December 3, 2008

England must lead the way

There has been an understandable concentration on the negative implications of some or all of England's cricketers not returning to India for the Test series following the Mumbai terrorist attack

There has been an understandable concentration on the negative implications of some or all of England’s cricketers not returning to India for the Test series following the Mumbai terrorist attack. Far less has been said and written of the potential positive impact of them going and playing.

Sport has often been used to make political statements, its huge popularity and symbolic power exploited for both sinister and benevolent purposes. This Test series offers a chance for English cricketers not merely to provide a welcome distraction, but to make a potent public statement, a significant human gesture of defiance and of solidarity with the Indian people, that will have far greater and more lasting impact and meaning than any sporting achievements (or failures) on the field of play.

If England refuse to return, they should not be accused of cowardice, abdication of responsibility, or (with reference to the London bombings of the summer of 2005) double standards. These men are sportsmen, not soldiers or diplomats, and they have no occupational duty to confront danger. And the two situations, whilst comparable, are not identical. However, if they do go, it could prove to be one of the most praiseworthy and important deeds in the history of English cricket.

The result of the matches would be incidental; the team would have had even less practice and acclimatisation than they were originally scheduled to have, it seems unlikely to be a first-choice XI, and they may be unable play with optimum focus and intensity. But the fact that they did play would be remembered for all cricketing time.

Thus it often is when sport is played out of its sporting comfort zone, or when it collides with politics. Who remembers who won wartime matches or the Victory Tests of 1945? Or, less heroically, it is not the results and statistics of the rebel tours of South Africa that are carved into the history of the game, but the bald fact that they happened.

If the currency of Test cricket is slightly devalued by England fielding an understrength team, so what? It is routinely diminished for far less worthy reasons nowadays. England have a chance to claim a small slice of cricketing immortality. Let us hope they are first able, and then willing, to take it.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer

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