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Attacking Cricket

Published by Current on 2009-03-04

You would think that cricket, the sport invented by Britons and one followed fanatically in the former colonies of Britain, would have its administrative base in London. You would be wrong.

Cricket’s governing body, the 104-member International Cricket Council, is headquartered here in Dubai, an Arab emirate that was never quite a part of the British Raj but where the mandarins of London have enjoyed political and economic influence for more than a hundred years. If you thought that cricket’s dramatic transformation from a languorous sport where white-flannelled players played five-day games into a lucrative, even exciting game where one-day matches featuring athletes in multi-colored uniforms brought in huge sponsorships and television audiences was made possible by entities in the UAE – then you would be absolutely right.

Backers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, poured billions of dollars over the past decade into building stadiums, creating big-money tournaments, and encouraging small nations in Africa and Asia and Europe – which had never been part of the cohort of 10 full members of the ICC that play international competitive games known as “test matches” – to become cricketing nations. Not many people might know this, but perhaps the single biggest sponsor of cricket matches is Dubai’s Emirates Airline: its logo appears on the white smocks of all umpires at cricket matches.

At the heart of the UAE’s effort was a simple premise: Cricket can make for good diplomacy. And if you offered enticing prize money, much in the manner of big-time tennis or soccer or American football or even boxing, they will come.

That’s why the terrorist assault on Tuesday in neighboring Pakistan – where the Sri Lankan team was playing a “test” series against the home team – is potentially a huge economic blow to cricket. Sponsors are likely to rethink their support, especially in this time of worldwide financial travail. Players will most certainly think twice about making appearances in nations where political volatility is often present – like Zimbabwe or South Africa or Kenya or Bangladesh.

Tuesday’s episode in Lahore also strikes at a fundamental notion that the UAE’s founder, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, often articulated: sport should be above ideology and politics. That notion – which also suggests that sport should be free of violence directed at players -- came to be so widely accepted that the bitterest of political foes like India and Pakistan often continued playing in the same competition even as their respective governments tossed less-than-diplomatic demarches at each other over territorial feuds.

That notion – that sport should transcend national rivalries – has led to celebrated friendships in the world of cricket, a sport followed by more than half the world’s population of 6.6 billion people. Pakistan’s former captain, Imran Khan, is a household name in India, where his visits draw more media and popular attention than that of his country’s governmental leaders. England’s former captain, Ian Botham, is still besieged by autograph seekers, more than a decade after his retirement from the game. You will find photographs of Australia’s legendary batsman, Sir Donald Bradman, in homes around the world, even in the United States, where cricket is increasingly catching on in cities with large multi-ethnic populations such as New York and Los Angeles. Cricketers have lent their names and hands to major philanthropic causes in world’s poorest countries, even where cricket isn’t necessarily a national passion.

Those players – whether weekend amateurs or fulltime professionals – have made cricket the new millennium’s new global game, and its richest one. Film stars in India are launching teams for domestic tournaments that feature foreign players. From being a summer game, cricket has become a year-round sport – the sun never sets on cricket’s empire, and it’s all run out of Dubai, where South Africa’s Haroon Lorgat, the ICC’s chief executive officer, and Britain’s David Morgan, the organization’s president, monitor the conduct and ethical standards of a sport that’s become an industry worth billions of dollars in TV rights, prize money, commercial endorsements, and, of course, stadium attendance.

That means the international game is predicated on travel. It is based on the assumption that the host country will assure the safety of visiting players – that the worst assault players could expect would be rotten eggs and tomatoes pelted by irate or overzealous fans. “Bombshell” in cricketing parlance always meant a star player, not a device that killed. “Bullet” was a synonym for a speedy ball that a batsman simply couldn’t handle. “Attack” always meant aggressive play.

But the tragic episode in Lahore on Tuesday changed the very vocabulary of cricket. It’s sadly ironic that both countries – Pakistan and Sri Lanka – are experiencing sustained domestic violence. But it was often violence flowing out of ethnic and political issues. It was sometimes the violence of local corruption. It was, at other times, violence from miscreants targeting those jockeying to govern.

Now the violence that used to be part of a polity’s political arena has claimed its latest victim by entering the stadium of sport. It is difficult to believe that anyone would want to hurt practitioners of cricket, players who act as ambassadors of peace and good will even as they compete fiercely for their trophies. Is there anything sacrosanct left any more? The game has changed, perhaps forever.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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