July 6, 2010

What was Cricket Australia thinking?

How did anyone ever think Howard's nomination would fly? If this was a way for CA to rein in the BCCI, it was ill-conceived

It's best to begin by explaining what the rejection of John Howard's nomination to the ICC isn't about. It isn't about John Howard's competence: every ICC administrator for a decade has ranged from bad to terrible. The ICC's role in creating match referees, in botching the chucking rule, in inventing the Super Test, and looking on as Twenty20 destroyed cricket's calendar, is so appalling that to argue that Howard is disqualified because of his lack of experience in cricket administration is laughable. Apart from having run a country, Howard actually likes cricket, which is more than you can say for Pawar. That must count for something.

Anyone who loves Test cricket and realises that cricket needs a calendar with reliable highlights that fans can look forward to, will acknowledge that Cricket Australia is the best-administered board in world cricket. The Boxing Day Test, the splendid stadiums, the happy spectators, the first-rate Channel 9 coverage, the sports science that Australian universities have pioneered, make Australia a cricketing nation to be admired and emulated, not reviled. So despite the wretched record of the two Malcolms (Speed and Gray), an Australian in charge of world cricket seems, in the abstract, slightly more reassuring than the prospect of an Indian or a Pakistani.

That said, I couldn't believe my eyes when I first read that Australia and New Zealand had nominated Australia's former prime minister for the vice-presidency of the ICC. There had been talk of him being interested in the job, but I hadn't taken the gossip seriously. Then it became bonafide news and I thought: what were they thinking?

Did the cricket boards of Australia and New Zealand imagine that John Howard's candidature would fly? A politician whose policies towards immigrants and aboriginal Australians felt like White Australia warmed over, a charter member of the Anglophone empire that led the coalition of the willing into Iraq and Afghanistan, George Bush's go-to-guy down under, the embodiment of everything thin-skinned post-colonial elites love to hate, and Cricket Australia's strategists thought they could shoe-horn him into the vice-presidency and subsequently the presidency of the ICC?

The more you think about it, the odder it seems. Think of the timing of this, both in terms of cricket's history and the recent past. At a time when cricket's centre of gravity, for better or worse, has shifted to South Asia, some antipodean genius decides that a retired reactionary best known in South Asia for using his prime ministerial pulpit to trash Muralitharan on the eve of a Sri Lankan tour of Australia was the best man available for Australia's turn at the helm. Incidentally, Howard was one of those cartoon neanderthals who actually opposed the one great political cause in the game's history, the cricketing boycott of South Africa. This man, who through a long career has embodied reaction, was meant to show the corrupt elites of world cricket the way forward.

There were times during George W Bush's presidency when America made appointments designed to rub the world's face in the dirt. One such appointment was Paul Wolfowitz to the World Bank, the other was John Bolton as America's representative to the United Nations. Apart from that comfortable club of nations that constitutes the Anglophone empire (who believed that these were just the men to cleanse corrupt international institutions), most other countries were appalled that men as intemperately ideological as these were being foisted on a riven world system that needed intelligence and collegiality.

If Cricket Australia was concerned about reforming the ICC, it ought to have supported New Zealand's John Anderson. It would have been impossible for the BCCI's bosses to oppose his candidature and it would have put an honest man on top of world cricket. By nominating Howard they gave the BCCI a gift: an opportunity to put Cricket Australia in its place. To reject a bogeyman like John Howard is cost-free: no opinion-maker, no constituency that's valuable or important to India's gang of "honorary" administrators, will oppose that decision. Nor should they: George Bush and his hangers-on have had their day - having half-wrecked the world, they shouldn't be allowed to rampage around cricket in their retirement.

If the Australians want to rein in the BCCI, they might want to confer with the Kiwis and come up with an alternative candidate, someone with a resumé more collegial than Genghis Khan's. To first nominate Howard and then claim that his rejection threatens to divide cricket's world along racial lines, is to deal in a low form of passive aggression

Howard's most plausible supporter has been the Australian writer, Gideon Haigh, who has written a three-part defence in Cricinfo in which he first examined the case against Howard and found it wanting, then reconstructed the timeline of Howard's nomination and found the response to it inconsistent and self-serving and finally showed his readers how undemocratic and void of process the ICC and its constituent boards are. For Indians committed to cricket, specially Test cricket, the rottenness of cricket administration in general, and India's cricket administration in particular, isn't news. What is news is the spectacle of someone like Haigh, a liberal critic, quick-stepping around Howard's record on race and then coming up with absolution.

Howard, according to Haigh, is just a modern populist pol who tries to be all things to all men, and people who call him racist are telling us more about themselves than they are about Howard. Also, Howard couldn't have been so bad because Australia became more diverse on his watch than it was before. (This is a little like arguing that Aurangzeb was more tolerant of religious difference than Akbar was because there were more non-Muslim mansabdars in his administration than there were in Akbar's. Nice try, won't fly.)

Haigh knows Australia's politics more intimately than any Indian, and perhaps within the political spectrum of that country, Howard's positions are seen as venerably conservative instead of racist. Democratic nations construct their own political common sense as they're entitled to do. But when they try to export their politicians on to an international stage, they must expect to be judged by political opinion shaped by histories other than their own.

For Haigh, Howard is a senior conservative politician, a former prime minister, ambushed by thuggish Asian and African elites; for most Indian cricket fans, BCCI officials, time-servers though they are, did us all a favour by nixing a neo-conservative thug who helped aid and abet more death and destruction in the world than any office-bearer of the ICC. They did it for their own, time-serving reasons, but they did the right thing.

In the Australian imagination, neo-imperialist wars might seem distant games played by armed touring sides, but for most countries that make up the ICC, they are reminders of a past that they want to see conclusively buried. In trying to set cricket's world to rights using Bush's playbook for reordering the world system, Cricket Australia over-reached. It forgot that for John "Bolton" Howard's nomination to succeed, Australia needed to be cricket's solitary hyperpower, which it isn't, and this is an odd oversight given how much time Australians spend complaining about the Indian ascendancy.

If the Australians want to rein in the BCCI, they might want to confer with the Kiwis and come up with an alternative candidate, someone with a resumé more collegial than Genghis Khan's. To first nominate Howard and then claim that his rejection threatens to divide cricket's world along racial lines, is to deal in a low form of passive aggression. If Australia and New Zealand stand by this nomination and England backs them, cricket's historians will write that Howard's candidature was the gambit in the "Old" Commonwealth's secession from international cricket.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph