Diary

Tariq Ali

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.)

The ICC had been set up in 1909, as the Imperial Cricket Conference, when South Africa was admitted to test match status and challenged the Anglo-Australian duopoly. It governed by consensus: there would be a discussion, and at the end of it the English chairman got his way. In 1964, the ICC became the International Cricket Conference, but until 1989, the president of the MCC was still automatically made chairman.

By the 1990s the balance of power had shifted. Sixty per cent of the world’s cricketing revenue was by then being generated in South Asia. India has a population of a billion, and cricket is its national sport. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), riled by long years of English arrogance and condescension, decided it was time to rid itself of the Raj. By this time they had learned enough tricks of the trade from the old colonial bosses and were ready to declare independence. The nervousness at Lords was captured in Mike Atherton’s comments in the Sunday Telegraph:

India are the big beast of cricket and everyone is frightened of both their bark and bite. Their rise to dominance began in 1983 with an unexpected World Cup victory over the mighty West Indies … It was a sweeping change to the balance of power but one that took England … a long time to appreciate … Malcolm Speed, the chief executive of the ICC, found himself in a position much occupied by Kofi Annan and the United Nations in recent years: being bullied by a superpower for whom the notions of international law and collective responsibility have long ceased to have any meaning.

In 1996, after what an Australian cricket official referred to as ‘a decidedly ugly ICC meeting’, Australia and England considered mounting a counter-coup. What had upset them was that South Africa had jumped ship and sided with India. Graham Halbish, a former CEO of the Australian Cricket Board, revealed that there had been acute concern that ‘India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with the unexpected support of South Africa and Zimbabwe, were forming a powerful alliance with the potential to take over international cricket.’ In Run Out (2003), he described how he was ‘given the extraordinary task of drawing up a plan … so secret and highly sensitive, that it even had a codename – Project Snow’. It was an attempt to split the ICC, so that Australia, England, New Zealand and the West Indies would play each other but nobody else. Halbish was sure that this ‘contingency plan would allow us to keep satisfying our television networks, sponsors and crowds’.

Better heads prevailed; the South Asians made a few cosmetic concessions (such as rotating the chairmanship) and a split was averted. The ICC’s function today is straightforward: it determines the rules and structure of world cricket and makes decisions that are binding on its members. I thought of Project Snow as I watched the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) notables led by its chairman, Giles Clarke, and flanked by English cricketing legends (all Sky employees) lining up to greet Sir Allen Stanford’s helicopter as it landed on the nursery ground at Lord’s in 2007. The Texas-born, Caribbean-based billionaire (as he was described before we learned that much of his capital was fictitious) was greeted like a monarch. The fantasist from the Antiguan St John’s was not in a mood for compromise and proceeded to describe the test cricket played in St John’s Wood as ‘boring’. The future, as far as he was concerned, lay with ‘Twenty20’, the shortest version of the game, and no doubt, with the rah-rah girls imported from Ukraine and elsewhere whom he thought necessary to enliven proceedings.

In Twenty20, each team plays only one innings, batting for a maximum of 20 overs; the game is completed in about two and a half hours. The IPL is already a massive popular success; the global broadcasting rights alone will earn the BCCI $1 billion over the next ten years. It was felt by some in the English cricketing establishment that a rival competition was badly needed; after all, Twenty20 started out as an English innovation. The plan was simple: to set up a Twenty20 super-series to rival the IPL, which had paraded virtually every non-English cricketing star in several Indian cities before huge and cheering crowds. It would be supervised by the ECB and funded by the Stanford millions.

England’s star player, Kevin Pietersen, was signed up as a Stanford ambassador, and appeared happy enough in news photographs. (Now he informs the media that he was always dubious and regarded Stanford as a ‘sleazebag’.) A hurried exhibition match between England and the West Indies was organised at Stanford’s private club in Antigua last November. The players on the winning team were each promised $1 million. The West Indies (playing as the Stanford Superstars) duly won, but five of the players agreed to let Stanford invest the money on their behalf. They were foolish, but not as foolish as the Antiguan government, whose economy is closely linked to Stanford’s enterprises, or the Venezuelan oligarchs who used the Stanford Bank in Caracas to launder money.

It was only after the US Securities and Exchange Commission accused Stanford of ‘massive and ongoing’ financial fraud that the ECB decided to break off all links with him. The proposed Twenty20 rival to the IPL lies in ruins. Project Snow was a childish response to the cricket establishment’s loss of hegemony: this most recent debacle is the result of thoughtless greed. In a sense it’s unfair to single out the ECB. ‘Soft-touch regulation’ was the order of the day under Thatcher and is now under New Labour. Why should the ECB be any different? True, allegations of one kind or another regarding Stanford’s business practices had been doing the rounds for a number of years and in 2007 the Stanford Group Company was fined $20,000 for violating disclosure norms; but nobody really cared. None of it was unusual in the world of fictitious capital laid bare by the current crisis.

Like in the world in which it is played, much has changed in cricket. The cheating – the betting scandals and the disgraced captains: Hansie Cronje, Mohammed Azharuddin, Wasim Akram et al – are the least of it. A bookie, Hanif Cadbury, was murdered in South Africa, where he had fled after testifying before Justice Qayyum’s inquiry into match-fixing in Pakistan: he had spilled the beans about the bookies and how the cricketers collaborated with them. Some of this, as John Major revealed in More than a Game, his accomplished history of cricket, is not exactly new. Extensive match-fixing took place in 19th-century Britain, when cricket as we now know it was being invented.

What of the onfield changes? Jean-Marie Brohm, a French sociologist, has described all sport as ‘a prison of measured time’. Looked at that way, five-day test cricket is the equivalent of a life-sentence. And yet test matches can be tenser and more stimulating than any other form of the game, even when they end in a draw – a possibility that is excluded in shorter forms, where a result is vital. It’s fogeyish, of course, to say that things were better in the past, but there is a serious argument here. Fifty-overs-a-side one-day cricket can be enjoyable, but Twenty20 is cricket’s answer to the penalty shoot-out: its outcome depends too much on luck. The main thrust behind globalised cricket is commercial and few bother to hide the fact. It is organised by the money-wallahs and TV schedulers: floodlit night matches, played to secure prime-time audiences, are increasingly common.

Then there are the commentators who vie with each other to see who can dumb down the most, competing with mini-skirted dancers hired to do the cancan when a boundary is scored or a six hit into the crowd. Making a fool of oneself when Twenty20 matches are being played is par for the course: I almost forgot to mention that some of the fielding side are fitted with microphones so that they can be interviewed in the course of the game. The message is clear: ‘We don’t take it seriously and you shouldn’t either. We’re only trying to inject a bit of fun into the game and get the young more interested’ – though this has never been a problem in South Asia or Australia. There is, of course, lots of money to be made. Most cricketers are underpaid, and I’m in favour of their being paid more, not least because it would reduce the influence of the betting mafias on the stars, which has come close to wrecking the game altogether. One reason the public stopped turning up for test matches in some parts of the world was a deep suspicion that the results had already been decided.

Test cricket at its best has the qualities of an exquisitely choreographed ballet. To watch the great spin bowlers – Abdul Qadir, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Anil Kumble – bowl at the same batsman for over an hour, varying each ball till they trap their victim, is to delight in their artistry. It can also be boring and predictable; but so can its abbreviated offspring, for all its frills.

When the IPL circus first began, with Bollywood stars and Indian corporations getting franchises, I feared the worst. The hoopla, the slavish commentary by over-paid pundits and the unending shots of the IPL commissioner, Lalit Modi, preening like an Indian god minus the make-up, all this was truly awful, but the cricket was exciting and I was hooked. The new season, which begins in five weeks, will be a bit different. No Pakistani players are playing because the Indians backed out of touring Pakistan after the Mumbai atrocities. The Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, is staying at home to rest and prepare for the Ashes later in the summer. Of the two English players bought in the IPL slave auctions for over £1 million each, Andrew Flintoff is injured – he might not be able to play in the remaining tests against the West Indies, but can’t afford to miss the IPL – and Pietersen is sulking, having lost the Stanford dosh. So he’ll go to India and pocket the million. Were he still captain of England he would have been better advised to follow Ponting’s example, but the ECB determined otherwise.

Will the economic crisis have more long-term effects on the game? Undoubtedly. Stanford and his English chums were brash, but they were not alone. Their rivals in India are now confronting problems of their own. Last year’s IPL champions were the underdog Rajasthan Royals, captained by Shane Warne with energy and skill. They have yet to find a sponsor this year, as the insurance giant Bajaj Allianz has pulled out. Other teams are facing similar difficulties. Much of the TV money, including a ten-year deal with Sony-WSG, is still in place, though Sony is not finding it easy to sell advertising for the series, and Big TV and Pepsi have ended their IPL deals. By the end of this year, it’s being said, the Bollywood brigade may well pull out from the field, taking their sponsors with them.

Meanwhile the Chinese government has decided that its youngsters should learn how to play cricket, just in case the shorter version becomes an Olympic event. Former test players from South Asia, especially Pakistan, have been hired to go and act as coaches. If cricket were to take off in China, the ICC would be forced to shift its headquarters to Shanghai and the biggest cricketing event of the sporting calendar in 2030 would be the annual India-China test series. Who knows? Chinese helicopters might be provided with a permanent pad at Lord’s.