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What Now for Cricket?

13th March 2009.

Cricket has been more vulnerable to discord and conflict than many sports, and the latest crisis may be the most serious yet.

Cricket is enduring the toughest period of a colourful, contentious history. Of course all cricketers experience bad patches when form deserts them. Indeed it is part of the test provided by a notoriously fickle recreation. But it’s been a long time since the advance of the game itself was in such serious doubt. Along the way it has survived throwing disputes, betting scandals, fights, rebellions, factionalism, bribery, impoverishment and Tony Lewis. Now, at the very moment it is trying to spread its wings, it has crashed to earth. On the surface it is a calm, and in some opinions interminable, game played in white clothes by gentlemen. Indeed it was used as a tool of civilisation by its first aristocracy, a bunch of smooth-tongued tough nuts convinced that unartistic England had discovered a new enlightenment founded upon democracy, Church, the rule of law and cricket, and that it was duty-bound to spread these gifts as far as possible.

Close inspection has revealed a seething game at the mercy of mighty forces. Certainly it is a devilishly difficult game to run. No other sport suffers such tensions, none has such possibilities. Over the years it has proved possible for neighbouring villages to fall out over a cricket match. Schools nestling in each other’s shadows refuse to compete at cricket owing to some umpiring controversy in 1934. Disharmony can break out within teams, including victorious Australian Test teams. The possibilities are endless. Cricketers spend so much time together, and the authority of the captain is paramount. It is an individual game wrapped in the clothes of collaboration. Imagine, then, the disagreements that can arise between faiths and peoples and colours and generations. Add a hefty dose of national pride – for where cricket has taken hold, it is formidably strong and profoundly significant – and it becomes surprising that the game does not implode. Thankfully it has a thick skin. It’s just as well.


Kumar Sangakkara during a practice session, Sri Lanka vs West Indies (2nd Semi-final), Twenty-20 World Cup 2009.
Photo © Sampath s at the English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons.

Besides national conflicts, the 10 strongest cricket nations include colonial and post-colonial, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist. They contain black, brown and white, third and first world. Cricket is not played by a bunch of peaceable Scandinavian neighbours. To the contrary it is in the epicentre of the raging battle between ancient and modern, anger and love, prejudice and enlightenment. To complicate matters further, it contains more than its fair share of hotheads, shysters, stirrers, demagogues, racists, crooks and opportunists, some of then in high office . It was not the easiest of games before the rockets were fired, before eight policemen and a brave driver breathed their last.

In some respects it was simpler in the old days when it was in the hands of the stuffy conservatives at Lord’s. Cricket was self-absorbed. Arguments raged about the no-ball rule, leg-before-wicket, and over-rates. Lord Harris, Plum Warner and company ruled not so much with an iron fist as a frosty benevolence. They protected the game’s reputation as others did the crown jewels. Doubtless it was all a lot of high-and-mighty nonsense, but in its own way it worked. Cricket retained its primacy. Confident in their authority, devoted to the game, the mighty figures at Lord’s bound together in a loose confederacy a wide range of mutually suspicious nations. They had much in common with Marshal Tito. Cricket might not be quite as fractious as the Balkans but it is a close-run thing. Nothing in its recent history can be understood on any other basis.

The miracle is not that cricket occasionally suffers setbacks. The miracle is that any international cricket is played at all. It is the most vulnerable of games. Just how vulnerable had not been realised till the pins were pulled. It seemed possible to dislike cricket and cricketers, but not to hate them. Till a notably cosmopolitan Sri Lankan team was attacked as they made their way to the ground in Pakistan, progressives had not understood how much offence they had given. How they celebrated when Graeme Smith embraced Makhaya Ntini at the SCG. How we rejoiced when a Muslim was invited to captain India, a black man put in charge of West Indies, and a Tamil hero worshipped in Sri Lanka! West Indies nowadays contains a white man and several players of Indian extraction. England fields several players of Asian and African extraction. Things seemed to be going in the right direction. To the warped, cricket’s success was unacceptable. It had to be punished.

