June 23, 2010

The case for Howard

Those railing against the former Australian PM are not shining examples of rectitude themselves

All those in favour of John Howard, say "aye"…

Come on, I know you're out there. I can hear you breathing. And for any politician, so it goes. It is a paradox of democracy that politicians, desperate to court popularity, and living or dying by it, are doomed to widespread unpopularity. Politicians are almost invariably elected by bare majorities, meaning they start with the disapproval of, at the least, a sizeable minority; these ranks gradually swell with disillusioned former supporters and the previously indifferent. There being no policy that does not disadvantage someone, this number grows inexorably, until one day you're looking at your post-political options. As is John Howard at the moment.

The one option in particular, vice-presidency of the ICC, is not exactly a plum job. The pay is non-existent. The company is pretty dubious. The powers are heavily circumscribed. The largest and most important member holds the body in contempt and undermines it at every opportunity. The cricket public everywhere think the organisation is a joke. That Howard is willing to accept such a frankly thankless task reveals a hitherto-unsuspected streak of masochism. Except that Howard raises the hackles of certain of the ICC's members, with no objection in particular but every objection in general.

As the debate has made partisans of everyone, a preliminary note is necessary. I write here as someone to whom Howard the politician did not appeal, and who cast his every available vote against him, even to the point of voting for some I knew to be total plonkers. I even have reservations about whether he is entirely the right person to assume the presidency of the ICC. On the other hand, in reviewing the objections expressed to him I'm not persuaded he's the wrong person. Let us examine them, as coolly as we can.

HOWARD IS A POLITICIAN: This is the easiest objection to dispose of, because Howard is not a politician. He is a former politician. Same difference? Former politicians the world over would beg to differ. After Winston Churchill lost the British election of 1945, he "wished every day for death". John Winston Howard's perspective, I imagine, would not be nearly so extreme, but I suspect he can give you chapter and verse on the distinction between the two states of being. A politician out of office is like a batsman without a bat: just a man, of greater or lesser ability. Howard, in fact, is twice removed from power: he is retired, and the party he once led is undergoing a spell in opposition that, at least until very recently, looked like being long and protracted.

There is an argument that even former politicians by murk of their prior doings bring the risk of controversy to their role. But if an extensive, ongoing and chequered political career hasn't stood in the way of Sharad Pawar's rise to eminence, then what conceivable objection can be made to Howard? Say what you like of him in other respects, he remained in his career almost boringly free of the taint of corruption. Want to stop John Howard? You'll have to do better than this.

HOWARD IS NOT A CRICKET PERSON: This is the objection of Sri Lanka Cricket, whose interim committee chairman Somachandra De Silva believes that "on principle it is the wrong thing to do to bring someone from outside for the vice-presidency". But from outside what? From outside cricket's governing circles? Does the game's existing administrative elite so abound in talent that it would not benefit from the expertise and disinterested perspectives of a well-credentialled outsider. Sorry Mr Mandela, if only you'd served the afternoon teas at the cricket games on Robben Island, we might have been able to get you in on a technicality. Sri Lanka's sports minister Chandrasiri Ratnayake recently deemed their cricket board the country's "third most corrupt organisation"; not exactly a ringing endorsement of those on the inside of the virtuous administrative circle at Sri Lanka Cricket.

The evidence, in fact, is all the other way, that the traditional means by which cricket has been promoted from within are failing hopelessly, generating a succession of shonks and mediocrities, many of them from the self-same countries now trying to impede Howard's progress. From South Africa comes Percy Sonn. From Sri Lanka comes Thilanga Sumathipala. From Pakistan comes Ijaz Butt. Not that Australia is exemplary in this respect either. Jack Clarke is a likeable fellow, but is he really the individual best qualified to chair its cricket board?

The skills important to a presidency or chairmanship are not the ability to bowl a doosra or quote the hit-wicket law from memory, but those of being able to take wise counsel, ask intelligent questions and run effective meetings

In any event, and with all due respect to De Silva, who at stages in the 1970s may have been the best legspinner in the world, the eligibility for office at ICC of those without a direct involvement in cricket administration is not his to deem. The ICC's constitution does not disallow it; on the contrary, Pakistan nominated Ehsan Mani as ICC president seven years ago, when he did not even live in his home country, and nobody batted an eyelid.

Howard's non-cricket personhood might also be argued to derive from his knowledge of the game. It's an old line in Australia, usually made by someone asserting their own superior knowledge: "That bloody Howard - I know more about cricket than he does." Short of entering Howard in Cricket Mastermind, with perhaps Sharad Pawar, Lalit Modi and Giles Clarke as fellow contestants, I'm not sure how this is to be established, and whether it actually matters. The skills important to a presidency or chairmanship are not the ability to bowl a doosra or quote the hit-wicket law from memory, but those of being able to take wise counsel, ask intelligent questions and run effective meetings. Eleven years of balancing interests and corralling a cabinet as a country's prime minister seem ample evidence of these skills in Howard.

There remains in Sri Lanka, of course, residual ill-feeling about Howard's remarks six years ago concerning Muttiah Muralitharan. Fair enough too. The comments were ill-informed and tactless; they also caused grave disappointment at Cricket Australia, who had been keen for Murali to tour. In straining for a populist soundbite, Howard forgot the considered views both of his political hero Sir Robert Menzies, that world sporting competition when used for "stirring up sensation, for looking for trouble, and if necessary creating it" could do "almost as much to create international bitterness as any political factor", and his cricket hero Sir Donald Bradman, that the problem of illegal actions is "the most complex I have known in cricket, because it is not a matter of fact but of opinion". On the other hand, all he expressed was that: an opinion. Less dogmatism and more understanding would have served him better, but the straightforward expression of an honestly held view is not to be deplored merely because one happens to disagree with it.

HOWARD IS A RACIST: For many Australians, Howard was a disappointing leader, ever the politician, seldom the statesman. He grappled uneasily with the politics of race, as every Australian prime minister has and probably always will. He pursued policies towards refugees that were iniquitous and inhumane in application, even if mandatory detention was an innovation of the administration before his. He made little headway on improving the lot of Australia's benighted aboriginal population, and his behaviour at the Reconciliation Convention in May 1997 was ignominious at best, although there was also an argument that symbolic gestures towards reconciliation in advance of an amelioration of indigenous living standards were premature if not empty.

The common cliché used to describe Howard as "divisive", however, was often rather casually applied. Politics in a democracy is inherently divisive, insofar as it involves the implementation of one from a range of policy options, thereby antagonising the advocates of others. Those fondest of the word "divisive" in a political context are usually those on the wrong side of the divide.

To Howard's perceived political sins, moreover, patterns could be difficult to detect. He was too conservative for some, too radical for others; he was disparaged both as too much the ideologue and too much the pragmatist. In this sense, he was the classically supple modern political operative, in perennial and sometimes opportunistic pursuit of electoral advantage, as succinctly expressed by his biographers Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen: "At various points in his administration, Howard has promoted regulation and deregulation, freedom and authority, self-interest and community feeling… Because of such inconsistencies between action and rhetoric, supporters and critics cannot recognise the John Howard described by their respective foes." A condensation of his politics simply as "racist", then, will signify more about the speaker than Howard.

This whole debate, in fact, has revealed much more about its participants than the object of their ire. It has been difficult to keep up with some of the misinformation in circulation. To choose one example from Pakistan's Dawn, in which Sohaib Alvi revealed exclusively that "in 2002 Howard snubbed President Pervez Musharraf's assurance of VVIP level security and disallowed Australia's cricket team to tour Pakistan"; this, said Alvi, conferred on the Pakistan Cricket Board's embattled Ijaz Butt "the opportunity to become an instant hero among all his detractors by casting a vote against" the Australian.

Pakistan must be sadly short of heroes at present if this is how they are reduced to minting them. Alvi also happens to be 180 degrees wrong. Howard was strongly in favour of Australia touring Pakistan that year, precisely because Australia, like the US, regarded Musharraf as a bulwark against Islamic extremism. Howard urged Cricket Australia to accept the PCB's invitation; it was Cricket Australia who, for security reasons, insisted on the fixtures being relocated offshore. Few plights are sorrier in world cricket than the isolation in which Pakistan cricket fans languish through no fault of their own, and Australia in not touring for 12 years has nothing to be proud of. But Howard, who visited Pakistan less than five years ago and bowled perhaps the most replayed long hop in history, isn't to blame.

The sentiment Alvi expressed in his piece, furthermore, was actually worse than misinformed; it was malevolent. There is a lot of this about. In cricket's global governance, sad to say, the chief priority seldom seems to be that of promoting the game's interests or preserving its cohesion; it appears far more important to exact mindless retribution for past wrongs, real or imagined. The culture is no longer of give and take, or even civilised disagreement, but of a kind of smouldering umbrage, permanently on the verge of exploding. In this case, one might as well name and shame. The casus belli of the dispute over Howard's nomination is that he argued against, and finally insisted on the cancellation of, an Australian tour of Zimbabwe.

This insistence represented a shift of philosophy for Howard. Over the Liberal Party he joined in the 1960s was the long shadow cast by Menzies, who publicly supported the continuation of cricket links with South Africa in the midst of a growing sporting boycott. Menzies' view was conditioned by his belief that nations had absolute sovereignty over their domestic affairs, however much they be disapproved of by other countries; he also had a sentimental attachment to South African cricket as it was then constituted.

Howard inherited and adhered to these attitudes to the extent of anachronism. But he has changed rather more positions than might be expected from one with his reputation for intransigence. The efficacy in South Africa's case of sporting sanctions as an expression of disapproval persuaded Howard that they were appropriate in the case of Zimbabwe, whose rancid, democidal president is patron of the nation's cricket governing body.

That Zimbabwe should be making the most noise about Howard's nomination is not surprising; that the board should be regarded as doing so in good faith is entirely remarkable. Zimbabwe's Peter Chingoka's international pariah-hood is the reason the ICC board has to convene not in any of its traditional homes but in Singapore. His transparent purpose here is to expedite Zimbabwe's rehabilitation as a Test nation, and to shore up his political support at home. For what it's worth, I hope for Zimbabwe's return too: a touch of their amateur zeal would be a tonic in this grimly professional day and age. But it should be a decision based on the best interests of world cricket, not on the best interests of Peter Chingoka.

In any case, what sort of governance is this that takes its cues in moral arbitration from associates of one of the cruellest and most corrupt political criminals of modern times? Whom else would Zimbabwe and its suggestible South African allies have us be rid of in international cricket? How about Andy Flower, who wore a black armband in the 2003 World Cup, mourning the death of democracy in his home country? How about Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell, because one managed and the other played in a Wanderers XI in South Africa after that country's exile from Test cricket? Let's be thorough: why not withhold accreditation for ICC events to any journalist who has criticised Robert Mugabe? This would at least be entirely consistent with Zimbabwe's attitudes to freedom of the press.

The countries arguing against Howard's nomination for the ICC vice-presidency disgrace themselves. They purport to be on an idealistic crusade for the purity of cricket government, but their real purpose is to preserve its sleazy deal-doing dysfunctionality, while enjoying the sensation of rubbing Australia's nose in it along the way. They travesty a great and noble cause, the fight against racism, by using it as a decoy from their motivations, to the extent that the cry of "racist" in cricket now has barely any moral utility left. In doing so, irony of ironies, they also present the strongest possible argument for the recruitment of someone from outside this rotten system, be that John Howard or another figure of stature owing no fealty to anyone, to reform it.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer