Thu, Dec 25, 2008 - Page 18 News List

India takes center stage on and off field in 2008

ASIAN GIANTCricket’s commercial powerbroker has never been far from the headlines, positive and negative, over the course of this year

AP , BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA

Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, center, celebrates with teammates on Tuesday after the presentation ceremony on the final day of the second Test between India and England in Mohali, India.

PHOTO: AFP

Harbhajan Singh started this year by escaping a ban in an acrimonious racism row in Australia and finished it as one of the leading wicket-takers, helping India to back-to-back Test series wins over the Australians and the English.

The feisty offspinner’s Teflon-like ride mirrored India’s season inside and outside the arena as cricket’s commercial powerbroker flexed its considerable clout.

Just as the lucrative Indian Premier League and the numerous Twenty20 competitions that sprouted around it threatened to elevate the shortest form of the game to the highest standing in cricket, some tight Tests involving India, England, South Africa and Australia revived the five-day game.

Interest heightened when India’s late successes over Australia and England, cricket’s oldest powers, were sandwiched around terror attacks in Mumbai that killed 164 people and threatened to derail the game on the subcontinent.

Last month’s attacks sent the English squad packing for a week, caused the cancelation of the inaugural Champions League that was supposed to feature eight provincial teams from five countries and, inevitably, caused India’s refusal to tour Pakistan next month.

The Indian government blamed Pakistan-based militants for the attacks.

ASSURANCES

So while India was able to lure England back this month for the Test series — after the English abandoned a limited-overs series — with security assurances, it was not willing to reciprocate for neighboring Pakistan.

England was widely commended for returning to India, although former Pakistan captain Rashid Latif was outspoken in his criticism of administrators for what he thought were the double standards of encouraging tours to India while turning their backs on Pakistan due to safety fears.

But International Cricket Council (ICC) president David Morgan said England’s return continued “the feel-good factor around the longest form of the game.”

Cricket “has probably never been stronger than it is right now with three viable and vibrant forms at international level, including the positive effect of Twenty20,” Morgan said.

“The Perth Test between Australia and South Africa has also produced some great cricket and [recent matches] have been a real reminder that Test cricket is the pinnacle of our sport with its unique ability to produce twists and turns and sustained drama,” he said.

Latif said India’s status as the game’s key market gave it the pulling power Pakistan lacked. The eight-nation Champions Trophy in Pakistan was postponed in September after five teams refused to tour.

“It’s all about money and nothing else,” Latif said. “If India didn’t have the financial clout no team would bother to go there so soon after the Mumbai attacks.”

Latif wasn’t the only critic of India’s cashed-up backers.

Sections of the media openly questioned who was running the sport when Harbhajan was let off a two-match ban on appeal in January after allegedly making a racist taunt against Andrew Symonds, the only black player on the Australian team.

That decision came amid Indian threats to boycott the remainder of the tour. The ICC also acquiesced to India’s demands for West Indies umpire Steve Bucknor to be removed from the series.

Harbhajan pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was fined 50 percent of his match fee.

Australia had won the disputed Sydney match to equal its world record of 16 consecutive Test wins and take a 2-0 lead in the four-match series, but lost the subsequent match in Perth and only narrowly held on to the series.

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