February 2, 2010

Australia must get its house in order

Cricket Australia ought to consider banning alcohol at matches. It has gone well beyond a joke

Australia needs to start addressing the real issues. Indian students killed in Melbourne, Pakistanis assaulted on the field in Perth, blazing headlines around the world, a nation's reputation dragged into the mud, and never mind that the PM is fluent in Cantonese and that many settlers from Africa and the Punjab and elsewhere are as happy as mankind can be. It cannot continue, in cricket or outside.

Cricket is no better or worse than the world it inhabits. Australia has many fine people and fine things, not least the ability to get on with life come hell or high water and look every man in the eye. However, our country also has a dark side that includes a racism that cannot be denied and a fondness for grog that goes beyond taste. A lot of people drink not for pleasure but for the stories told next day. Indeed, drunkenness is glorified. What else is Schoolies Week?

Cricket inhabits a fraught and fractured world, and every nation needs to be on guard. Australia is not alone in its dubious elements but it has a powerful voice and a strong team, and so tends to attract both high praise and harsh censure. Moreover, it is a predominantly Anglo-Saxon nation, and needs to be mindful that other countries spent hundreds of years under the yoke and have emerged with acute sensitivities. And every nation has its pride, especially those whose spirit was long suppressed. Cricket is not played by Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

All the more reason for Australian cricket to put its house in order. Even the attacks on the Indians in Melbourne required a response. After all, India is a close friend, war ally, trading partner and respected cricketing rival. For that matter, it is Australia's best-loved opponent. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid are often greeted hereabouts with sustained ovations that take them by surprise and tell of a country friendlier than it seems.

It's no use Australians pointing out that the Indian students have been attacked by small gangs of malcontents or that they are also assaulted in Durban, or that Indians themselves are far from perfect, or that most Australians are hospitable. The attacks happen, make headlines, reinforce a caricature and need to be confronted. Shane Warne had the right idea. Australians cricketers ought to become messengers of peace and harmony. And the same applies to Indian cricketers. They cannot sit back and watch the game implode.

Strong action needs to be taken against all racism. Recently, a Canadian school banned its own team for the rest of the season after racist remarks were made by its players. Australia needs to avoid defensive thinking and make tolerance a national asset. Cricket Australia has taken steps in that direction at home and abroad, and the game is becoming more diverse. But for an injury Usman Khawaja might have been taken to New Zealand next month - he is an excellent batsman and popular young man. However, CA remains a bastion of old white males, and that needs to change.

CA ought not to tiptoe around the issue. Many of us have complained about the fuss made about minor matters such as beach balls. Behind the wheel and in sporting crowds, hot-headed young males are the problem.

As far as the immediate incident in Perth is concerned, the issues are both national and local. Night matches invite drinking and its aftermath. Everyone knows it's not safe to drink and drive. The truth is, though, it's not safe to drink and do anything. CA ought to consider banning alcohol at matches. It has gone well beyond a joke.

Nor can the WACA escape retribution. By all accounts, it omits to apply the safety codes advised by CA. In that case, it does not deserve to stage any matches under CA's auspices. Plain and simple, the attack on the Pakistanis was dangerous, and insufficient steps were taken to prevent it. Heads rolled when Delhi provided a rotten pitch. Heads ought to roll after incidents of this sort.

By the same token, Pakistan or India cannot complain too long about these matters. At such times it is wise to ignore the stirrers on television, radio or in politics, and every nation has them as well. Better to chart a path forwards than to pour oil on troubled waters. Cricketers do not go to Pakistan because a team was attacked and players were almost killed. A few drunks in Perth are bad but not to be compared to terrorists.

As the strongest cricket nation in the world, with a sturdy structure and a large pool of superb players, Australia has a wonderful chance to lead the way towards the respect between races and religions that has long been the primary aim of the broad-minded. To that end, Australia needs to confront not the event but the cause, not other nations but itself. As far as drink and race are concerned, CA ought to be pro-active not reactive. Meanwhile Pakistan can be given an apology, a warm welcome in Melbourne and a promise that the authorities in Perth will be called to account.

This article has been reproduced with permission from the Sydney Morning Herald.

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

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