August 26, 2008

The security excuse

If players' pay has ceased to be an issue to agitate about, conditions have not. At any rate, in the wake of 9/11, security is the new God before whom all must bow, and cricket is no exception

Swaddled in security: South Africa on their visit to Pakistan in 2007 © AFP

In western countries, no word has become such an excuse for the absurd in the last ten years as "security". Every politician is pledged to increase it. Every general and police chief thinks this an excellent idea; every media organisation assents. Every airport is choked with dopy, leering layabouts in uniform forcing passengers to surrender their belts and shoes as they pass through X-ray machines - an annoyance about which there is a remarkable forbearance, even though the inattention is such that you could probably smuggle a howitzer through while these knuckleheads are scrutinising laptops.

One man's threat being another's opportunity, a flourishing class has emerged of high-end, hi-tech professionals to appease the post 9/11 conviction that too much security is never enough. And no member of this class ever got rich underplaying security risk, saying: "Stop being paranoid. What are you worried about?" If anything, the ability to identify small risks and perceive their potential for bigness is a badge of professional distinction. And their advice is readily accepted by administrations and organisations that wish to perceive themselves as doing the right thing by their representatives.

This template may not fit precisely the circumstances of the Champions Trophy's postponment. A country where the Kalashnikov seems less a weapon than a fashion accessory is a potentially confronting environment at the best of times. Even now, the fear is not so much that players will be a specific target of violence; it is that they only need only be in the wrong place at the wrong time to come to harm. But it is also true that the attitudes taken by Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand reflect, above all, the huge modern western discomfort with any semblance of insecurity - huge, and often daft.

Apprehensions have changed. Thirty years ago, England toured Pakistan in the wake of a military coup, and during the unruly trial of president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto; 20 years ago, Australia toured in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Bhutto's nemesis, General Zia ul-Haq. It is hard to believe that either tour would have taken place amid present perceptions, even if the eclipse of the discredited Musharraf by Bhutto's son-in-law promises at least a temporary respite from recent tribulations.

It is also hard to believe that exactly these same concerns will not loom just as large in a year's time, as indeed they did two years ago when Pakistan nonetheless won the right to stage the Champions Trophy. An irreducible degree of risk will attach to any cricket tour of Pakistan, as indeed to daily life itself. For as long as that pertains, Pakistan faces competing in international cricket on an essentially part-time basis, unable, like Sri Lanka in the 1980s, to host inbound tours from non-Asian competitors, at terrible cost to local cricket and its luckless, guiltless fans.

'Security concerns' have become an issue by which players' associations can demonstrate their continued relevance, by which it can be proved to cricketers that their dues still buy something

Pakistan, of course, has always been regarded as a bit of a hardship posting - unfairly, as it is a marvellous test of a touring cricketer's mettle. But just now, cricket values, as well as western values, are somewhat askew. By making players rich beyond the dreams of mammon, for example, the Indian Premier League has naturally increased their scope to discriminate between assignments. Only mouth almighty Andrew Symonds has so far had the nerve to say it, but every cricketer must feel the sensation in some degree: why tour Pakistan, where every bus backfire sounds ominous, when you can drop in on India, where too there are bombs but you can pull down seven figures in six weeks?

This risk business, too, is generating a new clientele. No longer are "security concerns" the sole prerogative of sovereign boards of control. In the matter of the Champions Trophy, at least as visible have been the CEOs of the players' associations, specifically Paul Marsh of Australia, Heath Mills of New Zealand, Tony Irish of South Africa, and Tim May of that amorphous entity, the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations, who obtained their own security advice on conditions in Pakistan. Marsh was particularly uninhibited in public pronouncements, and well placed to be doing so. Relations between Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers' Association will be put to the test in the next year by the negotiation of a new memorandum of understanding; there was no inclination at Jolimont to place them under premature strain.

It is sometimes overlooked that players' associations have been as unsettled by the Twenty20 revolution as boards. Their business is ensuring the best possible deal for their members, yet they can take next to no credit for cricket's new multi-million-dollar milieu: it is the BCCI that has proven the players' great benefactor. But if pay has ceased to be an issue on which associations can mount a case for their existence, then conditions have not. There is little scope in cricket any longer for the bare-knuckled, table-banging shop steward; there remain opportunities for the hard-hat-wearing, clipboard-wielding OH&S man scrutinising the placement of the bollards and saying: "If you don't fix this, I'm gonna close you down." "Security concerns", then, have become an issue by which players' associations can demonstrate their continued relevance, by which it can be proved to cricketers that their dues still buy something.

For Pakistan, meanwhile, the future is bleak. "The sick man of Europe" was Tsar Nicholas I's appellation for the Ottoman Empire; the PCB has become at least the BCCI's frustratingly poorly cousin. There is no more fascinating relationship in the cricket world than that between these two countries, brought together at the ICC by mutual interests having been divided by history, culture, disputed territory and nuclear rivalry. The PCB's isolation deepens its acute reliance on BCCI patronage at a time when the BCCI might be pondering the usefulness of such a troublesome satellite, consolidating the BCCI's sphere of influence while also potentially weakening it, for not even the BCCI can afford to shrug off potentially US$90 million of penalty payments to ESPN-Star. And while security has been demonstrated to be a concern of cricketers, it is, even more so, a preoccupation of capital.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer