March 4, 2010

No, Prime Minister

A one-time school-mate remembers John Howard, the nominee for the ICC's top post, and a genteel disagreement they had over a certain urn

In the school magazine for 1954, a picture of me in the First XI exactly backs on to the scholarly, bespectacled face of John Winston Howard in the debating society group on the reverse of the page. Was there ever a more accurate pointer to the future for two hopeful lads?

Of course, at the time I had no idea that I was sharing the Canterbury Boys' High School playground with a future prime minister of Australia. He was two years behind me, and it was not until 30 years later that our paths crossed. By then he was leader of the Federal Opposition in Canberra, and we were taking part in a trans-global radio discussion about South Africa and its landlocked cricketers. In a susceptible moment as the link-up was being completed, "little Johnny" actually declared that I had been one of his "heroes" in the school First XI. Wow! Perhaps, although I had long lived in England, land of my birth, I might soon be in line to become Australia's immigration minister or something?

We've bumped into each other a few times over the years. He had already been dubbed a "cricket tragic" by Mark Taylor, for John Howard's genuine and passionate love of the game aired itself at every opportunity. He saw in cricket all the sublime qualities that his cricketophile predecessor and true hero, Robert Menzies, had loved.

In 1997 an extensive cricket exhibition that I had arranged at Australia House in London was formally declared open by Mr Howard before a large gathering which included the Australian touring team. Shown through the many display cabinets and animated exhibits, he took a genuine interest and knew what he was talking about. Given the chance, I asked his wife how she would describe her husband as a cricketer. Her reply was loyal and supportive, and it transpired that he had played for West Pennant Hills before his political career monopolised his time. He had played in a charity match recently, and Kerry O'Keeffe had delivered a flattering verdict on his offspinner's action - just as Don Bradman had spoken highly of the Duke of Edinburgh's bowling back in 1948. There is no shortage of tact in those diplomatic zones.

I wouldn't wish to conceal my delight at Mr Howard's elevation to president-elect of the ICC. The world body - every cricket administration down to the lowliest - vitally needs to be overseen by people whose first consideration is the game's welfare. And that doesn't just mean filling the vaults with cash while at the same time disfiguring cricket.

There is just one small blot on John Howard's record, however, and I can't keep it to myself. It happened like this.

Three years ago, during the final Test of the Ashes series, with England about to suffer their first 0-5 whitewash against the old enemy since 1920-21, he joined the chorus demanding the actual physical retention of the precious little Ashes urn in Australia so long as they nominally held it. It had been travelling around Australia in an exhibition tour, only the second time it had left Lord's since the Honourable Ivo Bligh's widow had presented it to MCC soon after his death in 1927.

When somebody sought John Howard's view on the matter, he said unequivocally that the urn should indeed remain in Australia as long as his country's cricket team was triumphant.

So, with what I hoped was a jocular/mischievous smile, I told him that unless he withdrew his claim I'd consider tabling a motion at the next AGM for his expulsion from the club because he had publicly advocated what amounted to the theft of the famous urn

Now I happened to be in the SCG press box and was alarmed to hear this announcement. You can't appropriate somebody's property just like that, I thought. A few English cricket writers seemed just as distracted by this contretemps. So, having earlier spotted the MCC chairman, Charles Fry, in the VIP area at the other end of the MA Noble Stand, I suggested we go and find Mr Fry to get a categorical statement from him as to the non-negotiable nature of ownership of the Ashes.

Unfortunately, there was no Fry to be seen. But I did spot Mr and Mrs John Howard.

Aha! I'm not sure to this day whether I was serious or not, but I gently (I hope) chastised him for wishing to seize the Ashes urn from its rightful owner, MCC. He had a law degree, and surely knew in his heart, let alone his acute brain, that this was wrong. He smiled indulgently - as he will need to do often during upcoming ICC meetings - and I knew I needed to be more persuasive somehow.

So I adopted a fresh strategy. I had a go at pulling rank, not just as a senior boy at Canterbury High (and now, no doubt, a former hero of his) but as a long-standing member of Marylebone Cricket Club. John was also a member, but of fewer years, and an honorary member at that. I, poor mug, have to find the ever-increasing membership subscription every year. And now perhaps I had a chance to do something meaningful for the MCC. So, with what I hoped was a jocular/mischievous smile, I told him that unless he withdrew his claim I'd consider tabling a motion at the next AGM for his expulsion from the club because he had publicly advocated what amounted to the theft of the famous urn.

None of this seemed to matter when England recovered the Ashes in 2009.

They breed fun and good humour into you at Canterbury High, or at least they used to in the 1950s. The old school will be very proud of John Howard for taking his seat at the head of cricket's most eminent table. May his term be trouble-free (unlikely) and beneficial (certain, if his adoration for the game is anything to go by).

David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly

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