The game of cricket is so closely associated with fairness and civility that it has become a metaphor for those virtues. “It’s just not cricket” is a common expression meaning that something is not equitable or honourable.
Yet in recent months cricket itself has become the catalyst for something discriminatory and disgraceful: racism. The one-day series in India last October and the Test series in Australia this January were marred by racist taunts directed at Australia’s only black player, Andrew Symonds, by some Indian spectators and players.
Towards the end of the one-day series tour in October, the Indian spectators began to taunt Symonds, calling him a “monkey” and gesticulating at him in monkey fashion. Outrageously, the Indian officials initially refused to control the crowds, denying that they were being racist and offering laughable excuses for their behaviour.*
The last one-day match, held in Mumbai, was the worst. Many spectators booed Symons at every opportunity. Some also taunted him with monkey noises and monkey gestures, scratching their armpits and prancing and grimacing. Among the many insulting placards waved by Indian spectators was this racially abusive one: “Andrew Symons – half Australian half monkey”.1**
On the field, one of the players followed the lead of the racists in the stand. Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh allegedly called Andrew Symonds a “monkey”. Rather than press for the prosecution of Singh, Symonds sought and gained an apology from him after the game. Singh also promised not to call him a monkey again.
But barely two months later, on the third day of the second Test in Sydney, Singh apparently repeated the racial slur. This time he was heard by Australian players Michael Clarke and Matthew Hayden. Channel Nine’s stump microphone picked up the following exchange:
Symonds to Singh: “Go and tell your team mates … You called me monkey again.”
Hayden to Singh: “Twice. You’ve got a witness now champ. … That’s the last time.”
Singh: “No listen he started it.”
Hayden: “Doesn’t matter mate, it’s racial vilification mate. It’s a s— word and you know it.”
Clarke, soon after, to umpire Mark Benson: “It’s not the first time. He done it in India and got into strife. That’s the second time he’s done it.”2
When Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, became involved, he also told Singh, “that’s the second time you’ve called him a monkey.”3It was the repetition of the offence as much as the offence itself that infuriated the Australian team and spurred them to report it. Contrary to both the advice of his team mates and the directive of the International Cricket Council, Symonds did not report Singh for his racist outburst in Mumbai. And in thanks Singh, it seems, racially abused him again in Sydney. This time the Australians were determined that Singh would be not only held to account for what he had done but also stopped from doing it again.
Ponting reported the slur to the field umpires, who in turn reported it to the match referee, Mike Procter. After the game, Procter held a lengthy hearing and concluded: “I am satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Harbhajan Singh directed that word [‘monkey’] at Andrew Symonds and also that he meant it to offend on the basis of Symonds’s race or ethnic origin.”4Accordingly, Proctor imposed a three-Test ban on Singh.
In response to Singh’s conviction and suspension: the Board of Control for Cricket in India fumed that the honour of “every Indian” was at stake and threatened to withdraw the Indian team from the Test series; the Indian cricketers refused to travel to Canberra for their next scheduled game and conducted a two-day sit-in at their Sydney hotel; the Indian media vilified Australia generally and the Australian cricket team in particular; and Indian fans at home burned photographs of the Australian team and began to strut about in T-shirts with racist cartoons depicting Symonds as a monkey.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India appealed Harbhajan Singh’s conviction and the International Cricket Council appointed a New Zealand judge to hear the appeal.
In the following three weeks Cricket Australia buckled under pressure from the Indians. Shortly before the hearing, “the Australian players met management and during an often heated and emotional meeting it was resolved that convicting Harbhajan of racism was not worth it if it derailed the relationship between the two countries. Players argued that Harbhajan had offended twice and was now willing to lie and take his country down with him.” In the end, however, the players “agreed that a compromise be offered whereby Harbhajan’s charge be downgraded to offensive language …”5*** And that was the conviction the judge ultimately handed down.
Australian cricket commentators were outraged by the outcome of the appeal and viewed it as a victory for appeasement as opposed to justice. An editorial in The Australian newspaper typified the prevailing sentiments: “India’s black-mailing thuggery made monkeys of Australia and the noble game of cricket on Tuesday. … India, with breathtaking hypocrisy, flexed its billionaire superpower muscle to get spinner Harbhajan Singh off the hook … Faced with the prospect of being sued for $60 million for lost broadcast revenue in India if the tourists pulled up stumps, Cricket Australia felt compelled to cave in, allowing the racial slur charge to be dropped.”6****
All of this is just not cricket. But it does make plain two facts that many people seem not to appreciate. Firstly, racism is not a problem confined to white people, but is a problem shared by people of all colours and ancestries throughout the world. Secondly, many societies are not ashamed of racism in the same way that predominantly-white Christian-influenced Western societies are ashamed of it, and so they have not taken the same steps that Western societies have taken to eradicate it from their social institutions and personal attitudes.
The International Cricket Council’s code of conduct prohibits players and team officials from “using language or gestures that offends, insults, humiliates, intimidates, threatens, disparages or vilifies another person on the basis of that person’s race, religion, gender, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin”. Clearly, Harbhajan Singh’s monkey jibe to Andrew Symonds falls foul of this code of conduct.
Indeed, Singh’s taunt touches the heart of racism. Like the monkey gestures and noises made by the Indian fans in Mumbai, it was clearly intended to demean Symonds and to make him out to be less than human because of his racial characteristics. And that—humiliating someone as subhuman because of his or her race—is the essence of racism.
Although the Australian and Indian cricket teams, the International Cricket Council and the cricket media commentators may not realise it, opposition to racism is in fact a godly thing. The moral obligation to value all people equally originates from God, the God of the Bible, the one true and living God, who created all people in his own image.
Thousands of years ago God commanded the people of Israel, “When a stranger sojourns [stays temporarily] with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
There is no racial favouritism with God. He “shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). Consequently, he requires that we “should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28), and instructs us to “show no partiality” to anyone (James 2:1). He desires us to “do good to all men” (Galatians 6:10), because he himself “is good to all” (Psalm 145:9).
God’s love for all people is evident from the fact that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to save all people. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Through the life, death and resurrection of his Son, God has provided a way for all people to be restored to a position of peace and friendship with himself. As our substitute, Jesus made amends for our sins so that by faith in him we could be reconciled to God.
And Jesus died to reconcile us not only to God but also to each other. Concerning the two-way racism that traditionally divided the Gentiles (non-Jews) from the Jews, the apostle Paul notes that the Gentiles were once “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel” and were “without God in the world.” He continues, “But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off [from both God and the Jews] have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us [Jews and Gentiles] both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:11-18).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate solution to racism. He died to make peace between ourselves and God and between ourselves and others. Although laws and education can help, racism will not be completely eradicated from our hearts and from our society until we confess our sin to Jesus and ask him to come into our lives to cleanse and change us. Only then will the dividing wall of hostility be fully and finally broken down. Only then will we enjoy lasting harmony.
*The Indian authorities insisted that it was all a cultural misunderstanding. They claimed that the monkey gestures were really expressions of respect by devotees of the Monkey god. (Are we to believe, then, that the Indian spectators were actually honouring Symons as a god—and even praying to him for victory?) They also claimed that the term “monkey” was essentially a term of endearment in India. (Are we to believe, then, that the spectators were expressing affection for Symonds?) These pathetic excuses were repeated in defence of Harbhajan Singh by various Indian officials and fans in Australia in January.
** Unfortunately, this kind of racism has been expressed on other occasions by Indians in India. Previously at the same stadium in Mumbai, darker-skinned Indian cricketers have been derided as khaliay (“darkie”) by fairer-skinned Indian players and spectators (“Ugliness of racism will not go away quietly”, The Australian, 7 January 2008). Furthermore, the dark-skinned West Indian cricketers suffered even worse racial abuse when they played in India in 2002. One player claimed that it was the worst racism he had experienced anywhere in the world (“India makes monkey of racism row”, The Australian, 18 October 2007).
*** In fact, the Australians offered to downgrade the charge against Singh if he made a public apology. The Indians rejected the offer. So the Australians dropped the requirement even of a public apology and the Australian captain joined with the Indian captain to write a letter asking the judge to downgrade the charge from racism to offensive language. (See “Harbhajan racist charge dropped”, The Australian, 29 January 2008; “Cricket caves in to India’s demands”, The Australian, 30 January 2008; and “India backs off tour threat”, The Australian, 30 January 2008.)
**** After the hearing, Singh’s lawyer boasted that the judge’s desire to ease tensions between India and Australia had helped his client to get off. He claimed that, “with the World Cup coming up in the sub-continent, tension between both teams and both countries had to be diffused and one way of diffusing it was to give Harbhajan a lesser punishment” (“Legal bungle saved Harbhajan”, The Australian, 31 January 2008).
1.“Ponting’s men brace for more racism”, The Australian, 19 October 2007 http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22610503-5013480,00.html
2.“Transcript: What was said”, The Australian, 29 January 2008 http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23128511-5001505,00.html
3.“Second slur final straw for Ponting”, The Australian, 10 January 2008 http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23029955-2722,00.html See also, “Harbhajan ‘broke a deal’ on abuse”, The Australian, 7 January 2008 http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23015353-2722,00.html
4.“Umpire’s decision must be obeyed”, The Australian, 9 January 2008 http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23024714-7583,00.html
5.“India backs off tour threat”, The Australian, 30 January 2008 http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23129688-5001505,00.html
6.“Making a monkey of fair sportsmanship,” The Australian, 31 January 2008 http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23134402-16741,00.html