CANBERRA (Reuters) - A trio of Australian sporting icons accused the country's cricket side on Wednesday of having lost its "moral compass" in a row over a ban on Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh for racial abuse.
As cricket authorities moved to defuse a two-day standoff and Indian threats to abandon their tour, Sport Australia Hall of Fame head John Bertrand said the home team had grown arrogant through success, and needed more respect for opponents.
"Sport is only sport. It's not war," Bertrand, a former champion yachtsman, told the Herald Sun newspaper.
The Australian team has been accused of unsportsmanlike, "boorish" behaviour in its second test victory over India, with captain Ricky Ponting accused of encouraging an overly aggressive approach on the field.
Bertrand said his concerns were echoed by Hall of Fame colleagues Herb Elliott, an Olympic gold winning middle distance runner, and marathon champion Robert de Castella, a former director of the Australian Institute of Sport.
"We believe Australia's test team moral compass needs to be retuned," said Bertrand, who skippered the yacht Australia II to America's Cup victory in 1983.
The Indian cricket board on Tuesday said the Australian tour would continue on condition Singh eventually be cleared of the racial abuse charge and a three-match ban issued by the International Cricket Council (ICC) be dropped.
The Indian board held an emergency meeting after the ICC removed umpire Steve Bucknor for the third test in Perth and appointed a mediator between the two teams.
The row has divided sports mad Australians, with fans split over whether the country's world champion team had abandoned sportsmanship in its ruthless pursuit of success, marked by 16 successive test victories.
"All I can say is that Ricky Ponting has got the full support of our team and probably every cricketer in Australia," test batsman Mike Hussey said, while former Australia captain Richie Benaud said Ponting had been an "outstanding" leader.
Former tennis number one Lleyton Hewitt, who's aggressive approach has itself drawn criticism, said the Australians had nothing to apologise for.
But respected cricket commentator Peter Roebuck on Tuesday called for Ponting to be sacked, and veteran cricket writer Mike Coward noted in a column for The Australian newspaper that the team's behaviour worsened when challenged.
"While they consider themselves fair if hardnosed and aggressive professionals, a growing number of observers see them as exceptional cricketers given to boorish, arrogant and ungracious behaviour," Coward wrote.
Even fans have admitted to cheering for India to deliver the home side a lesson as a poll in the mass selling Daily Telegraph newspaper found 79 percent of respondents did not believe the Australians played in the true spirit of cricket.
"The Australians are just so full of themselves. We were all cheering so hard for India to win," said jaded Australian fan Simon Pratt, 43, in Canberra, where the Indians were to play a local team on Thursday.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)