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Story by Justin Lichterman 23/01/03
Let’s be clear about one thing: In my opinion Darren Lehmann got what he deserved. The ICC’s Code of Conduct explicitly forbids “using language or gestures that offend, insult, humiliate, intimidate, threaten, disparage or vilify another person on the basis of that person’s race, religion, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.” When Lehmann blurted out “black cunts” so loudly that the touring Sri Lankans heard it in their dressing room, match referee Clive Lloyd (after the ICC forced the issue) was left little option but to impose some penalty.
The ICC chose not to impose the maximum penalty of up to four Tests or eight One-Day Internationals, considering Lehmann’s “impeccable record and other matters put to [Lloyd] about his standing and reputation in cricket,” and suspended him for five One-Day Internationals. As justified as the suspension is, this sordid matter raises serious questions about the racial backdrop to world cricket – only not the questions one might think.
Lehmann’s remarks were a disgrace. It’s no excuse that they were made “in the heat of battle,” or that they were out of character for a person generally described as a “good bloke.” Blustering racial epithets simply is not cricket, and it’s a positive move by the ICC to punish offenders. But when all is said and done, Lehmann was punished for mere words, while other players have escaped far more lightly for actual acts in violation of the laws and codes of the game.
Just a few months ago, the same match referee who landed on Lehmann let Pakistani paceman Shoiab Akhtar off with a warning for ball tampering, an offense no less proscribed by the laws of the game than racial abuse. Indeed, in the context of the game of cricket itself, Akhtar’s offense might have been worse.
Racial epithets, repugnant as they are, are just words - words that, in Lehmann’s case, were not even uttered on the field of play or directed at any specific individual. Lehmann in fact did nothing more than express an off-field opinion, albeit a distasteful one, that happened to be overheard by the Sri Lankan players. While Lehmann’s responsibilities as a cricketer require him to keep such views to himself, its hard to argue that a cricketer holding and expressing such views, without more, and particularly off the field of play, is worse than a cricketer willfully breaking the laws of the game - cheating.
This is precisely what Shoiab did – he cheated; he broke the rules of the game in order to influence the result of a match. Yet when he received what amounted to a slap on the wrist, the ICC declined to intercede, and the PCB praised the decision.
Again, let’s be clear: the fact that Shoiab got a mere shake of the head does not vitiate Lehmann’s penalty. Lehmann’s sentence was entirely appropriate. The question is: why did the ICC rush to intervene in Lehmann’s case, but remain silent at Shoiab’s reprieve?
Applying the same criteria used to evaluate Lehmann’s case, Akhtar should have been suspended. Unlike Lehmann’s clean track record, Akhtar has in the past flirted with trouble. Unlike Lehmann, who spoke unpleasant words, Akhtar’s deliberately cheated. The same Code of Conduct was in place in both instances. When Mike Denness punished the Indian players for on-field conduct with fines and suspended sentences far more lenient than Lehmann’s sentence the uproar was fanatical accusations, yet here a five-match ban for words uttered off the field of play is met with approving nods.
Indeed, if the ICC and Asian nations are so concerned about the language the Code appears to prohibit, why are they silent when the Sri Lankan press slurs Australia as a nation of convicts? The ICC cannot impose penalties on foreign press, but one might expect a disapproving comment on this disparaging vilification of Australians on the basis of descent and national origin? Robert Mugabe’s recent similar slurs against Australians raised not an eyebrow with the ICC or the Asian nations, who claim such particular sensitivity to such issues. It seems that those who are always so keen to point a finger accusing the ICC and so-called “white” (or, another favorite, “colonial”) nations of hypocrisy are all too familiar with the concept themselves.
With the subcontinental nations screeching racism whenever a local player crosses the Code of Conduct, cricket’s governing body is paralyzed by the fear of being branded racist. The result is an increasingly topsy-turvy application of cricket’s laws and punishment under the Code of Conduct, where blatant cheating is considered less offensive than the utterance of odious words. Its no surprise that new voices emerge almost daily alleging that although most umpires and many players distrust Muttiah Muralitharan’s bowling action, few dare speak out for fear of reflexive, and unfounded, accusations of racism. The Asian nations’ gleeful haste to play the race card has become little more than accusatory cover for the misdeeds of their players, and belittles incidents of real racism.
Of Lehmann’s five match ban, West Indian commentator Tony Cozier wrote: “Even that might appear hefty punishment for a curt, if offensive, exclamation from a dejected batsman in the heat of the moment in what he thought to be sanctuary of his own dressing room. But the message it sends is more significant than the measure itself. Cricket has a long established reputation for fair play to uphold.”
A five-match ban is not hefty punishment for bringing the game into disrepute in this manner. But what message does it send about fair play and cricket when the ICC penalizes words, but leaves unpunished on-field misdeeds, all because of the colour of the offender’s skin?