No other game had as many problems. No other game has as many possibilities. At its best, cricket has shown us that men of all types can live under the same roof, play in the same team. It was so in England a hundred years ago. Alone among the national pastimes, cricket survived the advance of professionalism. Other sports split into gentlemen and players; tennis, soccer and rugby broke apart. Cricket held together, used crafty devices to display obeisance to the times, with different classes changing in different rooms, staying in different hotels, described differently on scorecards and so forth. Accordingly cricket seemed to be a class-ridden game, when in fact the opposite was the truth. To look more closely was to notice that the lords and workers played in the same sides. Only in the biannual Gentlemen and Players contest were they apart. Under its conservative veneer, cricket has always been an open game. That is why it has lasted and grown. Cricketers have wanted to play with and against the best. They have appreciated the game and respected its most skilled operators. By and large they have scorned politics (though, thankfully, not always silently in the case of tyrannies such as those loose in apartheid South Africa and modern Zimbabwe). More obviously it has been the story of India as well. The game’s most important nation chose the secular path.

How did we think it could be allowed to last? How did we convince ourselves that cricket was too widely loved in the region to be attacked? Damn fools, the lot of us. It was this very quality, the popularity and the broad church, that angered the fanatics. It made a lie of their life.

The attack on cricketers was as calculated as the assault on the Twin Towers. Cricket was a target because it advanced causes that were anathema to the extremists. Toleration was not to be tolerated.

Cricket’s popularity also made it an enemy. John Lennon famously and foolishly said that the Beatles were more popular than God. Eventually it might have cost him his life. Cricket has made no such claims but it attracts and distracts youth, and ever more strongly expresses the hedonism and consumerism of the age. Add gambling, the glamour of IPL, and the increasing comity between nations and it’s easy to sense the anger of the twisted. They struck in Mumbai, aiming at disrupting the local and western business elite, and now they went after another symbol of decadence, the sport of the masses, the common ground of nations. And so the orders were given and, as ever, youth was asked to carry them out.

What now for cricket in Pakistan? What of the game in the world? It’s difficult to see any representative teams going to Pakistan for years. Ijaz Butt says he expects teams to come back in six months, but he is talking through his hat. He did not provide the required security to the players and umpires, and ought to remain silent and resign. The Sri Lankans were almost wiped out. An entire international cricket team might have been killed. It was the most savage attack on international sport since Munich in 1972. And it could have been a lot worse. Where were the crack soldiers?

What if it had been India? Sachin Tendulkar? These countries have nuclear bombs. Or Australia? Or England? How are targets chosen? A heroic driver saved the Lankans. It was that close – one man’s courage between them and death. Kumar Sangakkara heard something whiz past his chin. This time it was not a bumper. It was a bullet.

No one is going back to Pakistan till that memory has faded. That will take years, maybe decades. Nor will anyone believe in the sort of safe passes the Tamil Tigers used to provide.

Somehow the game will go on in Pakistan, on the subcontinent. Cricket has a grip on the regional soul that is not so easily supplanted. In any case the international game may offer inspiration. Like religion in communist Russia the game has deep roots and will endure. People will still play at schools and clubs, in gardens, streets and backyards and on maidans. Top players will go overseas, to league cricket and provincial cricket. Even the national side will survive. Steps can be taken. The game survived its isolation in apartheid South Africa.

Technology will help. Followers of the game in Pakistan can turn on their televisions to watch Test matches elsewhere. They will find sons of the soil playing for England, New South Wales, India, South Africa and even Sri Lanka. The game itself is unstoppable.

The most likely outcome is that Pakistan will stop hosting international cricket for five years, and the game will otherwise continue, holding its breath, unwilling to concede ground that has not been taken, but aware now that the tide of progress has been turned back. But the enlightenment will prevail. It did so in India and South Africa and in so many other non-cricketing places, and will do so in Pakistan. The pain will not last but fear will remain and dictate terms for the rest of this decade. After that, who knows? Can Pakistan even play away matches?

The fanatics can harm cricket but time is not on their side. Even the poorest now know about mobile phones and the internet. Medievalism cannot prevent the spread of information, opportunity and entertainment. Ignorance is in retreat. That is why it is lashing out, even at mere games. Cricket will be back because the world will be back. But it knows now, better than ever, that it is part of that world, that it no longer inhabits the separate place run by the Gentlemen of Lord’s.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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