Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A Spanking Shot

I love cricket. I couldn't tell you why, I was useless playing it as a child, but the sound of a ball being soundly middled sends a quite visceral little shiver through me. The sight of people in whites on a Saturday is one of the true joys of summer for me.

I'm also, as you might have noticed, a big fat Leftie liberal. I was dismayed when England toured Zimbabwe, and I talked about that, and the fate of Henry Olonga, over at my other blog at the time. I was horrified to discover that New Zealand was due to tour, and I've watched the political developments of the last couple of months over this issue with a kind of fatalistic despair, because it was pretty clear from very early on that we were going.

Politics and sport mix all the time. To say they don't is simply naive. But what became apparent is that, in this debate, knowledge of the two spheres, politics and cricket, remained entirely separate. There was an astonishing and almost perverse refusal in New Zealand politics to acknowledge how the ICC works, or to try to use that system to produce a desired result.

Cricket is a game steeped in history and politics. It's England's colonial game, is only played in countries where England has had, however temporarily, a colonial presence, and in African countries has traditionally been very much the white man's game. Administratively, cricket has changed out of sight through the last fifty years, but that colonial history is never forgotten. Look at the Ashes: however mythologised, that first victory over England was an important part of Australia asserting its nationhood and independence as a country equal to its parent rather than subservient. How much more significant in countries that fought wars and armed rebellions to free themselves from the English presence?

The International Cricket Council has just shifted its headquarters from Lords to Dubai. Why no, they're not big on cricket in Dubai. Partly this is for tax reasons - some of their offices are now based in Monaco - but it also reflects the reality that England is no longer the driving force behind cricket. The white man's game belongs to the subcontinent now. The driving force in cricket politically is India.

Phil Goff's attempt to approach the ICC with Jack Straw and Alexander Downer was a painfully gauche misstep diplomatically. As cricket writer Richard Boock said, in gathering all the white nations together, they may as well have gone in wearing their pith helmets with their native bearers behind them. The logical nation for us to approach would have been the one playing the tri series with us in Zimbabwe - India. But New Zealand doesn't have the cricketing clout to get India on side - we're not a world power, we don't have the kudos we'd have pushing this kind of a line in rugby, for instance. And the other problem is that few of the sub-continental cricketing countries could stand up to this kind of human rights scrutiny themselves. They see Zimbabwe being singled out as an easy target, and they're not wrong. There wouldn't be this level of fuss if we were touring Pakistan or Sri Lanka, and there won't be this level of fuss over the Beijing Olympics. (To be clear, I know there are a number of committed left-wing individuals in the blogosphere who are just as opposed to those things as they are to this, but I'm talking about the general public and political reaction to the tour.)

New Zealand cricket had a lot to lose over this - basically, the future of the game for the next decade or so in this country. Something around US$50m in fines and lost income on top of that, which would otherwise go to paying player salaries and developing the game at school and club level here. Possible World Cup co-hosting rights for 2011. And any future influence with the non-white governing clique of the ICC, over anything. I've heard some absolute rubbish talked about Martin Sneddon from people who've never paid any attention to cricket before. The guy is an astute operator, who knows the politics of cricket very well. He organised the tsunami relief games earlier in the year when a lot of commentators didn't think it was going to be possible. This included getting Australia to rearrange their domestic schedule at no benefit to themselves.

So we went. And what happened? We achieved a telling diplomatic blow by playing cricket. On the first day of the match, New Zealand made 492 runs at a tad under seven an over. On the second day we bowled Zimbabwe out twice in rapid succession, winning by more than three hundred runs. It was a crushing, humiliating defeat which seriously calls into question just WHY Zimbabwe has test-playing status, and whether that's more to do with their vote on the ICC than their ability to play cricket. And it's three days of lost revenue for Zimbabwe cricket, and for Sky, who now face gaping holes in their scheduling for the next three prime time evenings. The ground was near-deserted for the game. Ordinary Zimbabweans have more pressing things to worry about, and they don't in general, much go for cricket when they don't. The man who cares is the head of Zimbabwean cricket, Robert Mugabe.

The players had very few safe options left at this point. I'd raise an eyebrow at anyone sitting at a keyboard in New Zealand who'd say they'd be prepared to take a public stand in a country where people simply disappear. I don't believe the players are happy to be there: even if they personally had no problems with the regime, the tension and publicity would make the tour enormously unpleasant. I've never seen Stephen Fleming look as furtive and unhappy as he did walking through the airport in Harare.

I don't think they should be there. But now that they are, in the context of what they can safely do, I think they have delivered a palpable blow to Mugabe through the game he loves, and given the ICC the finger. But to understand that, you'd have to understand cricket. Before you scoff, remember we live in a country where rugby can swing an election result. No, it's not going to change anything in Zimbabwe. But we never had that option.

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