Cricket news from ESPN

Friday, 28 November 2014

Cricket, Australia

It felt so wrong, so screwed, so illusory, to see David Warner outside a hospital raising his hand to his eyes to futilely try and stem a flood of tears. This is the jock of jocks, the Aussie epitome. The joker, the lovable brute, the puncher. You just don't want to see him having to be held upright by Candice, this bristling lion of a man you've so often watched prowling and pouncing about a cricket outfield reduced to such a state of impotence by grief. It is a macabre fantasy. 

Ten minutes later Malcolm Conn, the resolute CA head of media, iconic ex-journalist and a soul who loves to josh, bait and squabble on Twitter - not least famously with Warner himself - arrives on a BBC radio news bulletin, his voice crumpling into a heap as he tries to pay tribute to Phil Hughes and his infectious smile. This isn't what cricket is. This isn't what Australia's men of cricket are. This just doesn't take place in my understanding of the game or them.

We can all over egg our perceptions, of course, but Australia vaunts the notion of unbowed machismo in its cricketers probably more than any other nation. The country's present captain had to battle for many years against the idea that he was, despite ever mounting greatness, not quite to be trusted. The peroxide, the photoshoots, the model girlfriend and accompanying scandal greeted with a hint of schadenfreude by his detractors. Full, unadulterated acceptance was, to an outside observing pom, only fully granted after his innings in Cape Town earlier this year when he walked off the field with 161* to his name and a graffiti of bruises and pain tagged all over his body. South Africa, and Morne Morkel in particular, had earlier subjected him to a short-pitched barrage of such piercing violence that you feared, well, we all now know just so precisely and devastatingly what anyone watching cricket at its most viscerally thrilling and gladiatorial can legitimately fear. Except back then we didn't. Because, at the time, the concept of a fatality was, regardless of Morne's ferocity and the basic logic of knowing what a 150kph rock could do, just a peripheral, distant thought compared to the irresistible, pugilistic magnificence of the cricket to which we were privileged to witness.

Watching Clarke sit in front of the media on Thursday to read, with a dignity and stoicism near impossible to conceive, a statement on behalf of Phil Hughes's parents, I couldn't but think back to that knock at Newlands. The relentless targeting from Morkel, the balls rearing up like leather grenades, Australia's leader taking the blows, reeling slightly at times and at others seeming near broken and literally if not figuratively on his knees, but making his stricken muscles, bones and flesh carry on. I have rarely, if ever, seen a cricketer endure such intense and sustained brutality, but it was an irrelevance compared to the horror which Clarke must have been feeling as he sat there having to somehow force out the beautiful yet heart-crushing words of his close friend's family to a despairing and numbed country, sport and world. 

Phil Hughes has left us and left us all broken. Watching David Warner's tears and hearing Malcolm Conn's, it still seems a sadistic trick the gods have played, a spiteful toying with decency, goodness and our comfortable normality to bolster the case of any atheist. Australia and its cricket, its summer pearl, lifeblood and compass, is traumatised with sadness. But its machismo, whether you interpret that through the prism of Chappell, Border or Clarke, will inevitably drag a nation up again from the bed of grief on which it presently lies distraught and agonised. This is cricket. This is life. And Australia just simply doesn't stay on its knees for long in either. And that is surely exactly how Phil Hughes would want it. 

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Thud of a Cricket Ball

The thud of a cricket ball can swiftly remove anyone from humanity. The savage damage it can inflict. The initial momentary shock, then the sharp, acidic pain, followed by the blackness on the turf just a prelude to the potentially and, from the armchair, easily forgotten consequences. Cricket is a sport for the bold, however fey it is categorised by those who fail to comprehend its valour. The gut-slicing but wholly unnecessary guilt and nauseating despair of the bowler who struck the blow. The terrible, recognisably unique, beckoning gestures of the players standing over their fallen peer with their faces already slightly pallid and gaunt with horror as the life of their contemporary hangs in the balance. The rush and panic of the medical staff, those professionally trained to remain calm in the worst of circumstances, but whose unadulterated concern betrays them. Mouth-to-mouth on a cricket field. The sheer awfulness of it and later the lives of the batsman's friends, family and dependents also suspended in a heartless, intolerable limbo, waiting for news outside an Intensive Care Unit. It is existence's worst manifestation of despair, stripped to its soul and devastating everyone involved. Phil Hughes's mother and sister witnessed it all in person from their seats in the stadium to the hospital in which he now lies, fighting to survive. It is unimaginable. 

