July 5, 2010

Stop canonising Howard

Those who think John Howard would have solved cricket's ills, and ignore just why he was a divisive candidate, have got the wrong end of the stick

Enough has been said - including in this column - about the manner in which the Asian and African boards stopped John Howard from assuming the vice-presidency of the ICC. Some members, either publicly or through official channels, opposed Howard's candidature well in advance, but the role of some others has seemed sly and underhand. Cricket Australia's indignation at what they see as betrayal by some perceived allies, primarily the Indian board, is understandable.

But what's beginning to grate is an appalling lack of understanding of the nuances of the issue among the leading voices in the Australian media and their cricket fraternity as a whole. It is as if they lack either the inclination or the capacity, or both, to view the issue with a broader lens. Peter Roebuck, who possesses a world view, has touched on the importance of sensitivity. Indeed, it's almost as important as integrity, he wrote. Otherwise the tone has been derisive, shrill and wholly oblivious to sentiment in the parts of the world that view Howard as a poor choice for a global job.

Even more unfathomable is how Australian commentators have suddenly become precious about Howard's eminence. He has been variously held up as a potential saviour of the ICC; a seasoned diplomat who'd have brought peace and unity to the global game; a crusader for justice and fair play, who'd have rooted out corrupt practices from the ICC; and a champion of Test cricket, who'd have restored its dignity and rightful place in the world.

For the sake of informed debate, both these issues need to be confronted.

The day after Howard was turned down, Malcolm Speed, the former chief executive of the ICC, wrote a strong, bylined piece in two of Australia's leading newspapers. He said Howard had been rejected because his appointment would provide ICC with strong leadership that would thwart the ambitions of several current administrators who were looking to downgrade and devalue the role of the ICC. This seems a point of view that is shared among many opinion leaders in Australia. Speed then went on to shed light on some of the characters from the Asian boards he had had the misfortune of sharing space with, and ended by calling Ijaz Butt, the current head of the PCB, a buffoon.

Speed is, of course, entitled to his view of Butt; some of Butt's own countrymen may even concur. But in cold print - and in this age, anything that appears on the internet is instantly available for global consumption - and coming from someone who has headed the ICC's administration, it appeared shockingly crass. Not many Australians would see it that way, because directness is a cherished ingredient of the Australian way of life, but it is reasonable to expect Speed to be world-aware enough to know that calling Butt a buffoon publicly was likely to cause offence.

In the light of Speed's indignation, it is not unnatural to be reminded that it took a newspaper story for him, as the chief executive of the Australian Cricket Board, to come clean about the Mark Waugh-Shane Warne bribe affair, and that as the ICC chief executive he ran the worst World Cup ever, in 2007.

The broader point is sensitivity, and the lack of allowance from Australian thought leaders for why Howard raises hackles in a significant part of the cricket world.

Why indeed?

It is safe to say that, even among Australians, Howard has had a uncomfortable reputation when it comes to race relations. His election campaign in 2001, which milked Australian xenophobia, was widely condemned as racist, and his government policy on asylum seekers was labelled by the United Nations as racist. As the opposition leader in the 80s, he argued against imposing economic sanctions on white supremacist South Africa, but was - rightly - at the forefront of sanctions against Robert Mugabe's despotic regime in Zimbabwe. At best, it can be described as inconsistent.

Worst of all was his treatment of Australia's original people, the Aborigines. He steadfastly refused to apologise for the "stolen children" - an abhorrent practice in which coloured children were forcibly removed from their families and assimilated into white society. And his government's mandatory sentencing law, which required repeat offenders to be jailed for trivial crimes, was widely regarded as targeting Aborigines.

On my previous trips to Australia, during Howard's reign, I have had journalist friends apologise on behalf of the country for Howard. I am a bit incredulous that some of them are now the most vocal champions for appointing Howard as the top man of global cricket

"I find it extraordinary that a key Indian government official is endorsing Mr John Howard's candidature to the ICC." This came not from a member of Zimbabwe Cricket. It came from a man whose surname cricket lovers will be familiar with. Neil Gillespie is the father of Jason Gillespie, and more crucially, chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement of Australia (ALRM). He said this in an interview to an Indian newspaper after it was revealed that Sharad Pawar, the ICC president elect, was backing Howard. Among other things, Gillespie accused Howard of institutionalising "discrimination against Black Australians so that racism is now entrenched within our society".

It is no one's case that the opposition to Howard from within the ICC board rose out of adherence to principle, or a sense of moral grievance. In fact, it would not be surprising if many who stood against Howard were not even aware of this background; some of these people bear questionable credentials for holding high office themselves. But it needs to be acknowledged that there can be a moral case against Howard, just as there has been one against Zimbabwe. There is a difference of degree, of course, but on my previous trips to Australia, during Howard's reign, I have had journalist friends apologise on behalf of the country for Howard. I am a bit incredulous that some of them are now the most vocal champions for appointing Howard the top man of global cricket.

Certainly, calling Muttiah Muralitharan a chucker doesn't make Howard a racist - Bishan Singh Bedi does it all the time - but to those aware, even vaguely, of Howard's politics, it is part a broader pattern. Given cricket's fraught past with race, why bring in a hardline conservative whose presence is certain to be divisive?

The other big argument is that the ICC has lost a great opportunity by spurning Howard. That Howard would have brought rigour and accountability to the global governance of the game. This is so hopelessly naïve, it is almost willful.

To start with, the ICC president is a figurehead. He has no executive powers; he doesn't have a vote; and the CEO reports to the board, not to the president. The ICC itself is an increasingly powerless body, hostage to the wills of powerful boards. There is a perception that the BCCI runs the ICC. Nothing is likely to change by merely appointing a "tough" president. The real reason for the imbalance in cricket's power structure is the imbalance in the cricket economy. As long as India generates three-fourths of global cricket's revenues, the BCCI will continue to dominate the global cricket agenda. It is undesirable but inevitable.

It is so simple that it is amazing so many can't see it. The same ICC board that rejected Howard's appointment would have rendered him inconsequential had he been made president. And how independent would he have been of Cricket Australia, which fought his battle, and of the BCCI, had the Indian board used its weight to swing the case?

If anything, the role of the ICC president is that of a diplomat. What kind of diplomacy would Howard have brought to the table when his nomination itself divided the board?

The sight of Pawar at the head table of the ICC isn't thrilling; there is nothing he has contributed to the game, his political career has been chequered, and his role in the IPL has been questionable. But can we please stop canonising John Howard? He is a man who had no qualms about going to Zimbabwe to lobby for a vote. To argue that he deserves the job because others have been less worthy is like justifying the action of his opponents on the grounds that England and Australia did their worst to stop Jagmohan Dalmiya from becoming ICC president in 1996.

The process might have been gross, but the outcome isn't necessarily a disaster. Bring on Mark Taylor. Now that's what you'd call a worthy candidate.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo