who's tampering with the old game?

the times, 23 august 2006

It's only a game, for God's sake. And, though some of us might be obsessed by it, it is a game that most people find highly obscure and support for which, at least in this country, dwindles by the year. So why has an arcane row about ball-tampering in cricket so dominated the news?

Inevitably, given that one of the teams involved in the row is Pakistan, many have tried to link the controversy to the War on Terror. It is no coincidence, the writer Mike Marqusee has suggested, that 'on the same day the Pakistanis were being called cheats at the Oval, two men of Asian appearance were ejected from an airplane in response to the racist paranoia of fellow passengers'. A Guardian leader claimed that the row could 'only fuel the alienation felt by some British Muslims at a time of great strain'.

Pride and prejudice have certainly played an important part in the farce that has developed over the past week. But Islamophobia? Strained relations with Muslims? Let's get real. Compared with recent Test series between England and Pakistan, the current tour has been good-natured. England and Pakistan players get on well, as do the respective cricket boards. There has been no trouble on or off the pitch.

Yet it is difficult not to view the row in political terms. Not just because of heightened sensitivities about anything seemingly related to Islam, but because cricket is undeniably not just a game. More than any other sport, cricket has been immersed in politics, especially the politics of race, class and empire. It is not surprising that when Norman Tebbit looked for a metaphor to describe national attachment, he turned to the cricket test. For more than 150 years cricket has been, in the eyes of many, the embodiment of all that is England. When the Rev James Pycroft wrote the first history of cricket in 1851, he noted that 'none but an orderly and sensible race of people would so amuse themselves' and that while 'English settlers everywhere play cricket', there was no cricket club that 'dieted either on frogs, sauerkraut or macaroni'.

The Victorians gave cricket its special place in English life, viewing it as a way both of transmitting the values of discipline and national pride to the new working class and of training the ruling class as guardians of Empire. The demarcation between amateur and professional in cricket was not a question of payment but of social status. The amateurs, the Gentlemen, were the aristocracy, both in society and in the game. The professionals, the Players, were the plebs. From the playing fields of Eton to countless village greens, cricket's internal code taught Gentlemen how to deal with Players in the real world. Lord Harris, a past MCC secretary and governor of Bombay, introduced cricket to India to teach "moral lessons to the masses".

For some the old spirit of Empire still lives on. 'When we gave up the Empire and the white man’s burden', W. F. Deedes, the former Daily Telegraph editor, has written, 'we passed much of the load on to our cricketers'. In recent years English cricket's administrators have tried frantically to shake off such a fusty image and to rebrand the game as a sport for modern multicultural Britain. The fuss over England's new bowling sensation Monty Panesar, a Sikh, shows how desperate the game is to be viewed as a reflection of contemporary Britain rather than of an old Empire.

Yet the truth is that, the cricket mania following last year's Ashes win notwithstanding, not only is cricket becoming less important in England, but England is becoming less important to international cricket. Lord's remains the 'home of cricket'. But the real power in the game has shifted eastwards, to Australia and in particular, to India.

Australia is without question the best team in the world. And India has become the financial powerhouse of the game. It boasts the biggest crowds and the richest cricketing board. Last December Sahara, the airline company, agreed to a new deal sponsoring the Indian cricket team to the tune of £40 million over five years. Another sponsor, Nike, has agreed to pay up £25 million. In comparison Vodafone has a four-year deal with the England team worth just £15 million.

India has used its financial clout to try to gain greater power in the game and to wrest control of the International Cricket Council, the game's governing body, from the traditional power brokers, England and Australia. In this it has won the support of other subcontinental countries, including its traditional enemy, Pakistan. For these countries cricket continues to play as important a role in national life and in helping define national identity as it once used to in England.

This changing cricketing world order has created unease within the 'old Commonwealth'. Martin Crowe, a former New Zealand batsman and now a Sky executive, recently gave the prestigious Cowdrey Lecture at Lord's. Why, he asked, have 'so few questions (been) raised about the way the Asian subcontinent has taken a stranglehold on world cricket?'. Many of those from the subcontinent dismiss such worries as old-fashioned racism.

It is against this background that we need to see the current row. The Australian umpire at the centre of the controversy, Darrell Hair, has clashed consistently with Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India over a series of controversial decisions. His record shows, in fact, that he has been as willing to upset white players as well as Asian ones. But in the context of the in-fighting within cricket, and of the shifting balance of power within the game, the spat between an Aussie umpire and a subcontinental team has become symbolic of something much bigger.