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Gideon Haigh

The age of conspiracy

The tendency to blame external elements for every problem - as seen in Ijaz Butt's recent utterances - can only be countered by making governance more transparent and being serious about conflicts of interest

Gideon Haigh
Gideon Haigh
Haroon Lorgat, Shahid Afridi and Ijaz Butt address the media during the official launch of the ICC World Twenty20 in Karachi, April 15, 2010

The ICC can expect no help from the PCB in its investigations into alleged match-fixing  •  International Cricket Council

We're waiting. Doubly so. We've been waiting almost a month to see what the ICC's Anti-Corruption and Security Unit makes of plausible prima facie allegations of venality against three cricketers from Pakistan. And as of last week, we're now also waiting for the promise by Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Ijaz Butt to substantiate his claims of "a conspiracy to defraud Pakistan and Pakistan cricket" by naming "the names of the people, the parties and the bodies involved".
The former wait will now be lengthened by the latter, because if it was not obvious before it is clear now that the ICC can expect no assistance from the PCB - on the contrary, its investigations will be resisted at every turn. And although the tendency is to think that nothing is happening, or at least that nothing will happen until some form of announcement, the wait has itself become a story, indicative firstly of cricket's sheer administrative dysfunctionality, and now of its collapse into lurid conspiracy theorising.
The first is no news to anybody, the second less surprising than it ought to be. It's common to say that we are in a vintage era of conspiracism, except that it never really goes away; only the demonologies change. It used to be Rosicrucians, Freemasons and fluoridation; now it's the Illuminati, the Bilderberg group and AIDS, with 9/11 being a controlled demolition on behalf of Dick Cheney and the Skull and Bones, and Lady Di being run off the road by the Duke of Edinburgh in cahoots with the Order of the Solar Temple.
Cricket has a low-level but abiding affection for conspiracies. It reserves a special place for men in smoke-filled rooms - they are called selectors. It used to be said that a good 'un from the north of England might play Test cricket but a good 'un from the south certainly would. It's still said, in Victoria anyway, that playing for New South Wales is a prerequisite of Australian selection. Umpiring decisions are always a fertile area for speculations.
In Pakistan at the moment, however, the scenario is closer to that delineated by Richard Hofstader in his famous essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". The paranoid style, he argued, was distinguished not by the seeing of "plots here and there in history" but the perception of "a 'vast' or 'gigantic' conspiracy as the motive force in historical events".
In most countries conspiracy theorising comes from outside the mainstream, and government does its best to damp it down. In Pakistan the government is perhaps the chief propagator. In the matter of spot-fixing, it wasn't long before the first dark hintings from the country's interior minister Rehman Malik. "We want to ascertain if there is any conspiracy against the team or to defame Pakistan," said Malik. "There have been conspiracies against Pakistan in the past. We want to get the facts and get them exonerated."
Nobody could accuse Malik of prejudging the evidence; he wasn't interested in evidence at all. But then, nor was he interested last year after the attack on the Sri Lankan team bus en route to the Gaddafi Stadium: "We suspect a foreign hand behind this incident. The democracy of the country has been undermined, and foreigners are repeatedly attacked to harm the country's image."
A conspiracy theory that has emerged recently is one that is a thick-headed justification for Indian supremacy: you ran cricket; now we run it, and it's payback time
In the last month, numerous stories about Indian perfidy have appeared in the Pakistani press, notably Lahore's Nation ("Is There an Indian Connection?") and Islamabad's Daily Mail ("The Lord's Accusation Another RAW ploy"). Corroborating Churchill's maxim that a lie can be halfway round the world before the truth can get its pants on, the Daily Mail's report that "the News of the World and [the] notorious Indian intelligence agency RAW were the mastermind[s] behind all this planned mess" was actually picked up and run on India's Aaj Tak.
Not that the media has needed to stretch its imagination too far, thanks to Butt, who if he holds a position more than a few days it can only be because he has forgotten to contradict himself. "I don't believe in any conspiracy theory," said Butt first, after meeting ICC president Sharad Pawar in New Delhi on 15 September. "I am a simple businessman and a cricket administrator. I am also a part of the ICC and will stick to its Code of Conduct."
Not for long. Four days later, he was on-message: "There is loud and clear talk in bookie circles that some English players have taken enormous amounts of money to lose the match. No wonder there was such a collapse." Even Shahid Afridi trended in the same direction, moving from saying "sorry to all cricket lovers and all the cricketing nations" to insisting that "the way so many people are joining the bashing of Pakistan cricket shows that a conspiracy is on to finish our cricket."
Yet the first hints of corruption among Pakistan's cricketers this year emerged not in the English media but among PCB officers during the in-camera inquiry into the team's disastrous tour of Australia. Thanks to the video of proceedings screened by Geo Super, we know that the team's leadership was deeply concerned about player underperformance. Coach Intikhab Alam said he had "heard many stories about match-fixing"; likewise Intikhab's deputy Aaqib Javed: "I can't say 100% that there is match-fixing, but I have my strong suspicions." Commenting on his keeper's performance in Sydney, captain Mohammad Yousuf said simply: "Some things are obviously clear. What shall I say?"
By the same token Butt hardly has the field of conspiracy theorising to himself at the moment. Even in England and Australia, hackles rise in a split second. Counties truckling to Lalit Modi? Countries objecting to John Howard? Both were denounced as conspiracies, even if they were they were more straightforwardly instances of toadying, opportunism and self-admiration.
Race is an issue fertile with possible fulminations and accusations. A couple of weeks ago, London's Daily Mail reported that Tillakaratne Dilshan had, apparently by chance, encountered an illegal bookmaker in a nightclub, while also making amply clear in its story that there was "no suggestion of any wrongdoing", and that Sri Lanka Cricket had "followed the ICC's protocol to the letter". Cricket Sri Lanka's florid response made Butt look like the acme of restraint: "It is a foolish attempt to malign a Sri Lankan cricketer without a shred of evidence. It smacks of a white conspiracy… These allegations are indicative of a deep racist bias, besides plain ignorance of the truth."
Scratch the surface of South Asian cricket, in fact, and one intriguing low-level conspiracy theory does not take long to emerge: that of "the veto", of which non-white countries complain of having been helpless victims at the ICC until 20 years ago. It refers to the status of England and Australia as Foundation Members at the ICC for the purposes of Rule 4C of the body's old constitution: "Recommendations to member countries are to be made by a majority of full members present and voting and one of which in such a majority should be a Foundation member." It is flourished now as evidence of the existence of a kind of Protocols of the Elders of Lord's. Yet the vast majority of those who do so seem quite unencumbered by any knowledge of the ICC's history.
The real reason for Rule 4C was not to exercise power but to prevent power accumulating, something which for most of the 20th century suited every ICC member, preserving their sovereignty in matters like fixturing, revenue distribution, player discipline and umpire appointments. At some stages, furthermore, England and Australia were as mistrustful of one another as they were of other countries; indeed, after Kerry Packer's irruption on the scene, their administrators were profoundly divided.
The ICC's structure as an adjunct of the Marylebone Cricket Club with concurrent senior officers remained quaintly archaic, but the majority generally ruled, and rational argument usually prevailed. Despite the sympathies of English and Australian administrators, firm agreement on the subcontinent and in the West Indies kept South Africa in deserved isolation; thanks mainly to Pakistan, an elite umpiring panel came into being; thanks to the arguments chiefly of Sri Lanka, the cause of video adjudication advanced.
The only attempt that England and Australia made to invoke Rule 4C seems to have been in July 1984, when India argued for moving the next World Cup to the subcontinent. The invocation failed: the ICC chairman, Marylebone president Arthur Dibbs, despite being a rock-ribbed member of the British establishment, agreed with India that only a simple majority was needed. Perhaps he wasn't in on the conspiracy.
What is fascinating about this conspiracy theory is that it has emerged only quite recently as a thick-headed tu quoque justification for Indian supremacy: you ran cricket; now we run it, and it's payback time. "India has been subservient for 100 years," claimed Lalit Modi, appealing to Indian victimhood. "People are used to dictating terms to us. We're just even-ing the playing field. And if it's our turn to have some glory, so much the better."
Yet the more one looks back on the ICC of the 1980s, the more impressive it seems, because of how productively members collaborated on a host of difficult issues, how reasonably they disagreed, and the overall calibre of administrators like Nur Khan, Allan Rae and NKP Salve. Members certainly coexisted then on terms far more equal than they do now. Today the ICC can't even elect a vice-president without coming apart at the seams.
Furthermore, it's not even a necessary argument. There are a great many sound economic and cultural reasons for India to be the dominant voice in world cricket; the previous existence of Rule 4C isn't among them. Its deployment as a rhetorical ploy proves nothing except the comfort of conspiracies, even those one can claim to have routed.
The more one looks back on the ICC of the 1980s, the more impressive it seems, because of how productively members collaborated on a host of difficult issues. Today the ICC can't even elect a vice-president without coming apart at the seams
Because conspiracies are a splendid consolation to the vanquished and diminished. As David Aaronovitch explains in his excellent guidebook Voodoo Histories: "If it can be proved that there has been a conspiracy which has transformed politics and society, then their defeat is not the product of their own inherent weakness or popularity, let alone their mistakes; it is due to the almost demonic ruthlessness of their enemy." Thus their present popularity in cricket, increasingly divided between haves and have-nots, between the big four countries and the rest, between those inside the gilded Twenty20 circle and those excluded. There is a lot of failure to go round, a lot of blame to be apportioned - and also avoided.
If it is to survive its most recent drift into malpractice, cricket badly needs to break the growing attraction of conspiracism, which always stands in the way of change, perpetuating the status quo by thwarting the trust and honesty integral to reform. Conspiracy theories are fundamentally disempowering: they pardon bad behaviour, with their insistence that invisible forces elsewhere are always indulging in worse; they penalise good behaviour, depicting it as futile in the face of clandestine oppressors.
What can cricket do? One reason for the trend is that cricket's administration has always been too incestuous, too secretive and insufficiently accountable. How cricket reaches crucial decisions of policy is to most fans a mystery, when it is not a matter of indifference - the impression conveyed is often of shoddy politicking, diplomatic expediency and cynical self-interest. Transparency of governance and seriousness about conflicts of interest have therefore never been more imperative.
What the situation also calls for is magnanimity. Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz has explained conspiracies as defence weapons against indifference, against "the terrible thought that nobody cares about you". Fans in Pakistan have had a great many reasons to brood on that thought in the last three years, as doors to international cricket, then the Indian Premier League, have been closed to them. Even now - perhaps especially now - cricket must find ways of keeping faith with Pakistan's benighted and innocent public. They, especially, cannot wait indefinitely.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer