March 21, 2012

International cricket in Pakistan? You gotta be...

As the game's governing body, how can the ICC choose not to send its own match officials to the country but be okay with Bangladesh's players playing there?

Age tends to harden beliefs, but it can soften them too. What was once mere conviction may evolve into rabid dogmatism - to the 18-year-old me, homophobia was a major misdemeanour; at 30 it was a crime; but by the time I was 40 it had blossomed into a fully-qualified, no-holds-barred, utterly indefensible sin. I am now a proud homophobic-phobic. Yet maturity can also, if we're lucky, transform black-and-white myopia into a keener sense of balance. So long as it doesn't descend into racism or any other form of antisocial prejudice, I'm far more tolerant of sledging now than I was in my 20s, when I advocated terminating certain Australians with the most extreme prejudice seen since a certain Austro-German was the toast of Berlin.

The same applies, in some respects, to sporting administrators and management. Once upon a time, not so terribly long ago, it was almost impossible not to see these allegedly well-meaning chaps as uniformly oblivious to the interests, needs and feelings of the players, without whom, of course, they would be less prominent than a grain of sand in the Sahara. (And chaps, as opposed to chapesses, they have invariably been, for all that Nottinghamshire have just appointed English cricket's first female chief executive, the aptly named Lisa Pursehouse).

Yet over the past couple of decades, as social norms have changed, so there have been welcome signs of enlightenment and even compassion. Salaries are far more reflective of the players' value; instead of being uniformly regarded as a threat, some, if not all, players' unions are afforded a measure of respect, and even seen, in some cases, as partners; captains put childbirth before national "duty" without fear of reprisal; technology has been adopted and adapted to enhance fairness and justice, which benefits the combatants as well as the game's credibility and image; rather than sticking to the traditional "buck up and stop feeling sorry for yourself", depression is beginning to be taken seriously - though you can't help but wonder whether the dark ages would still be with us had it not been for Marcus Trescothick's courageous honesty.

Unfortunately, such unquestionably positive developments, however small those steps have been, are countermanded by the ever-rising tide of commercialism, emphasising as it does the sanctity of the bottom line. And in straitened economic times, the gap between what is good for management and what is good for the workers is all the likelier to grow into a chasm. Witness the latest efforts to restore Pakistan as an international cricket venue.

Apparently, there has been a gross over-reaction to the proposal by its own Chief Executives Committee that the ICC should not risk sending its own employees there. That, anyway, was the somewhat knee-jerkish response of Subhan Ahmed, the Pakistan Cricket Board's chief operating officer, who waded into the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations (FICA) for being over-sensitive in stating its objections to next month's proposed tour by Bangladesh, a tour about which the game's governing body appears to have sufficient reservations not to permit its elite umpires to stand. To which the only sensible response can be "What absolute tosh!" Or something along those lines that makes it absolutely clear that Mr Ahmed is talking codswallop. Still a bit too Eton-and-Harrow for you? OK, let's put it in modern global English and go brazenly for the c-word - crap.

That the ICC has apparently absolved itself of any involvement in the decision over the proposed tour does nothing to mitigate matters. Quite the opposite. In the words of a media statement issued from Dubai a fortnight ago - a press release that richly deserves instant admission to the PR Hall of Shame - the CEC "recognised that the ICC Board had determined that a decision as to whether a particular tour should take place or not is one for the participating countries". Fair enough, but only up to a point - for instance, does this laissez-faire with knobs on make the ICC Test and ODI and T20 rankings a bit of a fraud?

It was the next part of the statement that truly galled. The ICC's role, apparently, is "limited to considering the safety and security of the match officials after a tour had been confirmed and a security plan produced". In recommending that the ICC approve a "special dispensation" for "non-neutral" umpires to stand in the matches "in the event of the ICC determining that it was unsafe to appoint match officials", the CEC made the unsavoury priority all too clear.

