A whiff of scandal whets the appetite
The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, said Oscar Wilde. If cricket in England was feeling a bit faint after last summer then the past few days have provided a full-on oxygen mask of publicity.
Part of me feels reassured about cricket's capacity to lead the BBC news and carry the front and back pages of the newspapers even in these circumstances. Social conditioning tells you to be outraged and appalled but who doesn¹t secretly enjoy a bit of scandal? Even people who were at The Oval last Sunday can dine out on being a bit-part in cricket history, once they've got their money back from Surrey and got over their indignation at not being told at the time what the flip was going on.
Where my secret enjoyment of cricket's current infamy starts to dissipate is when I start to realise why the mainstream UK media are so fascinated with cricket scandals. It is not necessarily because they care about the game (football remains the sporting orthodoxy) but because of a continued obsession about cricket having some aspiration or obligation to a higher calling. It's such tosh.
Cricket, and English cricket more than most, has fetishised the importance of the rules (sorry, Laws) to the detriment of playing exciting, entertaining and competitive cricket. My heart sank when I heard Robin Marlar, president of MCC, complaining about the amount of noise on the field of play in junior cricket. He wasn't even talking about sledging, just the clapping and chatter of encouragement. Which century are we living in?
But back to the Oval. I'm wondering how this issue will come to be labelled by cricket history. It doesn't seem to have a ready tag. 'Bad Hair Day' makes a nice headline but is more of a judgment than a description; "ball-tampering row" doesn't quite do the job either because the row isn't really about ball-tampering. Maybe something like "The Oval Opt-out". Not exactly snappy but it is relevant. Both Inzamam and Darrell Hair opted out while the ICC seem to have been opting out all along.
So now we know why the ICC moved to Dubai: they needed more sand to stick their heads in. Malcolm Speed might have been on the phone to Hair on Sunday night but by then the damage was done. What was the match referee Mike Procter doing when the impasse happened in mid-afternoon? If he's there to do anything then surely it is managing a crisis-point like that with sensitivity and common sense and getting the game back on. All this "them's the rules" rubbish about the forfeiture is so infuriating and simply makes cricket look more complicated and arcane than it does the rest of the time.
Now we're entering the "legal" phase of this dispute which will be thoroughly depressing and tedious. I cringed at the news that Pakistan had hired a hot-shot sports lawyer who had previously represented the FA Premier League. You can't blame them but once the lawyers get involved, the chances of ever knowing the truth diminish fast. All sides will hide behind the cloak of legalese and we will all get very bored, very quickly. The ICC seems to be run by and for lawyers. Everything is about regulations, processes and code of conduct hearings.
Back in 1987 all we had was a hand-written apology scribbled on a scrap of paper by Mike Gatting to Shakoor Rana. Them were the days.
John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer