March 13, 2009

What now for cricket?

Cricket has been more vulnerable to discord and conflict than many sports, and the latest crisis may be the most serious yet

The game will survive in Pakistan because cricket has a grip on the regional soul that is not easily supplanted © AFP

Cricket is enduring the toughest period of a colourful, contentious history. Of course all cricketers experience bad patches when form deserts them. Indeed it is part of the test provided by a notoriously fickle recreation. But it's been a long time since the advance of the game itself was in such serious doubt. Along the way it has survived throwing disputes, betting scandals, fights, rebellions, factionalism, bribery, impoverishment and Tony Lewis. Now, at the very moment it is trying to spread its wings, it has crashed to earth. On the surface it is a calm, and in some opinions interminable, game played in white clothes by gentlemen. Indeed it was used as a tool of civilisation by its first aristocracy, a bunch of smooth-tongued tough nuts convinced that unartistic England had discovered a new enlightenment founded upon democracy, Church, the rule of law and cricket, and that it was duty-bound to spread these gifts as far as possible.

Close inspection has revealed a seething game at the mercy of mighty forces. Certainly it is a devilishly difficult game to run. No other sport suffers such tensions, none has such possibilities. Over the years it has proved possible for neighbouring villages to fall out over a cricket match. Schools nestling in each other's shadows refuse to compete at cricket owing to some umpiring controversy in 1934. Disharmony can break out within teams, including victorious Australian Test teams. The possibilities are endless. Cricketers spend so much time together, and the authority of the captain is paramount. It is an individual game wrapped in the clothes of collaboration. Imagine, then, the disagreements that can arise between faiths and peoples and colours and generations. Add a hefty dose of national pride - for where cricket has taken hold, it is formidably strong and profoundly significant - and it becomes surprising that the game does not implode. Thankfully it has a thick skin. It's just as well.

Besides national conflicts, the 10 strongest cricket nations include colonial and post-colonial, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist. They contain black, brown and white, third and first world. Cricket is not played by a bunch of peaceable Scandinavian neighbours. To the contrary it is in the epicentre of the raging battle between ancient and modern, anger and love, prejudice and enlightenment. To complicate matters further, it contains more than its fair share of hotheads, shysters, stirrers, demagogues, racists, crooks and opportunists, some of then in high office . It was not the easiest of games before the rockets were fired, before eight policemen and a brave driver breathed their last.

In some respects it was simpler in the old days when it was in the hands of the stuffy conservatives at Lord's. Cricket was self-absorbed. Arguments raged about the no-ball rule, leg-before-wicket, and over-rates. Lord Harris, Plum Warner and company ruled not so much with an iron fist as a frosty benevolence. They protected the game's reputation as others did the crown jewels. Doubtless it was all a lot of high-and-mighty nonsense, but in its own way it worked. Cricket retained its primacy. Confident in their authority, devoted to the game, the mighty figures at Lord's bound together in a loose confederacy a wide range of mutually suspicious nations. They had much in common with Marshal Tito. Cricket might not be quite as fractious as the Balkans but it is a close-run thing. Nothing in its recent history can be understood on any other basis.

The miracle is not that cricket occasionally suffers setbacks. The miracle is that any international cricket is played at all. It is the most vulnerable of games. Just how vulnerable had not been realised till the pins were pulled. It seemed possible to dislike cricket and cricketers, but not to hate them. Till a notably cosmopolitan Sri Lankan team was attacked as they made their way to the ground in Pakistan, progressives had not understood how much offence they had given. How they celebrated when Graeme Smith embraced Makhaya Ntini at the SCG. How we rejoiced when a Muslim was invited to captain India, a black man put in charge of West Indies, and a Tamil hero worshipped in Sri Lanka! West Indies nowadays contains a white man and several players of Indian extraction. England fields several players of Asian and African extraction. Things seemed to be going in the right direction. To the warped, cricket's success was unacceptable. It had to be punished.

No other game had as many problems. No other game has as many possibilities. At its best, cricket has shown us that men of all types can live under the same roof, play in the same team. It was so in England a hundred years ago. Alone among the national pastimes, cricket survived the advance of professionalism. Other sports split into gentlemen and players; tennis, soccer and rugby broke apart. Cricket held together, used crafty devices to display obeisance to the times, with different classes changing in different rooms, staying in different hotels, described differently on scorecards and so forth. Accordingly cricket seemed to be a class-ridden game, when in fact the opposite was the truth. To look more closely was to notice that the lords and workers played in the same sides. Only in the biannual Gentlemen and Players contest were they apart. Under its conservative veneer, cricket has always been an open game. That is why it has lasted and grown. Cricketers have wanted to play with and against the best. They have appreciated the game and respected its most skilled operators. By and large they have scorned politics (though, thankfully, not always silently in the case of tyrannies such as those loose in apartheid South Africa and modern Zimbabwe). More obviously it has been the story of India as well. The game's most important nation chose the secular path.

How did we think it could be allowed to last? How did we convince ourselves that cricket was too widely loved in the region to be attacked? Damn fools, the lot of us. It was this very quality, the popularity and the broad church, that angered the fanatics. It made a lie of their life.

The attack on cricketers was as calculated as the assault on the Twin Towers. Cricket was a target because it advanced causes that were anathema to the extremists. Toleration was not to be tolerated.

Cricket's popularity also made it an enemy. John Lennon famously and foolishly said that the Beatles were more popular than God. Eventually it might have cost him his life. Cricket has made no such claims but it attracts and distracts youth, and ever more strongly expresses the hedonism and consumerism of the age. Add gambling, the glamour of IPL, and the increasing comity between nations and it's easy to sense the anger of the twisted. They struck in Mumbai, aiming at disrupting the local and western business elite, and now they went after another symbol of decadence, the sport of the masses, the common ground of nations. And so the orders were given and, as ever, youth was asked to carry them out.

How did we convince ourselves that cricket was too widely loved in the region to be attacked? Damn fools, the lot of us. It was this very quality, the popularity and the broad church, that angered the fanatics. It made a lie of their life

What now for cricket in Pakistan? What of the game in the world? It's difficult to see any representative teams going to Pakistan for years. Ijaz Butt says he expects teams to come back in six months, but he is talking through his hat. He did not provide the required security to the players and umpires, and ought to remain silent and resign. The Sri Lankans were almost wiped out. An entire international cricket team might have been killed. It was the most savage attack on international sport since Munich in 1972. And it could have been a lot worse. Where were the crack soldiers?

What if it had been India? Sachin Tendulkar? These countries have nuclear bombs. Or Australia? Or England? How are targets chosen? A heroic driver saved the Lankans. It was that close - one man's courage between them and death. Kumar Sangakkara heard something whiz past his chin. This time it was not a bumper. It was a bullet.

No one is going back to Pakistan till that memory has faded. That will take years, maybe decades. Nor will anyone believe in the sort of safe passes the Tamil Tigers used to provide.

Somehow the game will go on in Pakistan, on the subcontinent. Cricket has a grip on the regional soul that is not so easily supplanted. In any case the international game may offer inspiration. Like religion in communist Russia the game has deep roots and will endure. People will still play at schools and clubs, in gardens, streets and backyards and on maidans. Top players will go overseas, to league cricket and provincial cricket. Even the national side will survive. Steps can be taken. The game survived its isolation in apartheid South Africa.

Technology will help. Followers of the game in Pakistan can turn on their televisions to watch Test matches elsewhere. They will find sons of the soil playing for England, New South Wales, India, South Africa and even Sri Lanka. The game itself is unstoppable.

The most likely outcome is that Pakistan will stop hosting international cricket for five years, and the game will otherwise continue, holding its breath, unwilling to concede ground that has not been taken, but aware now that the tide of progress has been turned back. But the enlightenment will prevail. It did so in India and South Africa and in so many other non-cricketing places, and will do so in Pakistan. The pain will not last but fear will remain and dictate terms for the rest of this decade. After that, who knows? Can Pakistan even play away matches?

The fanatics can harm cricket but time is not on their side. Even the poorest now know about mobile phones and the internet. Medievalism cannot prevent the spread of information, opportunity and entertainment. Ignorance is in retreat. That is why it is lashing out, even at mere games. Cricket will be back because the world will be back. But it knows now, better than ever, that it is part of that world, that it no longer inhabits the separate place run by the Gentlemen of Lord's.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • D on March 15, 2009, 14:42 GMT

    This is so very sad an article where was it when in 2005 when terroist stike in london during the ashes,of course it was bad for cricket but people die protectin the sri lankans the driver that save them could have die he wasn't on the floor taking cover he was in the open saving them let all say a pray for the family of those policeman who lost they lives and not cast a shadow over pakistan they will survive and so will cricket.

  • Supratik on March 14, 2009, 2:23 GMT

    I live in Sydney and apart from Roebuck who is a true internationalist all talk in local TV and newspapers have been how no cricket can take place in the subcontinent after Lahore. It's been the same attitude from the English media as well, a lot about how cricket's "over" in the WHOLE subcontinent and little about the way forward after Lahore. Many Australian journos were caught out in public forums in early 2008, publishing extremely simplistic and one-sided views of India and its cricket and their work was being read through the Net by millions of Indians. Many of Australia's TV and print cricket 'analysts' pass comments on India without even having set foot there and once the centre of cricket moves there they might not be able to get away with that anymore. And hence in my opinion they use incidents like Lahore as leverage to public negative press and try to damage the image of Asian cricket and deter anyone from their own country who might be potential investors there. Quite sad.

