August 8, 2008

Split wide open

Cricket's clash of cultures is now more pronounced than ever, and money lies at the root

India and England find themselves at opposite poles and the ICC won't be able to bring them together in a hurry © Getty Images

Cricket, like much else, can only be a product of the world it operates in. Few things exist in a vacuum and cricket isn't one of them. The world we inhabit today is polarised and split. Lines have been drawn, sides taken and wars begun, geographically, culturally, religiously; between injustices of the past and redressals of the future, between haves and have-nots; this world is divided. Perhaps it was never united.

The same can be said of cricket and no matter how deep into Dubai's sands the ICC sinks its head, it cannot run away from this truth. How else to explain the funk cricket finds itself in over Zimbabwe, or the Champions Trophy, or over Twenty20 leagues? Over each matter cricket has fought within itself - a battle not of ideas, visions, morals or principles, but between cultures and geography, power and money.

Mostly but not always, the Asian countries have come together. They continue to back full membership for Zimbabwe, for example, despite doubts over whether there is any cricket worth its name being played there. Australia, England, New Zealand, and now even South Africa, want Zimbabwe out, yet Pakistan's academy side will soon be touring there. Ostensibly the quibble has been over whether sports and politics should mix, but the issue essentially is of realpolitik for the Asian bloc: in a ten-member body, each vote, no matter how dysfunctional the body that casts it, is crucial.

Similar lines have been drawn over the issues of security, though here it is more difficult to sit in judgment. The non-Asian bloc is not willing to travel to Pakistan for the Champions Trophy, for they don't think it safe. Yet, not two months ago, the Asia Cup was played not only in Pakistan, but mostly in Karachi, without so much as a second thought about the security situation. One visiting security official wanting to interview Indian and Sri Lankan team members is believed to have had difficulties chasing players, so often were they out of their hotels. In contrast, teams from England and South Africa worry about cabin fever and not having anything to do apart from keeping safe inside the hotel room. Some countries are more attuned - and immune - to instability than others.

The most blurred battle is the one being fought over money, about power: who has it and who doesn't, and these are the splits most difficult to patch up. India currently has it all with the IPL and a leading stake in the Champions League. England once had it all and is riled. Stanford and plans for another Champions League are their counters. Those two may not seem like much now, but ultimately if either offers players more money, the IPL may not be the only sugar daddy around. Asia, predictably, is bending over backwards to accommodate the region's big brother. Australia, strangely, is not as riled as England and is happy to throw their lot in with India. Money breeds strange loyalties.

Can the ICC bring all this together? Doubtful, for the ICC is what it is: it represents only the stakes of each member and nothing more. Its decisions are dictated only by its members. So it is up to individual boards, particularly the big three, to act, and not just in their own interests.

Australia are the game's leaders on the field, but off it they are curiously reticent. They will follow the BCCI gladly to where the money is, and why not? The market is big and India provides them with a luscious, lucrative modern-day rivalry. Yet, elsewhere they are backwards in coming forward. Shamefully, they haven't visited Pakistan in over ten years, in which time they've visited even Zimbabwe once. What that says for the FTP is too rude to print here. If Australia are brave and take the plunge by coming to Pakistan this September, countries such as England, South Africa and New Zealand will surely follow. If Australia are smart they will also mediate more actively between India and England, who also provide them with their highest-profile contests.

England must understand that cricket may have begun with the Ashes, but it no longer ends with it. Their obsession with it to the exclusion of all else is frightening and demeaning. Kevin Pietersen has barely begun in the captaincy before hopes and fears are being expressed over a contest 11 months away. Tours to India and West Indies - vital, important, tough tours, which take them into the Ashes - suddenly have all the significance of an invitational 12-a-side tour game. Both have been rejigged, one for the IPL and one because the BCCI said so. Instead of trying to ensure another Test against India, perhaps to build a sustainable rivalry from a magnificent contest last summer, they complain that the venues are a pain in the ass. Acknowledging that India now is the financial power might allow England to focus more on the role for which they are suited: shaping the game's character and development.

Can the ICC bring all this together? Doubtful, for the ICC is what it is: it represents only the stakes of each member and nothing more. It decisions are dictated only by its members

To all their power, India need to add grace, as well as some of the humility for which they were once renowned. And stop thinking of each victory on and off the field as a righting of past wrongs. They need to work with the game, with other countries, and recognise the need for compromise; because no matter how much revenue they generate, playing by yourself isn't much fun. A superpower in a world of one is not so super.

So the house of cricket stands divided. Maybe it has always been; after all when England and Australia ran the game, only the roles were reversed. Cricket remains a confined, claustrophobic sport. That one country ruled over most of the rest - in fact planted the game in those countries - till recently complicates matters. Colonial wounds are fresh enough, so ensuing relations are complex.

And if the sport were a social class, it would be nouveau riche. Big money has come to it only recently, and there are signs it could get bigger. As with the class, the acquisition of money, and not necessarily the able handling of it, is more notable. The truth that more money brings more problems wasn't realised only by Biggie Smalls.

The imbalances are also now graver, as most of the money comes from one country. The longer this remains the case, the more splits will fester. For now, Zimbabwe is not going anywhere, neither is the civil war in Sri Lanka or the war on terror in Pakistan. Men such as Stanford and competitions such as the IPL are not running out of cash soon.

Lest this period of disquiet be labelled a one-off, it is not. For a time in the summer of 2006, a similar polarisation occurred. The Test formerly known as the forfeited one; South Africa leaving Sri Lanka after bomb blasts (India played on); Dean Jones' ignorance in stereotyping Hashim Amla, all brought out cricket's ugly divisions.

To pretend they don't exist is to add to the problem. Cricket is moving hastily into a new age. To do so successfully it needs to heal its wounds and first find peace within itself.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo