Pakistan Stars XI-International XI matches in Karachi a cause for celebration and praise

Just as Matthew Hayden was giving us one reason to look at cricket with fond eyes and a glimmer of excitement found once again, Pakistan and the International XI who have agreed to play there gave us another. By bringing stars such as Ricardo Powell, Sanath Jayasuria and Andre Nel to Karachi for two T20 matches against a Pakistan XI, the Sindh government has shown that terrorism and political machinations can only go so far in quashing the enduring love of the game in that country and amongst its wider constituents. Jayasuria’s presence is especially heartwarming, as it was the Sri Lankan team who were on the receiving end of that heinous attack in 2009 that put an end to international cricket in Pakistan until this weekend. Since then, I completed one and a half years of my university education, received my degree, travelled for seven-odd months and did a full year’s professional work. Such has been the gravity of the length of time in which the people of Pakistan have been starved of cricket, made worse by a country whose electrical shortages mean the national team cannot be followed with any degree of ease during their foreign tours.

Pakistan is probably not safe enough for international cricket to return with a full schedule yet, and while these matches may help, one has to hope that the contingency plans and security blueprints drawn up are of the highest quality. However, balancing such reductive fears is the contention by Arsene Wenger after the Mumbai terror attacks led to calls for England’s cricket team to return home from India that “we cannot let our lives be ruled by fear.” Otherwise, societies and people would never take the bold steps that are behind progress, and in sporting terms, behind staging the kind of spectacles that make a difference in people’s lives. Cricket in Pakistan has suffered countless body blows in recent times and been wracked by internal strife and division; in the face of this, it heartening to see help forthcoming from members of the international cricket community, and also to witness constituents of Pakistan society such as the Sindh government and cricketers themselves unite in service of their country and the sport that has been a source of such passion and positivity there. Here’s hoping the matches pass off safely, generate a great amount of attention from the public and slowly but surely help with the reintegration of Pakistani grounds on the international fixture list. If all goes according to plan, it should be a celebration of cricket as an enduring force of good against the more destructive influences that have sought to cut off its proximity and benefit to the Pakistani people.

Matthew Hayden’s brief rise from post-retirement obscurity a reminder of a great game

It was funny how it took a few choice words from Matthew Hayden, one of modern cricket’s all-time greats, to briefly relight the fire this writer once felt for the game on a daily basis. Hayden may be safely ensconced in retirement now, but the vehemence with which he hit back at Jimmy Anderson’s claims that the Australian camp was divided during the 2006/7 Ashes revealed that none of the fire and brimstone that was behind his ascent to greatness in his playing days has left him now. In calling the comparatively cheeky youngster a “B-grade bowler who got his arse whipped by Australia that many times it’s not even funny”, Hayden sounded a war cry that lurched the past into the present, and reminded us what cricket was and what it is becoming.

Powerless now to affect the seismic changes gripping the game, his words nonetheless contained memories of an era when a great team played the game with such fervour, ingenuity and sporting integrity that they elevated cricket beyond its normally parochial boundaries to capture imaginations far and wide. By providing Australia a contest that was sadly lacking throughout much of the first decade of the 21st century, England teased their greatness out of them and provided us with duels that hit the heights of what cricket was capable of as a great sport. Anderson’s allegations concerned the aftermath of the Adelaide test match in the 2006/7 series, and who can forget the way Australia overturned implausibility to chase down a 200-plus total after tea on the fifth day of that test match? Who can forget the awe-inspiring manner in which Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden propounded the concept of playing T20 cricket – before it was invented – by dispatching successive sixes and fours in the much riskier venue of a Test match? The echo of Shane Warne’s guttural roar every time he took an English wicket to provide an absorbing contest with yet another twist still reverberates around me today. Say what you will about Australia, but in the coming together of a great generation of players with a frighteningly strong will to succeed, they elevated the game to heights from which it has fallen far and long today.

How would cricketers of such integrity as Matthew Hayden have dealt with the proliferation of formats, and subsequent diluting of players’ singular commitment to their national teams and to the Test format – which remains the only mode able to showcase the game in all its richness? How would they deal with the fractured state of cricket today, a sport whose divided community and constituents’ self-serving interests have resulted in it beginning to eat itself up rather than grow as it briefly did during those heroic Ashes contests? We can only imagine, but Hayden’s enduring competitiveness brought with it a warm reassurance that the qualities that make cricket a sport loved by so many – and which were so often on display by his team – have not yet vanished completely amidst the whirl of T20 leagues, dwindling commitments and encroaching corruption. His words were – perhaps unwittingly – a cry from the wild, a shot in the arm, that evoked memories which are not so easily forgotten no matter how despondent the current picture looks. Cricket remains a game of greatness underneath all the fluff that has recently descended on it – and one of its giants reminded us of just a fraction of that greatness by thankfully refusing to let bygones be bygones just because of an inconvenient retirement.

Turning a blind eye to ever-increasing signs that cricket is gripped by corruption will end badly

Although the ICC have offered plausible explanations for why they have commented so little on the sting that caught out six umpires involved in and around the World T20, it is still noticeable how quickly that story has faded. Cricket is not a sport that can afford to treat stories on how those meant to be in charge of protecting the laws of the game were willing to cheat with short-term, absentee memories. The accumulated drip-drip nature of scandalous revelations regarding match-fixing has reached levels now where it is not unreasonable to fear that corruption is endemic and entrenched behind the scenes, stretching from players to officials, boards to governing bodies. The three Pakistan players that were caught out in 2010 tends to drown out the whispers surrounding certain Sri Lankan players for some time now; the involvement of the South African team around the turn of the century is recalled when one considers the exile of Marlon Samuels for two years for providing information to bookmakers; Danish Kaneria’s lifetime ban from county cricket has parallels to allegations of fixing in the Indian Premier League. Put together, cricket has a serious problem. One has only to look at the extraordinary success with which Lance Armstrong covered his tracks for so long in cycling to know that it is foolish to presume that all is as it seems in a sport, or as its protagonists would have us believe.

Yet no-one is asking the hard questions in the weeks following the bombshell news about the umpires. Why is it still only independent news channels that are making us aware of a greater problem behind the scenes, with the game’s governing body always playing catch-up? Does the fact that umpires who are sanctioned by the ICC are corruptible mean we have to consider the sincerity of commitment of a financially-dependent institution to tackling wealthy mafias that have always preyed on cricket? If the International Cycling Union aided and abetted Armstrong in getting away with his crimes for so long, there is no reason for cricket fans to place their trust in an organisation that has so far failed to deliver results in the fight against corruption and has often seemed more willing to turn a blind eye than shed a light on the sport’s ugly side.

Sportsmen have always had a code of silence when it comes to protecting their world. No-one inside golf ever felt the need to spill the beans on Tiger Woods’s real personality behind the carefully packaged image; more regrettably, the ominous code of omerta enforced in cycling meant that many were prepared to take the secrets of Armstrong and his allies to “the grave” (in Tyler Hamilton’s words). It would be extremely interesting to be a fly on the wall in most cricket dressing-rooms, and hear what players have to say about the match-fixing disease away from the cameras. Rather than expressing the same amount of shock as they did to the public about the Pakistan scandal in 2010, the regrettable suspicion abides that some might have been laughing at how foolish they were to have been caught.

If the ICC continues to deal with match-fixing on a case-by-case basis, rather than designing a comprehensive program to smoke out and clear out every place in the game in which corruption has taken a hold, cricket will suffer a body blow from which its fragile popularity may not recover. The number of fans who have turned away from the game in Pakistan as a result of the failure to protect – and subsequent banishment – of two of its best cricketers should not be underestimated; if that was merely the tip of the iceberg, cricket needs to know now because the longer corruption is allowed to fester in the game, the worse the ramifications will eventually be.

