March 2, 2010

The ultimate cricket tragic

John Howard was Australia's prime minister for 11 years. In June he will become the ICC's deputy president before assuming the top job in 2012

Australian cricket likes to consider itself left field when it comes to innovation, but its top officials have gone a long way to the right with their recommendation of John Howard as the ICC's president from 2012. Howard, the country's Liberal prime minister for 11 years, is a conservative politician who fits with Cricket Australia's boardroom image. In its push for new blood it has supported a 70-year-old with boatloads of baggage.

Howard admits unashamedly to being a cricket tragic, but apart from "organising" the annual Prime Minister's XI match against touring teams and drooling over his cricketers in the dressing rooms after victories, he has no experience in sports administration. Of course he ran a country from 1996 to 2007, which qualifies a person for many things, but he now enters a complicated past-time on the basis of his diplomatic skills. In the meetings he will be a cricket fan in an executive chair made for people who have lived their lives deciding on matters at club, state and international level.

Traditionally the nomination for the ICC post comes from a country's board of directors, but Cricket Australia's chairman Jack Clarke is too earthy for such a sensitive role, Mark Taylor still has decades behind the microphone and the rest of the candidates were deemed unsuitable. After an elongated argument with New Zealand Cricket, which co-sanctioned the appointment but wanted its former chairman Sir John Anderson instead, Howard succeeded in another election and has been parachuted into the high-ranking role.

Cricket Australia did not want Anderson in charge - he was the one who said Darrell Hair embarrassed himself at The Oval - and eventually got their own man. In Howard it believes it has someone who is capable of arguing Australia's position without losing key votes on the global table. With none of the board's men capable or willing to accept that responsibility, it targeted a career politician for an increasingly political organisation.

To those outside Australia Howard is most famous for calling Muttiah Muralitharan a chucker in 2004 on the basis that "they proved it in Perth with that thing". "That thing" was testing Murali's action at a biomechanics lab. The result was Murali not touring Australia for the Top End Test series in 2004. "I thought of coming to Australia but now I will think three times before I come," Murali said before ending his travel ban for the tsunami fund-raising match early in 2005.

The ICC tries not to offend anyone - not even Zimbabwe - and episodes like that one cannot be repeated by Howard. On the local scene "Don't upset the subcontinent" has become the first rule for any Cricket Australia administrator.

For those protected inside his country, Howard was the sports fan draped in a green and gold scarf at the rugby and with baggy green stars in his eyes at the cricket. The photo opportunities were certainly manufactured but the joy from the sycophantic snuggling of high-profile players was real. "I am, as nominated by Mark Taylor, the ultimate cricket tragic," Howard told a cricket dinner in 2000. "I plead guilty to that. I regard it as a great term of endearment."

The love of the game did not translate to being able to play. Kerry O'Keeffe, the former Test spinner and commentator, is usually an expert judge but his description of Howard's offspin action as "biomechanically faultless" was as flawed as the prime minister's unapologetic tendencies. By taking a job in cricket Howard will have to endure more replays of his three failed attempts to deliver a ball while on official duty in Pakistan. Being able to bowl doesn't qualify you as an administrator or journalist, but it does help your street cred.

Like Sir Robert Menzies, the long-serving conservative leader who left office in 1966, Howard was much better at arranging days at the cricket and was an expert at being in England around the Ashes. He spoke to Taylor the morning before his declaration on 334 in Pakistan in 1998 and a few weeks later rescheduled a cabinet meeting in Sydney so he could welcome the captain home. The following January he presented Taylor with the Australian of the Year award.

Howard remains a regular at the SCG Test, a tradition he has apparently passed on to Kevin Rudd, the current Labor prime minister. As a nine year old Howard went to the ground to see Don Bradman's final first-class innings and back then his favourites were Arthur Morris, Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall. In 2000 he delivered the inaugural Bradman Oration and he has been a director of the Bradman Foundation. It's a rich personal cricket history but none of this helps his resume for his new wide-ranging job.

Australian prime ministers are not totally out of place outside cricket dressing rooms. Menzies started the Prime Minister's XI game and wrote articles for Wisden while Edmund Barton, Australia's first leader, was umpiring during a New South Wales match against Lord Harris' England XI in 1879 when a riot occurred because of a decision from the other official. In Howard's new role he will be responsible for preventing the boardroom equivalent in the ICC's meetings over issues of race, power, money and Twenty20.

Howard's political career ended in 2007 when he became only the second Australian prime minister to lose his own seat. Despite being told by colleagues he needed to walk, he didn't know when to leave. He won't have that problem this time. After two years as Sharad Pawer's deputy he will have the top job for the same term.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo