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April 25, 2000


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Hang on, don't hang them

Harsha Bhogle

Turbulent times call for calm minds, and I fear we are losing some sense of perspective.

Newspapers are full of allegations against individuals and it depresses me, because in the absence of evidence I believe we have no right to cast aspersions on people who might, in reality, be honourable men. To be fair, these people might not be honest, but the impact of calling an honest man a cheat outweighs, by a million times, the damage that can be caused by allowing a cheat to live in the guise of honesty. That is the essence, not just of law but of dignified society, and it cannot be cast aside for the thrill of seeing a headline in print.

It is different once there is evidence, and that is why the condemnation of Hansie Cronje is legitimate, even though I suspect a lot of people are being holier-than-thou. And that is why I was outraged, and I believe a lot of people should be as well, that the Sunday Times in London chose to publish a half page colour photograph of Mohammad Azharuddin on the front page of their sports section with an inch-thick headline that said "Accused". It was based on what Rajesh Kalra had, apparently, told the Delhi police. That was considered enough and I find it staggering.

I don't even care if in course of time it is found to be true. At the time the headline was printed, there wasn't a shred of evidence against Azharuddin. And yet, nobody thinks twice about maligning people. We are living in very murky times, aren't we?

And yet, that didn't surprise me because a couple of days earlier, I had received a call from someone in the London Times in my hotel room in Singapore where I had gone to host the telecast of the Australia v South Africa series. "Do you know which Indian players are likely to be involved?" was the question. I thought it was a terribly unfair question, but I was not surprised because the impression that I had gathered till then was that the rest of the world was quite happy to toe along with the initial reactions from South Africa; that anything murky in world cricket has to be come from the sub-continent.

I remember telling him that much as I feared that whispers had acquired legitimacy in this new and depressing environment, we could not make whispers public. It is an attitude that ties in with other reports, sympathetic to the South Africans, which talk of the "harassment" that visiting cricketers face in India. All along, it was the heat, the dust, the humidity, the food, the mosquitoes and now it is the harassment of the Indian fans. We must be a very cruel country to push pious visitors into wrongdoing; to grab them by the throat and thrust them into the tunnel of deceit!

An English newspaper then suggested that their team not visit India till the menace was sorted out. Good heavens! The moral high ground is acquired through grace, through understanding of cultures, not by succumbing to age-old stereotypes. Remember, all this was in defence of a team that had three team-meetings to consider whether or not to accept money to throw a match. What faith are we talking about here? What harassment?! I thought faith was a man's ultimate defence in troubled times. There was no harassment in a closed room in a meeting to consider throwing a match! Harassment indeed!

You would like to think, wouldn't you, that the world has moved on towards more progressive thought! But everytime a stereotype is threatened, progress seems to go out of the window. And so it was that so many writers in England and South Africa sat on the high horse of Western honesty and Christian faith. I am not fighting a battle here; it is not " us and them". And believe me I would never say that there is no such thing as a Christian faith. I am only amazed that it was used so freely to whitewash all thought.

That is why I found a piece by Michael Atherton in the Sunday Telegraph very interesting. This is what he says :

"In essence, last week's scandal says as much about the rest of us as it does about match fixing or Hansie Cronje. The very same people who nod knowingly when an Asian cricketer is accused initially dismissed the rumour out of hand when a South African became involved. Although the Sub-continent does seem to be the powder keg of this problem, that approach says a lot, I suppose, about the question of racial stereotyping."

And he goes on:

"After all, show me a man that has not made mistakes in his life and I will show you a man that has not lived."

The worm will always nibble at the flower. It does not matter what land the worm comes from and what land the flower blooms in. And that includes our own land as well. We must be aware that if respected cricketers from other countries are tempted, there is no reason some of our own could not have been either. My only concern is whether our governing body has the stature, and the presence of mind, to react to a similar situation.

I thought the United Cricket Board of South Africa did a sterling job even if there was a hint of disdain in the early statements. But they stood by their players till the evidence came through. Then they took action very quickly and that is how I believe it should be.

India had the opportunity of taking the lead in such matters when the Chandrachud commission was appointed. Apparently there is a strong legal difference between an "enquiry" and an "investigation" and that the commission had no legal status to force people to depose. But the report itself, if the extracts are any indication, was extremely superficial and there was no attempt to probe further. If the BCCI was really determined to weed this menace out, they could have regarded the report as insufficient and delved deeper.

After all, two managers had reported wrongdoings, and it now transpires that the President at the time knew of errant behaviour as well. Sadly, the truth is that the BCCI found a little corner under the carpet that was considered inaccessible, and pushed the report, and the whole issue, there. Hopefully, we will know very soon if they might indeed have been shortsighted.

I fear, and yet I hope, that the next few days will reveal more. And I hope we wait till a verdict if pronounced before passing our own judgement on people.

Harsha Bhogle

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