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India's version of the Sydney saga

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Mihir Bose | 19:35 UK time, Thursday, 10 January 2008

Indian sources insist Harbhajan Singh did not use the word ‘monkey’ during the episode at the Sydney Test that provoked the recent cricket crisis between Australia and India.

But they have admitted to me he abused Andrew Symonds with a highly offensive remark about his mother. Which is clearly wrong.

They, however, also now claim that he was speaking in Hindi and that the three Australians who heard him – Symonds, Matthew Hayden and Michael Clarke - misinterpreted the words as ‘big monkey’.

While his mother tongue is Punjabi, Harbhajan is also equally fluent in Hindi. And though I should not repeat the words he used, I am told there was a reference to Symonds’ mother, with Harbhajan using a Hindi phrase that could have been mis-heard as him saying “big monkey” in English.

Yet crucially, at the hearing held after the match, while denying he used the word ‘monkey’, Harbhajan admitted there was general abuse between him and Symonds, but did not clarify what he did actually say, nor that it was not in English.

Indian officials now plan to make those facts clear when a New Zealand judge hears their appeal on behalf of the International Cricket Council.

But as one source at the first hearing told me, "had the Indians made it clear that Harbhajan had not spoken in English, then match referee Mike Procter would have had to acquit him on the grounds it was a misunderstanding.”

Why Harbhajan did not make this clear to Procter is not obvious, but may in part be down to the curious way the hearing was held.

As we know, the hearing went on for four and a half hours late into last Sunday night and saw Procter ultimately conclude that Harbhajan had racially abused Symonds and ban him for three Tests.

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But there is no transcript.

In fact, the only written reports of the hearing are the notes of Nigel Peters, a QC and MCC committee member, who has since returned to England where he is currently engaged in tutoring judges.

His involvement with the hearing was somewhat coincidental. He happened to be in Sydney on holiday to watch the Test, and was roped in fairly late in the day by ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed.

The Indians also seemingly did not take the hearing seriously. They went in without a lawyer and left their advocacy to manager Chetan Chauhan. Although Chauhan has been a politician, he is hardly trained to do the sort of legal work a hearing like this requires. At one stage during the hearing, Chauhan apparently had to be advised by the ICC's legal representative that he should not make statements but actually ask questions of the Australians if he wanted to advance his case.

One source at the hearing told me: "If the Indians had a lawyer they would have made mashed potatoes of the hearing."

Instead they appeared to rely heavily on the fact that Sachin Tendulkar was going into bat for Harbhajan. Tendulkar has a god-like status in India and his integrity is beyond reproach and he told the hearing he did not hear Harbhajan use the word ‘monkey’.

But as far as Procter was concerned, this was not as convincing as the Australian testimony, because Tendulkar was at the other end of the wicket when Symonds and Harbhajan exchanged words. And he only joined in after Harbhajan had gestured to him to come to his rescue.

Umpire Steve Bucknor, who filed the report on the incident after receiving the complaint from Ricky Ponting, also did not hear what Harbhajan said. He heard Symonds’ initial words, prompted by Harbhajan patting Brett Lee’s back with his bat. But taking it to be jokey banter, Bucknor kept on walking to square-leg.

In weighing up the evidence he did have in front of him, Procter also however took into account that there was ‘previous’ between Harbhajan and Symonds, during last autumn’s Australian tour of India when monkey chants were directed at Symonds by the Indian crowd.

And the Australians, in their submission, while admitting they are the so-called kings of sledging, argued the use of the word ‘monkey’ raised it to a new and unacceptable level. They also referred to the fact that monkey chants have in the past been used by English football crowds against black players.

Chauhan tried to counter by saying the word ‘monkey’ is held by many Indians to refer to a god, and it is not considered offensive in India in the same way it would be in the West.

But all that cut little ice with Procter.

And the detail of this whole affair shows just why Harbhajan and the Indians have plenty of lessons to learn.

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