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The Darkest Hour

16 April 2008.

The mishandling of the Zimbabwe crisis is perhaps the most shameful chapter in the ICC’s history.

Cricket has plunged into the darkest period in its history. Never can the game have so disgraced itself as it did at the most recent ICC meeting. Presented with an opportunity to confront the malign in its ranks, it followed, instead, the course of indulgence and vote counting. And so tyranny went unconfronted and players were let down and good men betrayed. It is not much of a way to run a pizza parlour, let alone a game with international pretensions and inclined to clothe itself in the rhetoric of nobility. Of course it is only a game, but it is also a meeting point and carries wider responsibilities. Alas, its new leadership has shown itself to be spineless, amoral, unprincipled, shallow, self-centred, ill-informed and contemptible. No game that hopes to retain even a modicum of a standing in the wider community can so abjectly bow to despotism.

Nor can those responsible for the latest crassness escape unnamed. After all, they take the glories. Sharad Pawar, the Indian board president, ought to be ashamed of himself. Previously regarded as a man whose principles had survived the callow pragmatism of politics, Pawar has emerged as a mere manipulator. Indeed, the entire edifice of the BCCI ought to be embarrassed by its recent wheelings and dealings. Oh brave new world that has such people in it.

Of course there never was any point expecting anything except pathetic kowtowing from Ray Mali, a compromised and unworthy president of the ICC. His emptiness was exposed long ago…

ICC president Ray Mali and the chief executive Malcolm Speed preside over the ICC executive meeting, Dubai, March 17, 2008. © International Cricket Council.

Of course there never was any point expecting anything except pathetic kowtowing from Ray Mali, a compromised and unworthy president of the ICC. His emptiness was exposed long ago, in the Transkei, before the fall of a system he was supposed to despise. It was documented at the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings. Nor is there anything to be gained from dwelling upon Norman Arendse, chairman of CSA, a third-rate occupant of an important position. His rise has been due not to courage or character but to an ability to sniff the wind.

Angry? Damn right, I am angry, and not with the sort of sudden, regrettable fury caused by petty grievance, but rather with the mountainous rage provoked by a terrible wrong, and the lamentable sight of expedient men looking the other way. Cricket boards, too, are known by the company they keep. Alas, the BCCI has shown that it puts self-interest above all other considerations. In order to retain power it will deal with the devil himself. As a result it stands accused of dragging the game, whose good name it is supposed to protect, into a sewer.

Every now and then a game comes across a definitive issue. In the recent past, fierce debate has raged about various red herrings. Everyone gets overheated about throwing, which is hardly a problem these days, especially among fast bowlers. Now everyone seems to be agitated about the IPL, forgetting that it was a necessary response to the breakaway ICL. In the longer run these are trivialities, the sort every game encounters in a changing world. Different opinions can reasonably be held about them.

Governance is another matter. Turning a deaf ear to blatant misconduct is another matter. Allowing the game to sink into an abyss is another matter. Betraying honest cricketers is another matter. Tolerating the representatives of tyranny is another matter. Pretending tyranny does not exist is another matter. Ignoring blatant threats, bullying, misuse of funds, unlawful procedures, naked racism, intimidation of critics and so on and so forth – all the ghastly weapons of the all-consuming state – is another matter. That is not leadership. It is cynicism, or worse, cowardice. Pawar, Mali, Arendse stand accused of all this and more.

Obviously Zimbabwe is the issue that has forced everyone involved in the game to examine their hearts and heads and stomachs. Specifically the manner in which Peter Chingoka, Ozias Bvute and their loathsome henchmen have run the game in that wonderful country.

These men reflect their times. Make no mistake, they are Zanu-PF loyalists in sheep’s clothing. Chingoka is a particularly nasty bit of work. He has friends in very high places, enjoys the protection of the vice-president and her militarist husband. He has grown fat as others starve. As pitches go unprepared and grass grows high, he has bought property in London, built a house in Cape Town, invested heavily in companies, and generally made a fortune in a bankrupt land. Although charming when he chooses to be, his bitter, rampant racism has shocked even Zimbabwean politicians, not to mention ICC officials. Of course, that has not stopped his inexorable rise at the ICC.

Cunning to the core, Chingoka has done deals with the BCCI, and votes for it at every opportunity. India owes him “big time”. Like his mentor and master Robert Mugabe, he knows how to play his cards, talking about colonialism and intransigent whites, spreading rumours when it suits him. He is a pitiful figure who will not survive the return of democracy and the rule of law to his country, should that happy day ever dawn.

Contrastingly, Bvute is the type that appears when there is easy money to be made, the sort that also knows when to jump ship. Nowadays his family lives in New York. Not so long ago, in a brief period under a cloud, Bvute was able to transfer a large sum of money to them. He has also bought a mansion in Harare, a purchase assisted by cricketing forces. Mostly, he throws his weight around in an attempt to cower the dispirited youth team representing the nation (which team managed to finish as high as second last in a recent domestic competition in South Africa). He also seeks to control the media.

Not that in the case of television that is all that hard. Not so long ago a commentator remarked that whereas the Indian team had arrived at a Test match in Bulawayo in a luxury coach, the hosts had turned up in a ramshackle minibus. At once his producer roared into his earphones, telling him to avoid all political comment. He obeyed. These people know where their bread is jammed.

Between them, and ably assisted by other dubious office-bearers, and despite the best efforts of honourable men of all descriptions, they continue to destroy Zimbabwean cricket. Now and then they take ICC visitors on pleasant little trips from which said visitors emerge with gaga grins wrapped around their beneficent faces. They take them to lively school festivals staged on prestigious school grounds. They take them to Victoria Falls and wine and dine them in posh hotels – the same treatment dished out to election observers. Mali and Arendse and company lap it up. They do not visit hospitals without medicine or schools without teachers or see millions living in avoidable poverty or queuing for bread or crawling under the fence near Beit Bridge. We would not want to upset the poor dears, and anyhow it is all a western conspiracy. These visitors do not ask why life expectancy has fallen to 36 despite the millions of dollars of aid that pours in from Britain and elsewhere. Zanu PF did not stay in power so long without knowing how to play the game.

After years of sickening misrule in Zimbabwean cricket, the ICC finally asked KPMG to undertake a proper forensic audit. Not even Chingoka’s supporters could prevent it. Of course, plenty of time had been provided to incinerate tell-tale documents. Moreover, these suspects had previously been arrested by the local police force on foreign exchange charges, which made them even more cautious. After a long scrutiny KPMG reported that it had found no evidence of criminal conduct. But it did uncover serious financial irregularities. Part of any board’s duty is to ensure that money is properly used. ZCU has been given tens of millions of dollars. Why are the grounds in poor shape? Why are the players paid a pittance? Why have tournaments been cancelled? Where has the money gone?

Unsurprisingly, the ICC finance subcommittee led by Sir John Anderson recommended that the matter be referred to the ethics committee for further consideration. As Mihir Bose and others reported, the ICC now faced its moment of decision. Did it care about the players or the welfare of the game? Nations concerned about such matters wanted to know more. Previously Malcolm Speed, the dismayed CEO of the ICC, had raised doubts about the reliability of ZCU’s accounts. But the sickeningly cynical South African and Indian contingents protected their man. Chingoka had paid his dues.

Perhaps the game has known a darker hour than this. God knows cricket had always reflected its times, as Zimbabwean cricket now reflects Mugabe and his murderous hordes. For an unconscionable time, no one said much about white captains of West Indies, or apartheid, or the massacre of the Tamils, or Mugabe’s own slaughter in Matabeleland. God knows the game has been smug. Alas, nothing has changed. Indeed the position has deteriorated. Nowadays, anything goes.

Some people are still trying. After years of fiddling around, England has refused to allow Chingoka into the country, a decision that might cost them the right to stage the next Twenty20 World Cup. In that case England ought not to attend. Mind you, with vast hypocrisy England is still sending Zimbabwean refugees back to the hellhole whence they came.

Tatenda Taibu is eager to go to Australia. Once the golden boy, he had been lured back by money after fleeing in the wake of threats directed at his family. Other players are disenchanted. It is an appalling state of affairs. Protecting Chingoka and Bvute might serve the incumbents’ purposes but it has cost them their reputations.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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