Lessons of Hillsborough and Karachi tragedies must be absorbed to prevent further unnecessary loss of life

Remembrance of the Hillsborough tragedy has been forefront in everyone’s minds over the past week, and its lessons stretch well beyond the boundaries of British sport. It was as shocking to read about how 96 innocent football fans were asphyxiated to death in a section of the stadium amounting to a death trap, as it was to hear that 264 Pakistani workers were trapped by metal grilles and a lack of safety exits while a factory fire raged around them and they were burnt alive. In Britain, the Hillsborough tragedy ensured that safety standards were upped, while the silver lining in the cloud of revelations that came to the fore last week lay in the ability of its citizens to hold the government accountable and thereby bring about changes that could save lives. In Pakistan, what guarantee that the recent factory fires in Karachi and Lahore will result in honourable resignations and an urgency to correct antiquated structures that imperil people in such ghastly fashion?

As far as sport is concerned, it is always notable how cricket in the subcontinent is played before a fanatical following, who turn out in overwhelming numbers for T20 and one-day internationals and whose pens are delineated in the stadium by strong grilles in the front and to both sides. It would be a surprise to any Pakistani if the safety officials inside the stadium were aware of how many people each pen could take before the risk of a human crush like the one that happened at Hillsborough became a reality, or if they had measures in place to check the number of people in each pen at any given time. Similarly, there is little faith that safety stewards would know how to effectively stagger the number of people entering any pen in the stadium by standing at the entry tunnels, which was a key failing of the police at Hillsborough that resulted in fatal overcrowding.

The intersection of the Hillsborough report with the fatal fire in Karachi places fresh impetus on the Pakistan government to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again. As far as sport is concerned, it falls to the Pakistan Cricket Board to order a review of safety at all major cricket grounds so that one of the few instances in which people turn out en masse in that country can never be subject to the sort of irreversibly sad disaster that befell Hillsborough. India, too, has a track record of getting up to speed on sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games and the Indian Grand Prix in the most shabby and delayed fashion possible, and would do well to check back and ensure that no potentially fatal shortcuts were taken in the construction of stadiums, stands and terraces.

Armstrong’s concession lurches sports fans into uncertain new world where nothing is as it seems

In effectively holding up the white flag of surrender by allowing the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him for life, Lance Armstrong has burdened all of professional sport with the obligation to confront some ugly truths.

The cold clear light shone on Armstrong’s world by the testimony of former teammates complicit in his crimes still has the power to shock in a sport whose past scandals might have inured us to such feelings by now. In the light of USADA’s compiled evidence (soon to be released to the public), Tyler Hamilton’s interview to CBS about his and Armstrong’s partaking in the wider culture of doping in cycling (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQZnBpoC2jc) can now be taken at face value. His step-by-step deconstruction of the myth Armstrong and cycling spun, through detailing EPO packages sent back and forth between US Postal team members, furtive trips to Spain on private jets to reap the illegal benefits of blood transfusions and the apparent certainty with which Armstrong knew any positive tests would be covered up, reveals the incestuous extent to which cyclists and cycling’s governing body alike stitched doping into the fabric of the sport to further interests that were to do with anything but.

As big the man, and as hard the fall that awaits him, some of the evidence that the investigation surrounding him has thrown up impels us, USADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport to look beyond the story of one man’s downfall, and continue probing deeper in a bid to strike the dark heart of the problem. There is enough to suggest that the International Cycling Union (UCI) has been in on Armstrong’s game from at least as far back as 1999, and that they colluded with him to cover up positive tests and further a legend that brought financial rewards to all who were party to its construction. Armstrong continued to fall back on his last, specious bastion of defence yesterday in Austin by insisting that “the only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls [tests] I have passed with flying colours” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/lance-armstrong-issues-statement-over-usada-doping-charges/2012/08/23/839262ae-ed8f-11e1-866f-60a00f604425_story.html). Yet if such a misleadingly clean record was achieved with the complicity of his governing body, what hope remains for sports fans who would have wished to dismiss plausible conspiracy theories out of hand surrounding certain events in their chosen sports? If the UCI realised that by doing away with honesty and scripting a Hollywood-esque tale of glorious victory from the jaws of defeat in its place that fulfilled most of the storylines people seek from sport and guaranteed a windfall of cash, then why should we believe that FIFA acted from any different motive in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively? Perhaps more hard for people to believe, but no less worthy of investigation in the mistrustful atmosphere of the post-Armstrong world, is the conspiracy theory trotted about by some that Manchester City’s injury-time winner to secure the Premier League last season was not entirely organic. Another avenue for investigation lies in Spain, venue for the infamous ‘Operacion Puerto’, and a country where rumours that its successful national footballing team received “special” treatment from doctors can no longer be laughed away.

It is now the burden of responsibility of all sports fans, intrepid media personnel and those institutions that still haven’t lost sight of their decency and obligations to investigate any cloud of suspicion around their sport, rather than taking the easy route out of turning a blind eye and continuing business as usual. Otherwise, they leave themselves open to the kind of crushing disappointment and shattering unravelling of truth that cycling fans are grappling with now. Cricket fans might wish to believe that the problem of match-fixing was nipped in the bud when three Pakistani cricketers were banned in 2010, but a more plausible theory to advocate and investigate would be whether the International Cricket Committee banned them to quiet media efforts to probe gambling in cricket and thereby protect their own collusion with wealthy mafia who guarantee them higher incomes than their sport can provide. Those who dismiss such fear-mongering as the petty imaginings of fools disregard how the shoe has gone onto the other foot in the post-Armstrong world. Similarly, can we really trust the PGA to investigate Tiger Woods’s links to Anthony Galea – the Canadian doctor associated with doping athletes – thoroughly at the risk of jeopardising the career of an athlete who has brought staggering benefits to the game of golf and all those employed by it? There is no reason to believe Tiger Woods guilty, but at the same time, there is no longer any reason not to investigate and hopefully disprove any lingering threads of suspicion. This can be the only way in which an increasing number of fans are not lost to their sports through cynicism and a justifiable reticence to believe what they are watching.

For all those who cling on to the hope that it is next to impossible for a sportsman of Armstrong’s stature to lead a double life on and off the cameras in today’s paparazzi world, they have to ask themselves why it took over a decade for his deception to come to light. As with Tiger Woods who maintained an image of being a family man long after that world had ceased to exist, and countless politicians, powerful public figures can control their image through associating themselves with the right “advisors” (and Armstrong had countless of these) and offering important bodies sufficient incentive to get behind them. Sports administrators are as partial as any other person to the lure of money, and if making money means participating in the construction, dissemination and maintenance of a beautiful lie and selling the soul of their sport in the process, then that is what they have proved themselves capable of doing. From now on, nothing is too far-fetched, and no longer should true fans of any sport consider not coming to its rescue because they are enjoying potentially false storylines and epic dramas too much to care.

Something is rotten in the game of cricket

Amid all the brouhaha generated by Kevin Pietersen’s divisive personality, it would be easy to overlook what his rebellious actions reveal about the wider health of the game. Above and beyond his digressive complaints about the players’ schedule being too cramped and his problems within the England dressing-room, Pietersen’s sense of empowerment is a direct result of the presence of the IPL. If there were no IPL, Pietersen would have no worries about his cramped schedule, and if there were no IPL, he would not be able to treat Test and international cricket as a bargaining tool rather than a privilege he had a duty towards protecting and upholding.

His is the most high-profile case, and the thought of his retirement from the purest form of the game is startling for how young he is (32). However, zoom out and it fast becomes apparent that the IPL’s tawdry money has long begun ruining cricket. Lasith Malinga’s retirement from Test cricket at just 28 was tantamount to an admission that he was prioritising his fragile fitness for the IPL’s cash reward over any sense of duty to his career and what mattered in the game; Chris Gayle as much as blew smoke in the face of Test cricket by not turning up for a large part of West Indies’ tour of England earlier this year; Muttiah Muralitharan’s abrupt exit from Tests came as a surprise and could be attributed to the fact that easier money was to be had in the IPL in his last few years. The biggest worry is that more fast bowlers like Malinga, who put their body through a burden that cannot shoulder commitments to both the IPL and five-day cricket, will call it quits as early as their mid to late-twenties. This in turn will tilt the Test game even further in favour of batsmen, and render one of its most enthralling qualities – the contest between good batsmanship and quality, hostile fast bowling – redundant (a problem which was apparent during long spells of South Africa’s high-scoring matches with England).

When the game’s best players devote most of their training and efforts towards making sure they can participate in a month-long glamour tournament – or worse, retire altogether to announce themselves as mercenaries available for the highest-bidding T20 tournaments – it devalues Test cricket and means there is little worth in what is on display. England have been obsessing over the No.1 status and their impending battle to keep the crown from South Africa for some time now, without realising that they are big fish in a rapidly shrinking pond. The financially weaker nations of Sri Lanka, West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand have been decimated by their inability through money to command the attention of their players away from the lure of all the T20 leagues that have mushroomed around the world. If Australia, India, South Africa and England think the Test game can survive on the limited appeal of their roundabout contests, they are more myopic and selfish than was previously assumed.

The game I watched and loved is being taken apart at the seams by the onslaught of T20 and its association with money. If even England’s position as one of the financially stronger teams can no longer keep Kevin Pietersen from jumping ship, it will serve as a further continuation of the game’s tragic slide into irrelevance at the hands of administrators who couldn’t care less.

P.S. Faith in the ICC to manage market forces or gamblers from encroaching on areas that fans hold dear to the game has long been extinguished. Indeed, their submissive reaction to the world’s media and expectations in banning three Pakistan players for match-fixing in 2011 may have seemed laudable, but they have not carried out a single initiative since then to target the criminals who represent the heart of the problem and whose involvement in the game is unlikely to be silenced by the jailing of three players. Given how far India dictate matters to the ICC through their monopoly on the game’s cash flow, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that the mafias associated with cricket may have penetrated higher up its ranks than just the players. I will examine these issues, and how the banning of Muhammad Amir in particular has dealt Pakistan a body blow at a potentially critical juncture in its cricketing life, in another post soon.

Jail sentences for Pakistani cricketers signal game’s fall into the darkness

It hits me in waves and jolts that a captain who carried the renewed hopes of a nation in his leadership, a young cricketer who had the world at his feet, and a bowler whose artistry deepened my sense of joy and wonder for the game are now languishing in jail for abusing the same sport that they lit up so brilliantly. The sense of hurt and shame that has coursed through me since the jury returned their guilty verdict two days ago should be felt by everyone who loves cricket. The players were let down by their lack of character in the face of strong temptation, but also by a cricket board and culture that has long abused the gifts a wounded nation repeatedly throws at its feet. And what of the ICC and the wider cricketing fraternity, who have long looked out for their own interests first and ignored the urgent need for unity that a sport in peril so desperately requires? The BCCI solemnly condemns the actions of Pakistani cricketers, but does nothing to tackle the infecting betting rings that sit under its very own nose. England, India, South Africa and Australia are playing each other increasingly often in a ravenous attempt to maximise revenue, leaving the financially poorer nations to fend for themselves. Pakistani players are excluded year in, year out from the new wealth that has come into the game by way of the Indian Premier League. In such a climate, perhaps we should not feel as shocked as we do that this numbing saga has come to pass.

Two of the three guilty cricketers were poised to reanimate Test cricket with their brilliance for years to come – as they did, lest we forget, in England before their other activities came to light – and become heroes of the national and world games in the bargain. Instead, they will spend the next year of their lives in jail and the following four as fossilized human beings, rendered devoid of their natural calling by one self-inflicted wound too many.