The BBC’s decision to stop showing cricket in the late 1980s was brought about by a combination of the cricket establishment’s greed, misplaced sporting priorities on the part of public broadcasters and, according to some, strong pressure from Margaret Thatcher, who was determined to help Rupert Murdoch build up his television empire. Within a few years there was no live cricket left on terrestrial television. Numerous addicts, myself included, were forced to admit defeat, sign the document of surrender to Sky and offer our collective shilling to Murdoch. It is now impossible to watch live cricket without subscribing to Sky.
The cricket season is now global; it has neither a beginning nor an end, which can be severely disruptive of the rest of one’s life. If you want to watch matches between South Asian teams, you have to pay an additional fee to Zee TV (India) and ARY (Pakistan). The creation of the Indian Premier League (IPL) last year, and the extravaganza that accompanied it, forced cricket fanatics to buy a temporary subscription to Setanta Sports. Watching cricket is now more expensive than the BBC licence fee.
Yet all this is trivial compared to the big changes that have taken place since the turn of the century. For many years after the end of empire, the MCC, together with the wild colonial boys in Australia and, for a time, white South Africa, dominated the international scene. The Brits made the key decisions and went unchallenged. The West Indies have too many fast bowlers who are difficult to bat against? Change the law: restrict the bouncers to one an over. Pakistan’s seamers can reverse-swing an old ball? They must be cheating: turn the cameras on them and watch every move. So it went on, with the help of a few umpires who found it difficult to rise above ancient prejudices. Mike Marqusee was harsh but accurate when he wrote in Anyone but England (1994) that ‘the hypocrisy of the English takes root early in cricket, and is one of the things that makes English cricket English – the way it lies about itself to itself.’
In 1956 an MCC team visiting Pakistan, and not doing at all well, were incensed by a series of lbw decisions awarded to Pakistan’s star bowler by the Pakistani umpire Idris Beg. Back at their hotel after the game, as Time magazine reported, the English players drowned their sorrows and decided to hunt Beg down. When they found him, they invited him back to their hotel for ‘a little private party’. Beg declined, so the players took him anyway – according to Beg – dislocating one of his arms in the process. At the hotel, Beg recounted later, the cricketers doused him with water and forced him to swig some whisky. Not until a team of Pakistani cricketers heard about Beg’s ordeal and descended on the party was he rescued from his hosts. (An uncle of mine, who often umpired first-class matches and had observed Beg’s behaviour at first hand, told us that ‘Beg was a disgrace. Every time Kardar, Pakistan’s captain, appealed he raised his finger.’)
The next day Beg turned up with his arm in a sling. The MCC dismissed the night’s adventure: ‘Just banter, old boy. Pure banter.’ But Pakistani students paraded in the streets shouting: ‘MCC, go back! Long live Idris Beg!’ Police searched spectators for weapons, and stood guard over the visiting Brits during play. The English press cheered on. Imagine if it had happened to an English umpire at the hands of the Pakistani team. Many years later, in the 1980s, when one of India’s great batsmen, Sunil Gavaskar, declared that it was no big deal playing at Lord’s and that he wasn’t interested in MCC membership, his remarks were greeted with shock. (I was delighted.)