it on the field” instead of litigating it, was seen as an attempt to gloss over thuggish behaviour in the name of sporting robustness.

Alastair Cook’s allegation that India’s charge against Anderson was a tactical attempt to take England’s best bowler out of the series was seen as outrageous because it suggested that Dhoni and India were acting in bad faith. The news that the CCTV camera that could have supplied evidence of the confrontation between Jadeja and Anderson wasn’t functioning on the day was read as a dark conspiracy intended to suppress clinching evidence of Anderson’s guilt. Reports that Paul Downton, the managing director of the ECB, had tried to settle the matter with Duncan Fletcher, the Indian coach, and rumours that Downton had allegedly offered an inquiry into Anderson’s behaviour and even a public apology (denied by the ECB) were seized on by bloggers and tweeters as a virtual admission of Anderson’s guilt.

Our gift for outrage is matched only by our genius for forgetting.

Just six and a half years ago, in early 2008, an Indian player accused of a much graver offence than Anderson’s went up in front of the ICC’s judicial commissioner. After the controversial second Test in Sydney, which India lost, Harbhajan Singh was accused by the Australian team of having called Andrew Symonds — a player of Afro-Caribbean ancestry — a monkey.

Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, reported Harbhajan Singh to the match referee, Mike Proctor, for a racist slur. When Proctor found Harbhajan guilty and handed him a three-Test ban, an Indian team, already enraged by poor umpiring, appealed his verdict. Justice John Hansen heard the appeal and let Harbhajan off because in the absence of an audio recording of the exchange, there was no way of knowing what Harbhajan had said.

The boot was on the other foot then and, unsurprisingly, the reactions of the Indian team, the Indian media and Indian cricket fans were the exact opposite of their responses to the Anderson affair.

India’s captain, though, shouldn’t have forgotten the mirror image parallels with Sydney. Of the Indian team that played that notorious Test, two players survived to be part of the team at Trent Bridge. Ishant Sharma was one and Mahendra Singh Dhoni was the other.

Like the English at Trent Bridge, the Indians at Sydney felt that the incident shouldn’t have been reported to the authorities at all. Like the English at Trent Bridge, the Indians at Sydney asked Ponting not to go to the match referee because the matter would spiral out of control. Instead, as Paul Downton was reported to have done, Kumble offered to apologize for Harbhajan’s behaviour, but Ponting (like Dhoni) was adamant. And just as Downton’s offer of a compromise was seen as a tacit admission of Anderson’s guilt, Kumble’s willingness to apologize was read as an attempt to limit the damage done by Harbhajan’s racial slur.

Like Dhoni, Ponting believed that he had no choice but to report the matter because he was serving the cause of righteousness. Just as Dhoni insisted that he had done the right thing by speaking up against the unacceptability of Anderson’s alleged physical aggression, Ponting claimed that the ICC’s tough stand against racism left him no choice but to report Harbhajan.

The Indian case against Anderson was built around the claim that Anderson was a repeat offender, a chronic sledger who was due his comeuppance. The Australian case against Harbhajan was based on the exact same argument. The Australians alleged that Harbhajan used the monkey taunt against Symonds before, during the seventh ODI in Mumbai in October 2007. At the time the Australians raised the matter informally and agreed not to press charges in return for Harbhajan promising not to use the slur again.

The problem with this line of argument in both Anderson’s case and Harbhajan’s was similar: in the absence of corroborative evidence, it seemed like a way of settling old scores. The Indian team and its supporters were upset by the counter-charge filed against Jadeja by the English because they felt that Jadeja was the victim of Anderson’s aggression. The Australians, similarly, were enraged when Harbhajan claimed that he had been provoked by a stream of gratuitous abuse directed at him by Symonds in reaction to some banter between Harbhajan and Brett Lee.

Even the Indian team’s sense of injury at being accused of framing the opposition’s best bowler in a bid to remove him from the contest, was a mirror image of what transpired in 2008. Then it was India’s turn to suggest that Ponting was deliberately trying to get his nemesis, Harbhajan, suspended to make batting easier for himself. Harbhajan’s protagonists weren’t shy of citing Ponting’s miserable record against the off-spinner during Australia’s tour of India in 2000-01. Harbhajan dismissed him all five times and left him with a series average of under 4 runs per innings. In the tour of 2007-08, by the time the Symonds controversy exploded, Harbhajan had dismissed Ponting three times in four innings.

Australia’s case against Harbhajan was arguably stronger than India’s case against Anderson. In neither instance was the offence captured on tape: at Trent Bridge the CCTV camera in the corridor wasn’t working and in Sydney the stump microphone didn’t pick up the words that Harbhajan spoke to Symonds.

The Indians argued that Symonds might have mistaken a Punjabi profanity, “ma ki”, for monkey. It must have been the only time in living memory that a term of abuse as incendiary as “ma ki” was offered in extenuation. It was also too clever by half and left reasonable people wondering if Harbhajan had gotten away with murder. Still, we didn’t see Indians crying foul in Sydney when it became clear that the stump microphones hadn’t captured the crucial conversation, so perhaps they shouldn’t have been so quick to treat a dud camera at Trent Bridge as proof of bad faith.

The moral of this story is that both captains, Ponting and Dhoni, dressed up their exasperation with a particular player as a moral crusade. Ponting was all set to slay racism in cricket, while Dhoni saw himself as Sledging’s Scourge. Armed with nothing but indignation and partisan witnesses, they overplayed their hands. Sydney wasn’t, and Trent Bridge won’t be, a turning point in the history of cricketing behaviour. These were merely bad-tempered Test matches that tempted two captains and a few supporting actors into being drama queens. Having failed to score points at Anderson’s expense, perhaps Dhoni and his men can now set about their real job: scoring runs against him.