November 1, 2008

What's the shouting about?

Stanford and his tournament are being reviled left and right, but there seems to be surprisingly little ground for the uproar


Allen Stanford: never claimed to be the saviour of Test cricket © Getty Images
 

The dollops of peevish invective directed towards Allen Stanford personally and the Super Series generally, reflect the rancour of the establishment at its loss of control over the game of cricket. Some of the gall has been aimed at the England and Wales Cricket Board for agreeing to the conditions of the series, and the ECB has even been chastised for not doing enough "background checks" on Allen Stanford.

What should the further checks have revealed? That Mr Stanford is a bumptious, wealthy man used to getting his way?

It can only be hypocrisy to pretend that the event was meant to be anything other than what it has turned out to be. Stephen Brenkley, writing in the Independent about the announcement of the match in June at Lord's, deemed it an "extremely oddball cricket match", and it seems that that is precisely what it has been trumped up to be by the organisers. They made no claim to be ennobling the game, no pretence of offering a parallel to Test cricket; nor did they attempt to disguise it as anything other than a good-times gig with lots of lucre to ensure worldwide interest.

Stanford didn't try to hide his ignorance of cricket in general. He made it clear that his distinguished board of directors had been retained to provide precisely that kind of expertise and guidance. As far as he was concerned, he was making an investment in a product from which he hoped to collect multiple returns by way of television rights and other tourism-related spinoffs. His big gamble was on opening up the potentially lucrative US market, and looking at the way the series has been designed, it is clear that he has studied the American sporting taste.

So what is the basis of the onslaught of furious Stanford-bashing? That he entered dressing rooms and that he posed for pictures with giggling women? That the lights are low and the pitch flat? A visit to the ground any time prior to the tournament would have allowed an assessment of the conditions. The torrential rains will certainly have affected the nature of the pitch.

If there is one thing that cannot be said honestly of Allen Stanford, it is that he endures sloppiness. It must have galled him like hell to know that on his ground, the pitch was not the best possible in the entire world. It would never have been a case of casualness over preparation. It is just not his nature.

The shrieks about substandard conditions for the English team sound annoyingly petty and unsporting. After the match against Trinidad and Tobago, Kevin Pietersen told Andrew Miller, "It was a good game of cricket." His team had won by a run (but what would have happened if T&T's opener Justin Guillen had not been incorrectly given out?), and it appeared that the closeness of the match brought home the competitiveness of the series to the England squad. "The guys came out and played nicely - hit some sixes, hit some boundaries - and we definitely thought we had [scored] enough," said Pietersen. He did not then complain about lights, cameras or action.

Suddenly, and rather theatrically, the team is now being portrayed as a suffering unit stranded on some nightmare island, while they do their bit for England. Again in the words of Brenkley, "they made it clear that they are desperate to get out of Antigua, which has become a kind of hell in paradise for them this week".

The sanctimonious tone of these statements, the grumbling about the unprofessional conduct surrounding the English players, the innuendos about their expectations that proper English standards would be met, has no resonance, none whatsoever, in the Caribbean.

Everyone knows what touring teams expect of the Caribbean once they drop in. They expect every stereotypical enchantment of the tourist brochure to be theirs for the taking. So the idea of a silently suffering squad bleating to the CEO of the Professional Cricketers' Association about the garden party they're attending in lieu of an international match has more of the air of a team preparing excuses in case they get thrashed.

Let's be honest: what is really eating away at the critics is that the game created by the English, Test cricket, is being whittled away by Twenty20 (also created by the English), yet the centre is not England. Worse, the English had to stoop to accepting a Texan's money to participate in the richest purse ever in the sport.

As Matt Scott pointed out in the Guardian, the ECB embraced Stanford when it found itself on the periphery of the money after "its path to a shareholding in the lucrative Champions Twenty20 League was blocked".

The quick politicking of Mike Soper, the former deputy chairman of the ECB, who lost no time in attacking Giles Clarke for his part in "debasing" the game, simply reveals that nobody at the helm of cricket anywhere in the world is really studying what is happening in the evolution of the game. They are all defending and promoting their own interests.

 
 
Let's be honest: what is really eating away at the critics is that the game created by the English, Test cricket, is being whittled away by Twenty20 (also created by the English), yet the centre is not England
 

"What has happened in the past few days has not only debased the game, it could kill it too. I'm frightened," said Soper, basing his terror on a couple of episodes, without realising that what happened over the last few days (and what did, really?) has happened to various degrees in cricket over its long history. Television merely manufactures the scandals that have always been present.

With hindsight Soper complained that, "When Kerry Packer came along 30 years ago the integrity of cricket was retained, but there will be no spirit of the game in Antigua on Saturday night. It will be a winners-take-all freak show."

"What is going on is demeaning and undermining the game," says Soper, but which game is he talking about? There is something that needs to be taken into account in all these dramatic analyses of the beastliness of Twenty20 versus the refined nature of Tests.

Test cricket, as much as I love it, is tussling for space, and perhaps its life, in a world that is increasingly enveloped in a different speed, ethos and dimension. The future of cricket has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of either version of the game. It has everything to do with which one is more relevant to its times.

Stanford, businessman that he is, senses which version will dominate and has strategically located himself to reap the rewards. He never promised to resuscitate Test cricket, and indeed, it is foolhardy to relegate the fate of a cultural asset to any one entity. The shrill and unseemly tone of the mainly English commentary on this tournament suggests that they see the event within that context - as an attack on empire. But there is something below the surface that jars in the mind of those who were once colonised.

It comes across in the way it did to Sir Learie Constantine, who wrote in his 1954 book, Colour Bar, about being invited to an English function filled with the upper crust. He overheard one lady say to another as they spotted him and his wife: "I see they've let the jungle in."

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad

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