Australia were 1-0 up in the series and had won 15 Tests in a row when the second Test match against India unfolded in Sydney on 2nd January, 2008. Barely a third into the first day, Australia were 134 for 6 as the first member of the ‘tail’, Brad Hogg, joined Andrew Symonds in the middle. Harbhajan Singh had taken 2 wickets and it looked ominous for the Aussies.
It was 3.07 against 1.88.
27-year-old Harbhajan Singh already was amongst India’s five highest impact bowlers ever (all spinners) and also had about one-third an all-rounder’s impact with the bat.
33-year-old Andrew Symonds, a late international bloomer, though a very high impact ODI player, was more than a useful Test player too. Australia’s team impact was shared by some all-time great players at that time and the very fact that Symonds fitted into that side was significant. He was an explosive batsman on his day and had more than half-an-all-rounder’s impact with the ball.
Neither Harbhajan nor any of the other Indian bowlers could finish off the Australia batting, as both Hogg and Symonds, and later Lee, neutralised the Indian bowlers, especially Harbhajan (above photo from that phase). By the end of the day, Australia were 376 for 7 with Symonds a jaw-dropping 137 not out, a proper batsman’s innings. Eventually, Symonds would finish with an unbeaten 167 off just 226 balls and Australia’s innings would terminate at 463.
India would reply strongly, through Laxman, Tendulkar, Ganguly and eventually Harbhajan. Tendulkar and Harbhajan would share a 129-run partnership, which is when the famous incident unfolded.
After slashing Brett Lee for a boundary, Harbhajan tapped him on the behind with his bat, as if to say ‘bad luck’. Lee didn’t seem to mind but Symonds did, and there were some words exchanged. At the end of that over, Harbhajan gestured for Symonds to come toward him and then they walked together for a bit during which period Harbhajan is alleged to have called him a ‘big monkey’. Symonds just held up two fingers, to signal this was the second time Harbhajan had called him this (the first time was in India a few months ago, when Harbhajan had been warned not to repeat what was seen as a racial insult).
Perhaps Harbhajan did this because how else do you offend an Australian who won’t mind the mother-father abuses? That wouldn’t have been a legal defence but at least it would have been logical.
Instead, after Ponting lodged an official complaint, the Indians went down a dubious route of claiming that Harbhajan had really said ‘Ma-ki’, dubious because of three reasons.
A) It wasn’t an abuse that would have meant anything to any Australian.
B) This defence made its appearance first in a Rediff comments thread before being used by the team.
C) Tendulkar, who claimed to hear Harbhajan give the ‘Ma ki’ abuse, had been ostensibly too far away to hear anything.
Ponting, Clarke and Hayden testified for Symonds and Tendulkar for Harbhajan. It was a he-said, she-said situation and match referee Mike Procter, weighing the evidence, handed Harbhajan a 3-match suspension.
Thereafter, there was something disturbing about the manner in which India, the economic power in cricket, flexed its self-righteous muscle and demanded the charges against Harbhajan be dropped. Their threat to boycott the tour (a chartered plane was hired by the Indian management) was taken seriously by Cricket Australia and they caved in to the financial pressure, much to the disgust of Allan Border, who quit the board thereafter.
Border has also gone on to say that Symonds was deeply let down by how the authorities ‘hung him out to dry’ adding that it was the beginning of the end of him as a player.
Interestingly, after this Test match, it was 3.91 and 1.99.
Both players actually did better than before.
In the 42 Tests, Harbhajan has played after this, he has garnered 4
Symonds played just ten more Tests and actually had a higher impact in them than he had before. Even though this Sydney performance was Symonds’ highest impact in Tests till then, he would top this barely four months later in West Indies (which would include a second innings 79 after coming in to bat at 18 for 5). His decline manifested much more sharply in ODIs (where he is Australia’s ninth highest impact player of all time) – his impact reduced by 40% from here on, and he played just 17 ODIs more after this (165 ODIs before).
So, in that sense, Border certainly seems to be right.
This Test ended disappointingly – with some dubious appeals from Australia on the last day resulting in some shocking decisions by umpires Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson, culminating in a shock Indian defeat.
The accumulative outrage of both issues put India on the warpath but it was wrong to mix the two issues. A disproportionately jingoistic Indian press further added fuel to fire. The Australians were demoralised and subdued in the next Test, which India won. With the last Test drawn, the final series scoreline would remain 2-1 to Australia.
Two ironies end this story.
Symonds played four seasons of the IPL; after three successful seasons with Deccan Chargers, in 2011 he shifted to Mumbai Indians where one of his prominent team-mates was Harbhajan Singh. They apparently had no problems, nor were there any with Ponting as player and later coach for Mumbai Indians, where Harbhajan remains a key bowler. So, the four key members of “Monkeygate” – Harbhajan, Symonds, Tendulkar and Ponting ended up in the same IPL franchise (with considerable success too).
The second is a number – 1857. The year considered to have seen India’s first war of independence which began in the form of a sepoy mutiny. As it happens, this Sydney Test match was Test match number 1857 in history. Unfortunately, here, it was a mutiny that embarrassed India. Or should have.
Art- Gokul Chakravarthy
NOTE: Impact Index has undergone an upgradation in November 2015, and though 95% of its findings remain the same, there have been some minor shifts. This piece was updated post that, and is up-to-date as of August 2016.