Twelve years ago on this day in 2008, the New Year’s Test between India and Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), remembered mostly for the ‘Monkeygate’ scandal, saw one of the ugliest controversies in cricket erupt. A series of bizarre umpiring decisions and a personal stand-off between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds, which turned into a racial controversy, saw the battle for Sydney extend many days beyond the Test.
Umpires Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson had already been in the spotlight several times in the match, but the officials’ hand was forced beyond return when Australia captain Ricky Ponting, on the last day of the Test, complained to them that Harbhajan had racially insulted Symonds by calling him a “monkey”.
#OnThisDay in 2008, end of the Ugliest Test between Australia & India
Kumble: “Only one team was playing with the spirit of the game, that’s all I can say.”
Horrible decisions by Umpires.
Bumped catches claimed by Clarke & Ponting.pic.twitter.com/4kTyU4mTTr
— Cricketopia (@CricketopiaCom) January 6, 2021
Australia beat India by 122 runs in the Test, but the real battle was yet to come. It was fought in a courtroom over the next few days, with Harbhajan having been suspended for three Tests.
Harbhajan had “a very angry” Sachin Tendulkar in his corner, with BCCI threatening to pull out of the tour.
In ‘Playing It My Way’, Tendulkar wrote “Anil Kumble (the then captain) and I took the lead and it was unanimously decided that we would boycott the tour if Bhajji’s ban was upheld.”
“I want to state very clearly that the incident arose because Andrew Symonds had been continually trying to provoke Bhajji and it was inevitable that the two would have an altercation at some point. While walking up to Bhajji to try to calm things down, I heard him say ‘Teri maa ki’ (Your mother…) to Symonds. It is an expression we often use in north India to vent our anger and to me it was all part of the game,” the batting maestro said.
Captain Anil Kumble made India’s stand on the match clear at the post-match press conference. “Only one team is playing in the spirit of the game,” he said.
Testimonies of the incident flew in from both sides. Match referee Mike Procter found his photograph splashed on the front pages of Indian newspapers. Michael Clarke was one of the Australians who insisted he had heard Harbhajan, while India’s senior players backed Harbhajan.
Eventually, Harbhajan’s punishment was reduced to a 50% match-fee fine. ICC removed umpire Bucknor from the third Test in Perth. India won that Test in Perth but Australia drew the final Test in Adelaide and won the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Excerpts from the book as Procter elaborates his side:
“Symonds had previously accused the Indian spinner of racial abuse in Mumbai, and they unsurprisingly didn t have much time for each other. Of course, both players were crucial to their teams, especially in this particular match.
“I can still see Ricky Ponting bounding off the field, and up the stairs in a real hurry. This usually meant an injured finger or, more likely, nature s call can t wait for the approaching tea break. But it was infinitely more serious than that. It was a massive allegation, given all the efforts that the ICC had undertaken to eradicate racism from the game.
“We had a tape of the incident in question, but the sound had somehow disappeared.
“The Indian manager, Chetan Chauhan, was then invited to ask Ponting any questions relating to the matter, which he duly did. His question was more of an allegation, as he accused Australia of making up the whole racism incident, simply because they wanted Harbhajan off the tour, because he kept getting Ponting out. The entire Australian party was stunned by the allegation, but Chetan was not done just yet. He informed Ponting that the racism charge was completely made up, because as Indians, it was just not possible for them to be racist.
“Chetan then produced an album of photos, with princes and princesses in regal dress, but with monkey heads. He said that monkeys were an Indian deity, further reiterating their point that the entire episode had been made up, because they wouldn’t want to insult monkeys.”