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BACK THEN

Why so serious? After all, it's all song and dance!

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BACK THEN: Harbhajan Singh (top, left) and Andrew Symonds during the Sydney Test that blew up into the 'Monkeygate' incident. (Above) Ponting playing umpire to Sourav Ganguly (not in picture) was one of the other moments that marred a famous contest

It almost feels like yesterday. Sachin Tendulkar and Harbhajan Singh were trying to take India towards safety in Sydney and the Aussies were trying their best to break the partnership. The tension was palpable and Harbhajan, apparently retaliating against abuses coming from the Australians, came up with something that hurt Andrew Symonds enough to hasten his exit from the game.

"Monkey" became a racial slur and after a controversial defeat in that Test when Sourav Ganguly was given marching orders by Ricky Ponting in the second innings despite Michael Clarke taking a catch on the first bounce, the Indians threatened to come back.

Cricket Australia, BCCI and governments of both the countries had to intervene to make Anil Kumble's men take the field for the third Test in Perth, where India became the first team in 15 years to beat the marauding Aussies.

A few things have changed in the last four years. The major protagonists of that drama are all gone. While some are hosting TV shows or getting into the Big Boss house, others are fighting their own battle with the BCCI.

Both Kumble and Harbhajan, the spin twins of Indian cricket for a decade, are not really in action any more. Kumble, a one-time favourite of BCCI president N Srinivasan, does not share the same warmth any more. After his retirement in 2008, he was brought into the BCCI fold and later went on to become the National Cricket Academy chairman. But things didn't work according to plan and not many will be surprised if Kumble becomes one of the prime players in Srinivasan's probable downfall in two years time.

But what one remembers of Kumble from that 2007-08 series is his being a man who doesn't mince words. "Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game, " after the Sydney loss is remembered as one of the most telling quotes by any Indian captain. So when he says, "I don't want to be figurehead", speaking out against the BCCI mode of functioning, one finds echoes of that same man who never took a backward step in his career.

If Kumble is finding his niche as the 'other' voice in the BCCI administrative jigsaw, Bhajji, the prime player in that Sydney drama, is slowly fading from the mindscape of the Indian cricket fan. His attempts to stay in the news well remain just that - attempts.
The offie, a scourge of the Aussies back home, no longer features in the Indian team with R Ashwin taking his place.
What does a man with more than 400 Test wickets from 98 Tests do to be in circulation?
One day we hear he is out for a month of domestic cricket (did he have a choice after a mere two wickets from two games for Punjab?), the next day he is recording a song for his mother, and on the third day his passport is stolen (duly recovered). And thus, Bhajji remains in the news. So, what does his one-time bitter enemy Andrew Symonds do? Australia may be one of the greatest sporting nations of the 21st century, but they don't need to keep the image of a fading cricket icon alive. And thus, the last resort for every marketable Aussie is the Indian market.
Of course, an Indian Premier League has happened in between and thus a Bhajji and Symonds sit in the same dug-out, posing to be friends in front of the camera. Would Andrew Symonds have taken the 'monkey' jibe so seriously if IPL had happened pre-2008 ?

Daryl Harper, a much-hated Australian umpire remembered for giving Sachin Tendulkar out leg-before while ducking, doesn't think so. "The IPL has brought the Indians and Australians close. . . Such incidents would never have taken place, " Harper had said.
What he didn't say was that the Australians can't be half-as-aggressive towards the Indians these days if they have to hold on to their place in the Big Boss house or sell their music album in the Indian market.
Still, four Test matches have to be played under the facade of an Agneepath series with a few careers on the line. Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting, two big draws in the Indian market, will probably get one more chance to revive their fledging careers, while the marquee 100th hundred has to happen before it really gets cold. So, time to set our alarm clocks and get ready for a drowsy, red-eyed January!

Who knows, perhaps a piece of much-hyped history in the form of a Test series win Down Under is just around the corner.

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