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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • robert on March 7, 2010, 2:09 GMT

    Interesting article Peter, You say he has no experience in sports administration.Well Macolm Speed had experience in Sports administration, basketball in Australia has never been the same since his reign, not to mention his in effectual stint with the ICC. It will be interesting to see how his dealings with the power brokers will play out, as he might not be able to play it out in the media, like did as PM. The problem is what are NZ & Australia looking for in his role as cricket head? Not much i'm guessing.....

  • steve on March 5, 2010, 1:59 GMT

    I love this decision, John Howard is Australia's 2nd greatest Prime Minister ever behind Sir Robert Menzies. As George W said John is the Man of Steel and the ICC needs someone with some guts. We need a right wing conservative to show the lefties out there how to run things properly. I reckon he should be given the same Knighthood as Sir Robert Menzies. Go get them Sir John Howard.

  • Ravi on March 4, 2010, 22:28 GMT

    This man should NOT be ICC pres. - And Murali's issue is small potato....He was the Prime Minister of the country with ONE OF THE MOST RACIST immigration policies. Let us not close our eyes and pretend to be blind!!!!!

  • Andrew on March 4, 2010, 15:10 GMT

    The ICC really has needed a real diplomat. It puts it foot in it far too often. As a successful prime minister for 10 years I really can't see what the fuss is about. Such experience can only benefit the ICC's creditability.

  • NoneOf on March 4, 2010, 14:08 GMT

    **Ponting being crucified by ones in the subcontinent for no reason at all? **You say this after allegations by the ex players that ponting was against them and the younger members going for this current IPL? Havent anyone heard of these allegations, or are you expecting channel 7 to express this in black and white? as if they will, which is another story. Look at it atleast logically; this security threat by some joker-terror brigade 313 whom no one knew existed in the first place were only known to a select group of countries and that only certian members of a team were under threat - Smith from RSA and the Aussie players. Doesnt that seem a joke. And when the ex players (Hayden, Gilly, Lee et al) walked out of the meeting you must have read in the media that the threat is drastically being reduced and that the Certian-Group-Of-Countries-Self-Nominated Security Organisation gave a clean chit to the Indian government that the security is in place. Homer will be dying laughing.

  • Travis on March 4, 2010, 12:47 GMT

    I never voted for Howard, I think he's an irksome little man. That being said, the earlier comments such as "this is a dark day for the non-white cricketing nations" are ridiculous and offensive. The assertions that he disagreed with Murali's action due to racism are as misleading and wrong as the idea that Kerry O'Keefe (a very funny man and noted humourist) didn't have his tongue firmly in cheek when he described Howard's offspin action as "biomechanically faultless". Much like what so often happens to Ponting, he's being crucified by the usual suspects from the sub-continent for things he hasn't even done or said.

  • aphrodite on March 4, 2010, 6:28 GMT

    Basically India has been funding Cricket for almost 10 years now,India now being the fourth largest economy in the world(in PPP terms) it is only natural that it has some influence,Aussies and the English are running scared cause they are worried that the their grip on the sport for 100 years is loosening.Not worried about Howard being the ICC President though as even a "Right wing Crazy Aussie" understands "Confront India at your own peril".Most probably Howard will end up doing what his political counterpart Mr Stephen Smith(Foreign Minister) is - Campaigning Aussies are not racist please accept them.Good luck Howard.

  • Unnikrishnan on March 3, 2010, 16:37 GMT

    As the author rightly mentioned, any appointment is not going to make any difference. India will continue to run the show. The ICC president's post is a side show in any case (it has always been). So good luck Mr.Howard, I hope you don't regret this decission. Cheers

  • Kom on March 3, 2010, 15:50 GMT

    "That's not the way is Australia, mainly because people are not so sensitive as to be unable to accept a different opinion without taking great offense."

    Oh please, Australians are as thin-skinned as anyone else. You just like asking other people to toughen up, but are as loathe to be criticized as anyone else. Just look at some Australians' response to criticism of John Howard in these comments? Thin-skinned much? Take a look at any major newspaper with an article critical of Australian sporting behaviour or critical of any other facet of Australian society and you will find plenty of uptight, sensitive Australians. Australian males are good at dishing it out verbally but not so good at taking it, as one Douglas Jardine so astutely pointed out. You're not special. Is this the same Howard who was so graceless and sour whilst presenting the Rugby World Cup to England? Being a Prime Minister/leader also means being diplomatic and knowing when to say nothing.

  • Kom on March 3, 2010, 15:36 GMT

    The cricket tragic. Indeed this is tragic for cricket. Anyways, don't worry guys, Howard has a Napoleon complex and is the little runt who has always done/will do anything to be seen as part of the big boys club. Hopefully he won't get to do too much damage in the ICC because he'll have to first run and get permission from George Bush at his ranch in Crawford. There, he will discuss with Bush and Blair whether they should invade New Zealand. Thoughts of occupying another country will keep him occupied.

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