Sri Lanka in Australia 2004 June 16, 2004

Prime stupidity

John Howard's one and only contribution has been to put paid to any hope of Muttiah Muralitharan touring Australia



John Howard: If ever a prime minister might have stayed tactfully silent it was upon being questioned about Murali's bowling action© Getty Images

Sir Robert Menzies, among his many good turns for Australian cricket through the 1950s and '60s, once paid for a young Keith Stackpole to receive legspin coaching from Clarrie Grimmett. John Howard's one and only contribution has been to put paid to any hope of Muttiah Muralitharan touring Australia. Eight of the lamest, laziest, least considered words uttered by any prime minister on any sport - "they proved it in Perth with that thing" - will go down as Howard's cricketing legacy.

If ever a prime minister might have involved himself in cricket it was two months ago, when he could have dug the administrators out of a hole by insisting that no Australian side would play against a Zimbabwe XI selected on the basis of skin colour. Instead Howard maintained he didn't "want to tell Cricket Australia what to do".

If ever a prime minister might have stayed tactfully silent it was upon being questioned about Murali's bowling action, a topic which has fans, Test legends and biomechanical boffins alike deeply divided. Instead Howard opened his big mouth.

The gut instinct among many Australians is to think Murali is a sook for not coming. But we should imagine ourselves in his shoes.

Melbourne is the city where an umpire first calls you for throwing. Adelaide is where, just when you think life's gone back to normal, it happens again. Perth is the place you journey every couple of winters to prove you're not a dirty rotten cheat. Brisbane is where Darren Lehmann bellows "black c---s" after you and your mates run him out one night. Everywhere blokes with beerguts stick their flabby right arms out horizontally and holler "no-ball" just as you're about to let the thing go.

And then the boss of the country, with waving arms and smiling eyes, tells a bunch of suits at a party luncheon that he reckons you're a chucker. Let's face reality. Australia has not gone out of its way to make this man welcome.

Murali's minders say his decision to stay home is about all these things, and not just John Howard. But there is no doubting the instant when his resolve hardened. As Murali himself put it the day after Howard's intervention: "I thought of coming to Australia but now I will think three times before I come."

Back home, Howard's words were seen for what they were: a politician shooting his mouth off on a subject he knew little about. It was unfortunate but, ultimately, a bit of a giggle.

Around the rest of the cricket-playing world his comments were viewed through a racist prism. This was as unavoidable as it was unfair. After all, he is a prime minister best known internationally for turning away boatloads of asylum seekers and refusing to say sorry to generations of Aboriginal children stolen from their families. A month before volunteering his inexpert opinion on Murali, Howard abolished ATSIC - the democratically elected Aboriginal body - without bothering to consult anyone or come up with a suitable alternative. It is no wonder if Murali now feels he had little alternative.



Muttiah Muralitharan: Whether he chucks or not is irrelevant because most Australian cricket followers would love to see him out here© AFP

The buck doesn't stop with Howard either. Cricket and race have a shabby track record round these parts, even if you leave aside Lehmann's lapse and Jimmy Maher's regrettably sozzled confession - "I'm as full as a coon's Valiant" - on national TV a decade ago.

Jason Gillespie is the first and last Test cricketer with Aboriginal roots. Players from Asia and the subcontinent haven't had much of a look-in either. Tot up every Aboriginal first-class player in the past 153 years and you're left just shy of a 1st XI, never mind a whole squad. Gillespie and Mike Hussey are spending this weekend tutoring indigenous cricketers on the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, then taking part in a match between the kids and adults. This is fabulous news. It is also unprecedented, and therefore several decades overdue.

Now Murali is staying home and we're all losers. Menzies, Howard's great spiritual mentor, might be feeling a little ashamed if he was still alive. The tour, minus Murali and maybe Shane Warne too, promises to be yet another excruciating mis-advertisement for midwinter Test matches. Murali, meanwhile, has to sit back and put up with the great Dennis Lillee branding him "pathetic". It is an ugly hour.

The sad thing is most Australian cricket followers would love to see him out here. Whether he chucks or not - and the verdict round the pubs of the land is still decidedly mixed - is irrelevant. The people intrigued and interested in watching Murali bowl are many; the yobbos who heckle and call him names are few. Yet it's hard to escape the feeling that when future historians study the curious, unhappy relationship between Australia and the world's greatest wicket-taker, we are the ones who will be called names.

Christian Ryan is the Australian editor of Wisden Cricinfo.