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Assaults on Cricket

Published by Current on 2009-03-04

I always thought that it was cricketers who “attacked,” that – in this era of big prize money and big television audiences and big sponsorships -- an attacking game meant competing fiercely for trophies. I never thought that cricketers themselves would be attacked by machine guns and grenades by marauders who had nothing to do with the game an everything to do with death and destruction.

I was wrong, of course, I was wrong to believe that the worst that could happen in cricket was hooliganism in stadiums. I was wrong to believe that the worst that could happen was an occasional bout of yelling between irritable players. What happened in Lahore on Tuesday was tragic, it was unexpected, and it snapped me out of what clearly had been a reverie.

I was mistaken to believe that when two countries, each with a long record of domestic violence, play each other, that wouldn’t it be merely a matter of opportunity that cricket would be a prey. In this age of fungible political violence, a time when women and children are taken hostages in schools or gunned down mercilessly in distant places in the name of not even a cause – that in such an age of violence, wasn’t it simply a matter of time that someone, somewhere, would target cricketers – cricketers who have traditionally served as envoys of peace, bearers of good will, carriers of a tradition that pays obeisance to decency and fair play?

Not many people may know it, but that tradition is actually lodged here in Dubai. It is here that cricket’s governing body, the 104-member International Cricket Council, is headquartered. From modest offices in Media City, 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. They are not intolerant men, but they enforce rules strictly. And while “decency” and “fair play” may not qualify as coming under the rubric of rules, they constitute the ethos of the game.

And not many people may know it, but the commercial and popular explosion of interest in cricket worldwide – indeed the very transformation of what used to be a slightly dull five-day game played between fewer than a dozen countries into one now played competitively in so many nations that the sun never sets on a cricket match – can be attributed to the determination of some of the UAE’s leaders. Over the last two decades, ruling families and private 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.

You could even say that the UAE re-invented cricket by giving a sheen to the meaning of sponsorship. In its own canny fashion, Sharjah recognized that if you offered enticing prize money, much in the manner of big-time tennis or boxing, they will come. Recognizing, too, that the large numbers of South Asians in the UAE would find enormous fulfillment in seeing Indian and Pakistani stars actually play on location, Sharjah invited the greats of the game from the Subcontinent. Soon the tournament was expanded to included players from other countries.

And then Abu Dhabi got into the game. So did Dubai. I have seen cricket being played in virtually every Emirate. The size of the crowds may vary, but not the enthusiasm. And however vocal that enthusiasm, it’s never violent.

There’s something else that not too many people may know – which is that, while Britons invented cricket in the 16th century, the founder of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, implicitly endorsed cricket’s traditional values by contending that sports can make for good diplomacy. He often told young Emiratis that sports 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-polite comments at each other over territorial feuds.

The single – and singular – notion helped revitalize the dynamics of international cricket over the last two decades, especially since they were years that witnessed conflicts spawning unspeakable horrors. If there’s one overriding characteristic of the UAE in the eyes of the world, it is that the Emirates has always promoted peace and universal fraternity among nations.

The 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. India’s former captain, Sunil Gavaskar, is still besieged by autograph seekers in Sri Lanka, more than a decade after his retirement from the game. You will find photographs of Pakistan’s legendary all-rounder, Imran Khan, in homes in India.

So I submit that cricket, which has been played around the world well before the UAE was formed, really embodies the essence of what this federation is all about – tolerance and enterprise. That essence was violated in Lahore on Tuesday. I had never imagined that such a thing would occur. I was wrong, of course, and now I grieve for the game, and I grieve for the setback that the UAE’s spirit of harmony has suffered.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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