Your average terrorist is hardly likely to target an administrator. They don't have to board the coaches and stay in the hotels and stand around a field for hours on end; they're not the sitting ducks. It isn't them who have to persuade their loved ones that going abroad to play games and fly the flag needn't necessarily mean not coming home

The subsequent comments of Mustafa Kamal, president of the Bangladesh board and the Asian Cricket Council, were inevitable, but no less pertinent or heartfelt. Yes, affirmed Mr Kamal, who had been part of a nine-man Bangladeshi delegation that approved the security plans following a briefing in Pakistan earlier this month, of course he wants cricket to "happen" in Pakistan, but "if [the ICC] don't take responsibility, then on what basis can I send my players?" Not an unreasonable question. It should be remembered, furthermore, that, when the security inspection was announced in December, the quid-pro-quo was that the PCB would endorse Kamal's candidacy as the next ICC president.

The verbal jousting had begun when Tim May, the FICA chief executive, sent out a press release wondering, among other things, how on earth the governing body can operate by such double standards, much less admit them publicly. "I am not sure how this idea even got off the ground. If the ICC cannot and will not send its officials to officiate in the series because it has been advised that it is not safe, it simply cannot contemplate any actions that will enhance the attractiveness of the series to others."

The ICC, he rightly stressed, has a duty of care. "It has a duty of care to the players of teams, the officials of teams and the general public, irrespective of whether this is a bilateral event or an ICC Event such as the World Cup. If it has specific information that Pakistan is not safe to tour, then it cannot and should not send a message out to these stakeholders that ICC not only recognises this series, but has gone out of way to change its own Playing Conditions so it may endorse and promote this series."

Now let's go back to that riposte from Mr Ahmed. "FICA always has rigid views sitting thousands of miles away," he moaned on this site. "This is one of the reasons why we don't recognise and endorse FICA at any level. They [FICA] should restrict their comments to those countries they represent."

So let me get this straight. If FICA harboured the same concerns about, say, an Australian tour of England, it would have a right to comment, but since the destination is Pakistan - whose players have thus far resisted any urge to join their brothers-in-arms, or been persuaded to - the fact that another cluster of FICA-associated players are the ones at risk is irrelevant by comparison with the pressing need to tell May and his comrades to mind their own business? Ah, such fraternal concern, such compassion.

It is hard not to mistrust administrative utterances on this particular topic. Nor will suspicion subside unless and until Rahul Dravid ascends the ICC throne hitherto occupied by a succession of chaps who came no nearer to playing in a post-60s Test than me. Given his experiences of rioting crowds, I'm fairly confident that Clyde Walcott - the first to hold such an office and only ex-international to do so - would have counselled against any rash statements or undertakings. And the proposition, stated or implicit, that players are more expendable than umpires - that anybody is expendable - is about as rash as it gets.

No leap of the imagination is required to unravel the mindset that fosters such a stance, however reprehensible it may be. After all, your average terrorist is hardly likely to target an administrator. They don't have to board the coaches and stay in the hotels and stand around a field for hours on end; they're not the sitting ducks. It isn't them who have to persuade their loved ones that going abroad to play games and fly the flag needn't necessarily mean not coming home.

In its defence, the sorely ill-advised press release that so enraged May can be attributed to the ICC's enthusiasm to put an end to Pakistan as a no-go area. Trouble is, the motivation comes across as largely, if not entirely, commercial - after all, the value of TV rights and sponsorship for matches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai is hardly going to be a patch on those in Lahore and Karachi. And for all that Test attendances there have often been pitiful in recent times, crowds for the shorter formats can be relied upon to be somewhat more populous than three sheikhs and 400 migrant workers.

So, foregoing plain English in favour of administratish, let's get to that bottom line. Unless those running the game put the participants' safety above all other considerations, the players feel safe, and the ICC sends the best available umpires to officiate a Test in Faisalabad if one is so sanctioned, it would be the very height of irresponsibility to revive Pakistan as a suitable international venue for a spot of bat-and-balling. It would also be more than a little inhumane.

* March 21, 0802GMT: The picture caption was corrected to state Bangladesh board president Mustafa Kamal is on the right-hand side (PCB chairman Zaka Ashraf is on the left).

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton