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Cricket in the World

2 June 2010.

Our sport must embrace the environment it belongs to, engage with it, and move with the times.

Cricket’s primary task over the last 30 or so years has been to move beyond its historic and geographic confines and to take its place in a broader, more difficult, less governable and much richer world. It has been a challenge that has affected the way the game has been run, played and written about. Any scribe hoping to provide full coverage is bound to consider wider issues than the no-ball rule and a batsman’s footwork. Political and business matters need to be taken into account. After all, they have an enormous impact on the well-being of the game. Romance and nationalism need to be resisted, for they promote daydreaming and trouble.

In order to avoid pastoral insignificance, cricket has been forced to confront its past and to steer a course between headstrong modernity and consuming tradition. Progressives urge change and traditionalists dig in their toes, and the trick is to find the right balance between them. On these counts cricket has not done so badly.

Zimbabwean cricket team

Zimbabwean players take a drinks break in the match against Bangaladesh at Sher-e-Bangla Cricket Stadium, Dhaka in 23 January, 2009.
Photo ©: Mohammed Tawsif Salam, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cricket could not stand still because history, politics, science, business and the rest of it do not. Sport does not exist in a time warp. It is a part of a community and country, an expression of character. It belongs on the back pages of newspapers but not in some idle celebrity magazine or gaga land. It’s real, part of the national fabric. It is not a fantasy but an emotional ride undertaken by daring and ambitious players. Snobs rail against it because they realise it is taken more seriously than them. They believe a fellow ought to return from a day’s work and read Virginia Woolf. Instead, many rejoice in the extraordinary feats of a champion able to land his dart on a pin’s head, or a golfer gifted enough to drop the ball onto a towel. Genius has many forms, some of them physical.

Notwithstanding the brilliance of the players, though, or the fascination of the journey they undergo, and for all the drama of a tight match and the purring pleasure to be obtained from the perfect stroke or precisely pitched delivery, the main reason for staying in sport lies in its exceptional capacity to promote harmony. George Orwell, a wise man so often and a beautiful writer, described sport as war by another name, a glib remark born of too many cross-country runs at some ghastly boarding school. It was intended as a condemnation, but in fact was a high compliment. Great heavens, there is an alternative to war? There might be an awful lot of breast beating in sport but bloodshed is rare.

All the more reason for cricket to welcome the winds of change. It’s the same with other sports. The current soccer World Cup is to be held in South Africa and will be opened by the black president of that country. A team representing reunited Germany counts amongst the favourites. Apartheid and the Berlin Wall have fallen. Other battle lines have been drawn, it is true, but they merely present further challenges.

History has given cricket a particular opportunity and responsibility. When the flannelled fools on Hambledon started playing the game all those years ago they could hardly have imagined that it might become a tool of empire, a feature in sermons or an expression of national pride. Apart from anything else it was full of drink and gambling (not that these traits have entirely been abolished). But cricket grew with its original nation and before long was counted amongst its gifts.

Hereabouts the history of the game was narrowly viewed. Indeed it was sentimentally regarded. Much was made of George Headley’s batting, little of his obligation to play under white captains, distinguished or otherwise. Until the second World War only Australia played by its own lights. But then its history was different. It was not so much a colony as a dumping ground, not so much an expression of Englishness as a rejection of it. Accordingly Australians alone did not walk. On the other hand the need to respect the umpire was regarded as paramount. Everyone else copied the founding fathers, and they had an empire to run.

Inevitably post-war independence changed the game. So many of the cricketing nations had fought with the utmost courage in the allies’ cause. If it ever could, subjugation could no longer be justified. It was a time of sacrifice and pride. At first cricket was not much affected by the establishment of a host of newly independent countries, but that could not last. England was tired and other nations were intent on proving their worth and living by their own codes. Sooner or later the balance of power was bound to be affected.

The birth pangs of the new order have been painful. After all the distortions it was hardly to be expected that the political changes could be straightforward. In some places people died to get freedom and then began killing to retain power. Nor were the newly independent nations natural allies. Cricket’s 10 senior members include two constantly at odds over borders and bombs, another that has endured a long civil strife in its northern regions, another that has known profound poverty, another emerging from the dark shadow of apartheid, another reeling under the yoke of tyranny, another collection that exists only for cricketing purposes, and another two that recently fought in a war on a false premise. Only New Zealand remains.

Of course cricket has been affected by these factors. It can also play its small part in reducing the divisions. In this regard it needs to reject the timidity of its past. Hardly a squeak was heard from sportsmen about the massacres of the Tamils and Ndebele in the early 1980s, yet they occurred in prominent cricketing nations. At least 20,000 Ndebele – some observers put the figure much higher – were slaughtered by, among others, North Korean troops hired for that purpose, and their bodies stuffed down disused gold mines. Those responsible remain in power. Tamils were routinely killed in Sri Lanka. Cricket’s silence was deafening. Nor did the game speak with a single voice about apartheid, or not till it became fashionable anyhow. In some quarters little was said about Zanu – till they started attacking white farmers, a response calculated to promote cynicism about their true concerns.

In my life I have only ever really cared about two things, apartheid and the poison destroying Zimbabwe. I’d happily give my life to either cause. For all its flaws and mistakes, my career can only be understood in that light. Death holds no fears. Not liking golf, I have never understood the desire to endure. They put you in a box and within a few days even the regretful move on. In my case the 50 Zimbabweans under my wing and a few pals in Australia might mourn, but that pales besides the countless lives saved or advanced by the ending of a tyranny. The battles against racism and oppression have not yet been won.

In a way the past was simpler but it was also cowardly and intolerable. Democracy has its difficulties. Dealing with history is part of the game’s challenge. The game is right not to get involved in party politics, but it cannot turn a blind eye to tyranny.

In a way the past was simpler but it was also cowardly and intolerable. Democracy has its difficulties. Dealing with history is part of the game’s challenge. The game is right not to get involved in party politics, but it cannot turn a blind eye to tyranny. A lot of progress has been made. Cricket is lucky to have an intelligent, secular state as its driving force. At present only Zimbabwe is an outcast, and opposition is softening now that a Unity government is in office (though not yet in power), and work has been done to raise standards.

Otherwise the game is going along reasonably well. The contentious throwing issue has been sensibly handled and apart from a few offspinners the actions are smooth. Umpire review systems have been introduced to help reduce the outcry caused by dubious decisions. The IPL has caused a few headaches but it’s only been going a few years and has also provoked considerable happiness. John Howard’s nomination to the ICC has been resisted by alarmed parties. After the Tampa and WMD scandals, Howard is not my cup of tea, but he was legitimately nominated and the attempted block says more about the objectors than about him.

But history is not the only obstacle and opportunity to the health of our game. Geography offers hope. Cricket’s attempt to spread beyond its small picket of committed nations is commendable. Only then will it mature into an international sport and escape its colonial confines. Of course, the attempt might fail. Is hardly to be expected that Test cricket will suddenly be embraced by the newcomers. But the ICC is right to try. Moreover Twenty20 provides the vehicle. It has all the ingredients it needs to attract converts. And the benefits of a widening game would be wide, wresting the game from its colonial and post-colonial limitations.

All the more reason to welcome the breakthroughs in Afghanistan, Nepal, Argentina and other countries with so much to offer. Cricket cannot keep talking to itself but rather must start fresh conversations. Rugby has been better blessed, with the rise of the Italians and Romanians offering hope. Cricket needs that same involvement.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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