  • andrew on March 14, 2009, 2:14 GMT

    Hmmmm. This article is pretty true. I think cricket will survive this as it has so many other things. I think and hope that cricket can make it through terrorism and the IPL and other leagues. I sure hope all three forms survive anyway. I don't see Pakistan hosting a cricket game for a while but what about their domestic comp and ICL franchises. Long Live Cricket :)

  • mah on March 13, 2009, 20:51 GMT

    "What if it had been India? Sachin Tendulkar? These countries have nuclear bombs. Or Australia? Or England? How are targets chosen?" this is most funniest part of the article. as if these two countries are the only cricketing nations with nuclear ownship. also, whenever something goes bad in pakistan it will be generalised as if it is a threat to sub-continent and the vice-versa for example say in India or SL then will be pointed only to those countries.... which i guess is a planned execution.

  • Mohamed on March 13, 2009, 20:50 GMT

    I am Guyanese and WI will always be my favourite. I am also a Muslim, so I always will have a soft spot for Pakistan. My ancestors are from India, So I also want to see India do well. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, new kids on teh block - Bangldesh and of course England... I like all of them. Sometimes I want to hate them, but only because they beat up on my Windies. Cricket is the one avenue where those of us whose parents were under British rule, could compete on a level playing field. It is because of Cricket - England's lasting legacy on us all, that I can almost forget the bad colonial days my parents and grandparents suffered through. I wish the attack in Pakistan did not happen, but it did. I hope and pray that we'll all get past this and cricket will return to another golden era. Cricket will survive because of all of us who love the game and we should always remember that at the end of the day and as much as it's dear to us, it really is only a game. Go WINDIES!!

  • Said on March 13, 2009, 20:26 GMT

    Has anyone ever written an article on cricinfo and paid tribute to those policemen who died to save cricket? I bet no one even knows their names. You can take cricket away from us here in Pakistan, you can blame us for our lapse in security, some may even use this as a chance to promote their hatred for Pakistan by calling it a 'terrorist state' etc., but atleast pay some form of tribute to those who gave their life to save the Srilankan cricketers? Did they not die for the sport we love so much? Yes, they did...and they deserve better than the banter we have heard from Broad and Simon Taufel.

  • amer on March 13, 2009, 17:30 GMT

    I am sorry but I have to add a little more - I know far too many pakistanis who like me were passionate fans but now have lost interest - its no fun anymore - its all about terrorists, security, politics, being bashed in the world press, in the blogs and forums - all kinds of accusations - a tide, a wave of hate, negativity not all of which is justified - But I am not here to discuss that - but simply to say that a lot of us are tired of it all and are turning our backs on the game and walking away.

  • amer on March 13, 2009, 17:12 GMT

    Peter, a good article but I do not share your optimism about Pakistani cricket. Over the last few years, in the post Wasim/Waqar era cricket and most definitely test cricket has been declining. You simply have to see the attendances at the grounds for evidence of that. One day cricket has had popular support but that too has been waning. Only, Twenty-20 has found popular support. The security problems in the past few years has merely accelerated this decline to the rate where I see it mortally damaging the game there. The fact that the security problem will not improve for many years yet will further hasten the final demise. You can see the impact of this even now at the grass roots level. I speak to friends back home and they tell me that far fewer kids are playing the game now. Street cricket is on a rapid decline. Personally, I fondly recall passionate dinner conversations about our wins or losses but all we talk of now is the end. I write the epitaph Yr:2025 Pak leaves ICC - R.I.P

  • Venkata on March 13, 2009, 16:58 GMT

    "We are living in a world which can only react but does nothing to proactively do something. There may have been security lapse in Lahore but how many on this forum who are bashing Pakistan were there at the time of the attacks, how many were there to judge how the security was. If the security was so bad then how come no one complained about it (including Mr. Chris Broad), where was the ICC then? " I totally disagree with this comment. It is a shame for Pakistan, who have failed to provide adequate security even after they knew their country's affairs and law and order situation. I also question Pakistan's sincerity in hosting visiting nations. So I think Pakistan is not a place for cricket, I pity the players though.

  • Shahid on March 13, 2009, 15:21 GMT

    We are living in a world which can only react but does nothing to proactively do something. There may have been security lapse in Lahore but how many on this forum who are bashing Pakistan were there at the time of the attacks, how many were there to judge how the security was. If the security was so bad then how come no one complained about it (including Mr. Chris Broad), where was the ICC then? This so called civilised world has become so hypocritical that rather than showing solidarity with the Pakistani people and the security people who got killed during the attacks they are just out there to bash them just to hurt them even more. If it was so easy to pre-empt these kinds of terrorist attacks then there should have never been a 9/11, the London attacks, the Bombay attacks and many others. There were alot more people killed in those attacks, did the civilised world start bashing the US, the UK or India for the inadequate security or they condemned the terrorists?

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