Cricket is all about politics

SPORT and politics should not mix. How often have you heard that meaningless line? It is untrue of any sport – and most of all cricket.

Following the humiliation meted out to former Australian prime minister John Howard – the man was roundly snubbed by Asian and African cricketing nations in his bid to become the vice-president of the International Cricket Council – it is worthwhile having a look at the political implications of a sport like cricket.

The game was spread from Britain to its colonies at the time when the British Empire ruled the waves. It took hold in India (and by extension in Pakistan and Bangladesh when those nations were formed as breakaways), the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

When Australia and England play each other for the Ashes, there are deep political connotations – England shipped convicts to Australia as its first settlers and thus Australian resentment towards the former “mother country” knows no bounds. Beating England at any sport is welcome Down Under, but it is especially sweet when it is for the Ashes.

When India and Pakistan play cricket, it is something akin to war. Pakistan was stripped away from India in a ghastly act of partition, a result of Britain’s divide and rule policy, and that wound has never healed. So great is the animosity, that when Javed Miandad hit a six off the last ball of a one-day tournament in Sharjah to give Pakistan victory over India – and this was in a minor tournament – he was showered with riches by Pakistani businessmen.

Friendly games between Indian and Pakistani supporters can turn into violent confrontations in third countries like England – and have, on many occasions, become just that.

When Bangladesh plays Pakistan, there are again political overtones. Pakistan treated the former East Pakistan as though it was a slave colony and when it broke away, with India’s help, in 1971, Pakistan was mortally wounded. It was shamed in front of the world – at the moment when its UN envoy was claiming that things were under control, TV footage of the head of Pakistan’s army surrendering to Indian forces at Dhaka race course was being broadcast worldwide. These insults have never been forgotten. They carry over onto the cricket field.

Take the games between the West Indies, a team formed from among a group of islands in the Caribbean, and England. Many black people were shipped to the Caribbean as slaves by Britain back in the days when Britain ruled these islands. For former slaves to defeat their masters is a very satisfying thing – and to the West Indies defeating England is the most important thing in cricket. It does not matter even if they lose to minnows like Kenya.

Politics in cricket is deep-rooted and will never go away. Indeed, if it did, then the intensity of the sporting contests would decrease and the crowds who come to watch would dwindle. When brown and black people get the better of white people, it is always sweet, simply because of the way the West has dominated the East for so many years. Cricket is another substitute for war and it is probably a preferable outlet to fighting on the battlefield.

Howard’s rejection by the ICC is reason to rejoice

WORLD cricket has finally shown some commonsense in rejecting the bid by former Australian prime minister John Howard to become the vice-president of its governing body.

The post of vice-president serves as a two-year incumbency for the next president and the nominations for this position come from different cricket-playing regions in turn. This time it was the turn of the Australasian region and Howard was nominated by Australia while New Zealand put forward an eminent administrator, Sir John Anderson. Politicking ensured that Howard, the worse of the two candidates – by more than a mile – was put forward.

This happened in March. It was assumed that the vice-presidency was a shoo-in but it was not to be. Six countries put their names to a letter on June 29, objecting to his nomination and saying that he was not a suitable candidate. They have asked for the name of another candidate to be put forward.

Howard has had little to do with cricket. He is the type of man who will confess a love for anything if it gains him political mileage and cricket is one game that is very popular in Australia; indeed, many people describe the Australian cricket captain as the second most powerful man in the country.

The Australian media is trying to make out that Howard is an extremely principled man and that the cricket boards which have objected to him are trying to prevent the entry into world cricket of a man who will try to put the house in order. Rubbish.

Howard showed during his 11 years as prime minister that he was willing to sleep with the devil if it would keep him in power. He had no principle – apart from that of doing anything to stay in control of his party. He did nothing to fight against the xenophobic policies of a woman politician named Pauline Hanson, put Aboriginal reconciliation back by a few centuries, was as anti-asylum-seeker as they come, sent the military to board a ship carrying refugees to Australia and did everything possible to discriminate against non-whites.

When it comes to things cricketing, there are a couple of things about Howard’s past which are unlikely to have endeared him to the six boards – Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, and the West Indies – which objected to his nomination. One is his crude comment about Sri Lankan leg-spinner Muthiah Muralitharan, calling him a chucker. Howard’s words were, “they proved it in Perth with that thing.” If anything, the reverse was true.

The second thing is Howard’s refusal to let Australia tour Zimbabwe in 2007. At this point, white farmers were being dispossessed of their land by blacks, with official support from the government of Robert Mugabe. While this decision is certainly justified, it must be borne in mind that Howard was deeply enamoured of South Africa during its apartheid era and only constant advice that it would harm his political prospects kept him from making a visit there in the 1980s. He opposed sanctions against South Africa but was more than willing to institute sanctions against Zimbabwe once Mugabe came to power.

It is, thus. difficult to avoid the conclusion that he was disturbed only by one kind of discrimination. When blacks were the target, it did not seem to bother him.

Cricket has always been a political game. It was taken up by countries colonised by Britain and for a long time Australia and England had veto power over decisions taken by the world body. Power has slipped from these two countries as the ability to generate finances to support the game has grown in India. Today, four-fifths of the money in the game comes from India which distributes it to all the cricket-playing countries.

As the old English proverb goes, “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Once India decided to reject Howard, it was only natural that Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh would go along. That would have been sufficient to sink his candidacy.

There are other factors why India has decided to reject Howard. It is doubtful that Australia commands a great deal of respect in India, following the attacks on students which have taken place over the last three years. Additionally, all the Australian kow-towing to China and its refusal to treat India on the same level would hardly have gone down well in New Delhi.

Despite all the righteous talk that politics has no place in sport, the reverse is true. A politician who wants to keep his options open as a sports administrator later on in life would do well to be more circumspect than Howard has been.

It’s worthwhile remembering here that Australia and England ran world cricket for a long time with a condescending and patronising attitude towards the other non-white nations. South Africa was part of the clique and the fact that it would not play against non-white nations caused no disquiet either in London or Canberra.

More than once, rule changes were introduced to curb the rise of the West Indies in order that England, Australia and South Africa could continue to be the dominant powers. The first time in the 1950s, when Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine were bamboozling the opposition, the front-foot lbw law was changed. Not many seasons after that, at Edgbaston in 1957, Colin Cowdrey and Peter May used their pads to negate everything which the two spinners could throw at them in a partnership of 411. The spin twins never recovered from this.

The next time the West Indies threatened to dominate was in the 1960s and Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith were their spearheads. A campaign began to label Griffith a chucker (Richie Benaud was in the forefront); it succeeded to some extent but did not daunt the fierce Barbadian. Then the front foot no-ball rule was introduced. The pair were reined in.

The last time the cricketing authorities attempted to rein in the West Indies was in the 1980s. Clive Lloyd’s fearsome four-man pace battery had started its triumphant run and the question of bouncers was raised. Mind you, world cricket’s governing body had never been exercised about bouncers when England’s John Snow and David Brown were running amuck, nor when Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were causing havoc in the ranks of opposing teams. The number of bouncers per over was clipped back to one but that did not get in the way of the West Indies finally squashing all and sundry under their heels.

Discrimination has always been part of cricket since its inception as an international sport. Australia, thus, has no reason to whinge now and complain that it is not getting a fair deal. The wheel has turned and both Howard and Australia should just shut up and cop it sweet.

Catches win matches. But then you knew that…

WHAT do you say to a wicketkeeper who has just cost you a Test win against Australia in Australia? If you are a good diplomat, you take the blame for the defeat yourself.

Australia won the second Test against Pakistan by 36 runs in Sydney yesterday. Michael Hussey, who made a gritty 134 not out, was dropped thrice – on 27, on 45 and again on 52. Even if he had been caught the last time, that would have saved 82 runs.

In all three instances the culprit was Kamran Akmal, and the bowler to suffer was Danish Kaneria. For good measure, Akmal gifted 13 runs to tailender Peter Siddle who hung around with Hussey in a partnership of 123 for the ninth wicket – he was dropped on 25 and went on to make 38.

After Australia won the game, the Pakistan captain Mohammad Yousuf took the rap himself, saying that his dismissal – he charged down the pitch and hit a ball back to Nathan Hauritz at a million miles an hour – was the turning point as he was the most experienced player and should not have gone after the bowling in that manner when it was not needed.

Indeed, that is one question that has yet to be answered: Pakistan had about three and a half hours on day four and the whole of day five to score the 176 they needed to win. Why were they in such a blue hurry? Why was the target treated as though it was a one-day target?

In the first innings, the Pakistani openers had batted carefully, eschewing all flamboyance, and raised a partnership of 109 which, to a large extent, served as the foundation for their first innings total of 333. They added 70 runs in 33.5 overs on the first session of day two, going from 14 for no loss overnight to 84 at lunch.

In the second innings, they played with panache and gay abandon, maintained a run-rate of 5 – and were both out by the time the total reached 51.

It is easy to see how the abundance of Twenty20 cricket has made many players unable to stay at the crease for a long time. In the shortest form of the game, making 45 off 15 balls is enough. But in a Test, one must make those same 45 off 90 deliveries and stay around so that partnerships are fostered.

Pakistan has always been a nervy unpredictable side. They are something like the West Indies, which once collapsed from 156 for one to 202 when chasing 208 for victory against Australia in the World Cup of 1996.

The result of either series played this summer will, thus, not be reflective of how competitive the games were. The first game in each series wasn’t overly contested, but the others have been fought tooth and nail. We don’t yet know what will happen in Tasmania but it is a good bet that Australia will win again.

Test cricket can be exciting. But the crowds ain’t there…

AUSTRALIA has just pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat to register a 36-run win over Pakistan in a fantastic Test match played in Sydney.

But there were few people at the ground to see the game even though it was gripping stuff with more twists and turns than a corkscrew. It’s all because the administrators are greedy and charge atrocious entry fees.

Last Saturday, Victoria and New South Wales played a Twenty20 game in Melbourne as part of the annual inter-state Australian tournament. The entry fee was just $10. A crowd of 28,000 turned up, a respectable number which would fill at least three-quarters of any cricket ground in the country apart from the MCG.

When it comes to Test matches, the Australian cricket authorities make a profit even before the first ball is bowled because of the money from TV rights. Thus, they are really not bothered whether people come to see the game or not. There is no incentive for them to keep prices low so that the stadium gets filled.

The attitude is that people can come and see the game if they want. There is no coverage on TV in the city where the game is played so the public really has no option. Australian radio was pretty good as far as Test commentary went but these days it is ordinary and quite trivial; many people have given up on it as the commentators are self-absorbed, ignorant and, at times, quite redneck in their utterances.

The numbers attending Test matches are falling rapidly. In a big ground like the famous MCG in Melbourne, it really shows as the ground can hold nearly 100,000. When a quarter of the ground, mostly the cheapest seats and the members seats, are the only ones occupied, then you know that the public have been driven away successfully.

Another reason why people stay away from Tests is because of the over-zealous security people. In many cases, the only thing that one has to be wary of is the security people themselves who are officious to the nth degree. The enjoyment of being at the cricket has gone.

The administrators of the game are not overly concerned. They continue to try and deny that there is a problem by employing spin of which even Shane Warne would be proud. They pretend that there is no problem and then the need to talk about it automatically goes away.

In many ways, the fact that Australia won today will serve the team badly as several problems will remain unaddressed. A spinner who does not deserve to be in the team took five wickets – not a single one by bowling well but all due to false strokes by batsmen. There will be no questions raised about him.

There are a couple of players in the team whose position needs to be scrutinised but that will not happen either. There is a captain who should not be playing due to an injury – the man is 35 and his performance and decisions need some questioning. That will not happen.

Mediocre performances by mediocre players also serve to drive the public away. Test cricket is supposed to be the pinnacle of the game but this is more like a trough. And the administrators? Oh, they are too busy laughing all the way to the bank.

How did Nathan Hauritz ever get into the Australian team?

YESTERDAY, for the first time in his first-class cricket career, Nathan Hauritz, an alleged off-spinner from New South Wales who is in the Australian team, took five wickets in an innings.

I use the word alleged because I was used to be able to turn the ball more when I was a kid than Hauritz can.

Which begs the question: is Australia, a leading cricket nation, so short of spinning talent? Was he the best candidate among the myriad spinners in the country?

Or does the fact that he is from New South Wales count more than any ability?

The five wickets he took yesterday were mostly flukes. The only wicket in which he had some kind of role was that of the Pakistan skipper Mohammad Yousuf, the only real Test-class player in the current Pakistan team.

Yousuf played forward and spooned a catch to Simon Katich at silly point. The ball bounced on him unexpectedly. But even in this case there was a mitigating factor – the end of the innings was nigh and Yousuf was well aware that with eight wickets down, and 172 runs to get, Pakistan had no hope in hell of winning.

There were nearly two full sessions of play left so a draw was out of the question as well. Hence, Yousuf was unlikely to have been concentrating as much as he normally does.

A good off-spinner normally gets the ball to spin from outside the off-stump into off and middle; Hauritz bowled Faisal Iqbal on day four with a ball that turned a good deal. But the extent to which this was a fluke was apparent thereafter for Hauritz never managed to repeat this kind of delivery in the innings.

And Hauritz got this wicket when he had not even bowled 10 overs. He bowled 24 in all. Iqbal fell at 116 and Pakistan scored a total of 250. He had plenty of time to do a repeat.

This raises questions about Hauritz’s accuracy; he saw where the ball pitched when he got that degree of turn and could never land a ball in the same patch again.

For many years, Australia never needed to think about a spin bowler as Shane Warne was around. When Warne wasn’t fit (or was suspended), Stuart MacGill was there and he could turn the ball even on glass.

Warne retired in 2007 and MacGill followed soon thereafter, necessitating a search by the selectors.

There are plenty of good spinners in the country and the selectors picked an able man, Jason Krezja, and sent him to India last year. Bear in mind, that even Warne has not fared well in that country – his wickets have cost him more than 50 runs apiece and many Indian batsmen have hammered the hell out of him.

Krezja’s first effort was a return of 8 for 215; he attacked the batsmen, copped a bit of stick from the Indians (who are, without doubt, the world’s best players of spin) but still got wickets.

He was promptly dropped. The innocuous Hauritz was brought in. The only factor in his favour was that he is from NSW which dominates Australian cricket.

Hauritz rarely gets the ball to turn. He rarely gives the ball any air. He is, in many ways, incompetent at his trade. And yet he plays Test after Test, though he has never put in a match-winning performance.

Even the five-wicket haul against Pakistan was not a match-winning performance. It was pure chance. What he deserved was probably two wickets.

The match-winning deliveries came from Mitchell Johnson; two gems just outside the off-stump which brought him two wickets in successive balls, though one of them was a bump catch claimed (and given) by Brad Haddin. (With this, the Australian wicketkeeper added one more to his list of dubious appeals).

One more point to note is that ever since the Pakistan offie Saqlain Mushtaq developed a ball which could spin the other way (and named it “doosra” which in Urdu means “the second one”), every off-spinner of any standing has managed to bowl a similar ball.

Hauritz is still unable to bowl this ball – which would be the leg-spinner’s regulation delivery. And he is 28.

And remember this was his 11th Test. He has played against India, England, Pakistan, the West Indies, South Africa and New Zealand. He has bowled in India, England and Australia.

And yet no five-wicket haul. Krezja was dropped after taking 13 wickets in two Tests. Hauritz, with 41 in 11 Tests, including those five, is now the Australian spin bowler. It’s highly unlikely that Australia will play two spinners as long as Ricky Ponting is captain.

But the myth has been created, the myth that Hauritz is a “match-winner”. This will make it even more difficult for anyone else to get a look in. He has managed 10 Tests without looking like a decent bowler until luck smiled on him.

And I’m willing to bet that it will be at least 20 more Tests before people realise that he is a mug. Bear in mind that this is a country which has produced the likes of Ashley Mallett, John Gleeson, Richie Benaud, Warne, MacGill, Tim May, Terry Jenner and the occasionals like Bob Holland, to name just a few.

Warne has just identified a youngster named Steven Smith whom he rates as capable. And that’s praise from the very best in the trade. Smith is from NSW too but Warne’s blessing means that he has some talent.

It’s a sad state of affairs. Much like the case of Haddin. It’s the NSW factor. Something like the Bermuda Triangle.

Cricket is no longer a team game

THERE was a time when cricket was a team game, when individual performances were all geared towards the collective good of the team. That era has long gone. But despite that, it’s only occasionally that the degree to which selfishness has come to dominate the game is on naked display.

The fourth day’s play in the first Australia-Pakistan Test provided one of the most crass displays of narcissism that I have ever seen in the game – and I’ve been following it for 42 years.

Much has been made of Shane Watson, an ordinary cricketer, who manages to look good because he comes up against mediocre bowling most of the time. Pakistan, a team which is as moody as the weather in Melbourne, has plenty of talent in its ranks but the players blow hot and cold, the latter most of the time.

Watson has played 14 Tests and is yet to make a hundred. He has come within four runs of the target and missed out. So far he has been unable to handle the pressure that comes from being in the 90s. Hence whenever he approaches the three-figure mark, there is some interest among the commentators to see if he will finally make it.

At the end of the third day, Watson was not out on 64. Australia was nicely positioned, 307 ahead with two days to go, and should have been looking for quick runs on the morning of the fourth day to give themselves enough and more time to ensure a win by bowling Pakistan out.

The 400-run target is normally some kind of a psychological point and most teams aim for this before effecting a declaration.

Australia is a bit more wary than most in this regard as both South Africa (414 in 2008-09) and the West Indies (418 in 2003) have chased down 400-plus scores to defeat them. Hence, it was reasonable to expect that Australia would look for about 450 just to be on the safe side – even if Pakistan had been dismissed for 258 in their first innings.

But they had not contended with Watson.

The entire morning session was wasted by the Queenslander. He added 34 runs to his overnight score in two hours. The others added another 47. Eighty-one runs were scored in 120 minutes on a good wicket – just the kind of thing which will attract more people to watch the game.

Watson spent nearly an hour going from 90 to 98. At lunch he was 98 not out. All the confidence he displayed on the third day – when a good many others, all more talented than him, got out – seemed to have disappeared. Which tells me one thing – he isn’t good enough to handle the pressure at this level.

The fact that the team needed a big lead – and Ricky Ponting would, no doubt, have given Watson an indication of when a declaration would come – was irrelevant. Watson scored at the rate of a snail, displaying a degree of nervousness that would have been worthy of someone making his debut in Test cricket.

The team’s needs were unimportant. His obsession with getting a century consumed him and everything else was secondary.

This is a man who has been playing international cricket for the last seven years. He has tried every trick in the game to try and project himself as being worthy of gracing the international stage. To me he looks like another Matthew Hayden, a pretender, who finds that the times suit him.

There are plenty of better openers in Australia: Phillip Hughes, Phil Jacques and Chris Rogers, to name just three. Perhaps Watson should announce his retirement soon so that more team-minded players can enter the ranks and serve Australia’s needs.