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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Z on July 6, 2010, 3:47 GMT

    @The_Wog, stop talking up Howard's uncharismatic personality, will ya! Get real mate, you probably recently acquired a bachelor's degree in political science, and are just rattling off statistics which don't mean anything (not even to most Australians). No one ever said that Howard didn't want good for Australia (of course he did), but that shouldn't distract from his blatant lack of regard/sensitivity towards non-Australians. People like Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, Shane Warne etc are still very popular in the subcontinent (I was there recently), so this doesn't seem to be a case of Aussie bashing either. If Howard is perceived as a useless person internationally, it's his own fault, had he been such a fantastic politician he would've managed his reputation better. Just because no one else in Australia wants to employ him anymore, doesn't mean the ICC should! We in NZ wouldn't have tolerated him for 11 months let alone 11 years, notwithstanding John Key's recent paper support to CA.

  • Steve on July 6, 2010, 3:40 GMT

    It is disappointing that CI has not provided a concise analysis of how ICC nominations are addressed. Governance systems are often subject to dictates of custom - a point not often made in the columns. Mr Haigh's opine for instance that the refusal to approve Mr Howard's nomination isn't democratic is foolish; that a vote must be exercised in a particular way is not democratic. Mr Haigh also ignored the murky manner of Mr Howard's own nomination. By custom though there is a valid expectation from A/NZ that based on previous nominations their candidate will be accepted. The corollary- nominated candidates must have the respect of all the board members. The vote therefore acts to prevent the abuse of custom; it is obvious some people should never be appointed if nominated. In this case, Mr Howard's history was likely to cause issues for other countries and it was inappropriate for Aus to insist on him when it was NZ's turn and NZ's candidate didn't have these issues (I am a Kiwi).

  • jill on July 6, 2010, 3:24 GMT

    Future new items in Cricinfo

    Jan 2014-Bangladesh PM labels Bradman a cheat..... March 2014-Bangladesh cricket nominates Bangladesh PM for ICC vicepresidency. .....June 2014-Cricket Australia, and Gideon Haigh wholeheartedly approve BanglaDesh PM for ICC vicepresidency.;;;; There is only one action to be undertaken in view of such chronic magnanimity by CA and GH. ICC should immediately apologize to John Howard and CA, and ask for forgiveness. John Howard should be approved immediately, preferably for an eight year term.

  • The on July 6, 2010, 2:26 GMT

    We'll stop canonising our most successful PM in history* when you people stop demonising him. The current left-left-left-wing government has finally admitted there was nothing racist about his policies and has adopted them, exposing the Great Lie about Howard.

    He opposed economic sanctions - so? They hurt the poor!

    Nothing racist about saying Murali chucks - so does Botha, and he's whiter than I am. The "Stolen" generation were actually removed from their parents as victims of child abuse, and everyone outside the lobby knows it - this policy applies in all countries today.

    And Australia is the least xenophobic country in the world - India would do well to copy us. (I'm talking to the Mumbai CA, who openly tolerate racial abuse.)

    *saved us from 3 recessions in 1997, 2001 and 2008, halved unemployment, reduced interest rates and inflation, got our borders under control, and the highest real wage growth and biggest tax cuts for Working Families in the country's history

  • jill on July 6, 2010, 2:25 GMT

    Democracy in Iraq at all cost. Democracy in the ICC only if it is convenient.

  • David on July 6, 2010, 2:07 GMT

    I stopped reading when I got to ".. some of these people bear questionable credentials for holding high office themselves". So your boards - or someone elses - unfit person is acceptable but the Australian and NZ candidate isn't? You're a stooge Sambit.

  • Bridget on July 6, 2010, 2:05 GMT

    dear oh dear.... and the little sheep come out to play....... As a westerner that until redcently lived in India for a number of years, corruption and bribery were a daily part of life, so much so that it was budgeted for in business plans..... As a'firangi'(foreiner), great lengths were taken to limit my exposure to these common practices.....It seems very clear to me that certain heavy hitters do not want their 'golden goose' tampered with in any way.....moreover it appears the noose is tightening, with the control and 'opportunities' that come with it are being protected, defended and built upon. Sadly, this is not about John Howard or cricket at all.

  • Kumar on July 6, 2010, 2:02 GMT

    Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

    The gall of the Asian/African cricket boards to turn down the candidacy of a White person! What is this world coming to??? Where are the days when Australia and England ruled the cricketing world and all seemed to be going well (at least for the two now pushed into oblivion). Where are those days when Australia told the minions of cricket (not because of a lack of skill, by the way) exactly where they got off. To now be on the other end of the stick is not the most enjoyable, is it Mr. Prime Miinister. Instead of complaining of how the Indian Nexus has cornered the market, maybe it's time to see it for what it is - the people who pay for most of the circketing events obviously have a bigger say in who they want as their leader. Unfortunately for you, it wasn't meant to be! So, Mr. Prime Minister, take the decision gracefully (I know that is difficult for a person of your stature) and bow out of the cricketing arena, because you are yesterday's news!

  • Resh on July 6, 2010, 1:42 GMT

    Sambit missed the point here, he needs to rethink WHY.. "there is an appalling lack of understanding …of the issue among the leading voices in the Australian media and their cricket fraternity.." I am a proud Indian (dark skinned) living in Australia. But I am also an equally prouder Australian. Sambit has not lived in Australia or understood our life, politics or policies during the Howard years. How would an Indian feel, if I argue that former Indian PM Indira Gandhi was a religious fanatic, who massacred hundreds of Sikhs during the Golden Temple raid or that her son -a subsequent Indian PM- was an epitome of corruption evidenced by the 'Bofors Scandal'? Imagine if either of these former Indian PM were alive, and stood for the top spot of ICC. Will any reasonable Indian accept the western world's arguments that they were murderers or highly corrupt individuals? So pls. understand that Australians - from any race or side of politics - cannot accept Howard being labelled a racist.

  • jill on July 6, 2010, 1:41 GMT

    A long time ago I happened to thumb through a book authored by John Howard. It was in 2 parts. Part 1 was titled 'Apartheid in SA, a disgrace to mankind'. Part 2 was titled 'the abhorrent use of drugs in Cricket-the case against Shane Warne'. The foreword was by Speed. Editing was by Gideon Haigh. I would love to read that book again. I was told that the good book is out of print.

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