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'Racial abuse' photographer Hamish Blair speaks

October 23, 2007 16:51 IST

If a photograph is worth a thousand words, this picture has exposed a billion people. Taken by top Australian photographer Hamish Blair, the photograph also smudged India's image in the cricketing world. Rarely has the country witnessed anything like this before: racial abuse.

Though Andrew Symonds was taunted at Vadodara and Nagpur, the barracking was drowned in the din. Everybody had heard and seen it, but there was no proof. India (read the Board of Control of Cricket) denied it. So did the Union Agriculture Minister and BCCI chief Sharad Pawar. Worse, Pawar said Symonds did not understand the language. 

But the photograph which Blair, the celebrated cricket photographer of leading photo agency Getty Images, took at Mumbai's Wankhede had no language barriers. The Canon EOS Mark II camera caught the 'monkey gestures' at Wankhede's famed North Stand.

But then photography is not monkey business. After the previous incidents, the photographer in Blair sensed that something similar could happen. With a roving eye, he waited. And it happened soon after Brad Hodge's dismissal. Walking in was India's nemesis in the series, Andrew Symonds. The crowd went berserk, bringing the stadium down.

Describing the story behind the picture, Blair says he sensed an unusual activity at the North Stand when Symonds walked in. The atmosphere changed in a flash.

From Kanyakumari to Sydney to London, the media went to town flashing the picture across.

The Telegraph carried the picture with the caption, "Only days ago, Andrew Symonds was accused of being a liar, but here is the photograph which shows what he was subjected to." It was unassailable evidence.

But did he really expect something of that sort to happen?

"No," he says. "But I knew the crowd was charged up. The crowd was booing Symonds. I was looking around for some good pictures. Little did I know that something like that would happen. I was lucky to have had that photograph."

It is hard to believe that Blair, given the photographer he is, did not expect it to happen. But considering the security blanket that was thrown in after International Cricket Council's strictures, he would not have expected it to happen so easily.

It is said, or alleged, that the Australian media is a part of the touring Baggy Greens. There are reports that the Australian Cricket Board has asked the photographer to catch the Indians in the act.

Refuting the allegations, Blair said, "Editorially, there has been no instruction from anyone outside. It was a photograph taken when the incident happened. There was nothing behind it."

But is there not a contract between Getty Images and Cricket Australia?

"Yes, that is purely on cricketing reasons. We provide them with the match pictures. That is it. Editorially, there is no influence."

How did he rate the picture considering the fact that it captured an ugly side of cricket?

"Yes. It is not a picture which one wants to take. I am proud that I took it, but not happy. We are here to take cricketing pictures, not the ones in which spectators abuse players."  

The 2007 experience could have been hostile, but Blair loves touring India -- this being his fourth occasion.

"Touring India is really a fantastic experience. The moment you think India, you think about cricket and excitement. I came here in 2001, 2004, 2006 with the Australian team.  Each time was unique in its own way. The 2001 Test series was one of the best series I covered. The Kolkata Test, where V V S Laxman scored a classy 281, was amazing."

His other memorable series, he says, is the 2005 Ashes series, which Australia lost. "Incidentally, my best tours came when Australia lost," he says with a chuckle.

Born in Brisbane, based in London, the peripatetic lensman says the West Indies is the toughest place to cover.

"Every time, there is a change in venue in the West Indies, it is like going to a different country altogether."

Rating the Wanderers in South Africa, the Antigua Recreation Ground in the West Indies and the Adelaide Oval the best stadiums in the world, he says the best stadium in India is the Brabourne in Mumbai.

"The pavilion there is beautiful and it has a nice feel to the ground. The toughest ground to shoot is Chennai, known for extreme humidity and heat. I can never forget the third Test in Chennai in 2001, where India won by 2 wickets. It was one of my toughest assignments."

Blair, who has been covering cricket for the last 11 years, says shooting cricket photographs is the one of the toughest jobs in international sport.

"I think the big difference that makes photographing cricket more challenging is the length of each day's play. Concentrating for seven to eight hours a day can be very tiring.

Any favourite picture? After a pause, he says, "Yes, the one at Nagpur, where Adam Gilchrist (he was captaining the team) celebrates after breaching the Final Frontier in 2004. The picture said it all. Winning a Test series in India after 35 years; his joy, satisfaction and the excitement. That was very special."

But it will not be special when Team India tours Down Under in the winter, especially in the wake of recent flare-ups. The 'racial-abuse' tag will be a monkey on its back.

Rajaneesh Vilakudy