The thud of a cricket ball also brings us closer to humanity. The responses it provokes. The unified outpourings of grief and empathy from around the world. The "Thoughts and prayers with you, Phil"s, the "You're a fighter, Hughesy!"s, the numerous "Inshallah"s rendering anything as objectively seismic as the schisms between oppositions, faiths and nationalities utterly trivial. As Hughes battles to overcome one of the most sickening injuries the game has known, the period since he was struck has been and remains probably the most upsetting purgatory of hours for cricket I can ever recall. It has also been one of its most elegant, dignified and uplifting, reminding us about the very nature of sport: That it is, of course, a fantasy forum for quashing our faux-hated rivals but is in reality a thousand times over, with apologies to music, the world's premier means of brokering the simplistic yet undeniable notion that the best of people is brought out by shared interest. It is perhaps shallow and grasping to try to make any point about what happened yesterday beyond the fact that a man is fighting for his life. For me, though, the thud of a cricket ball, while undeniably showing how terrifyingly parlous life can be, has also revealed life at its most beautiful and decent. And that is the most fitting and deserved welcome possible to which Phil Hughes, a sportsman, son and brother, will wake up. 

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Ukip "appalled but thrilled" by Moeen booing

Looking to further bolster electoral popularity following on from their by-election victory on Thursday, Ukip today moved to firm up support within the British Asian community by stating their official policy on last summer's booing of "sort of" English cricketer, Moeen Ali, was one of "horror and delight."

Mark Sendhambach, deputy leader of the party and nauseatingly self-satisfied prick, elaborated on the stance: "The booing of Moeen was born of an immensely complex set of circumstances involving the nature of Britishness, colonialism, race and immigration. As the most unnuanced and thick as pigshit group of people on earth, we feel we are best-placed to sort it all out. So we condemn outright the darki...sorry, can't say that these days....we condemn outright the 'British' Asians who were booing that other darki...sorry, ha, my mistake....booing that other British Asian, yet applaud the refusal to bow to political correctness of those foreigners who booed that other foreigner. Let's be honest, if none of them were here we wouldn't have this problem. Or that funny smell you get from their houses. Know what I mean? I love a curry. But you know what I mean? It is a bit, y'know?"

Wading into the debate, popular Wigan FC chairman, Dave Whelan, said that he was equally torn because he had "thousands of friends with those big beards like those funny fuzzy ones they all have" but that "no one chases totals like those Indians". A joint statement from Labour and the Conservatives was unambiguous in its shite cowardice: "We'd rather not comment, to be honest, because our strategy of not facing down outright prejudice dressed up as legitimate grievances and allowing racism to dominate the British political agenda is working incredibly well for both of us." A spokesman for those Indian fans who booed Ali last summer said, "Yeah, Farage is a bit of a fuckwit. We'll probably have a think about things." 

Meanwhile, a Sky correspondent stationed close to Basil D'Oliveira's grave reported "a strong element of turning", whilst large swathes of British people with an iota of global awareness and sense of history just shot themselves in the head out of utter fucking despair. Enoch Powell was unavailable for comment. 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Pressing the case for ECB Reform

For better or worse, Alastair Cook is a nice man. That seems, to me, fairly irrefutable. Even as the whole Pietersen ECB portaloo of chaos turned on its side and drenched all those inside in a slurry of bitterness, it was apparent that the England captain's main crime was one of anti-Blairite, non-interventionist passivity rather than Brutus-type assassination. The main accusation levelled at him was that he stared at his shoes in the meeting when Pietersen got served his bullet, rather than any suggestion he himself pulled the trigger. But when good men do nothing etc... 

The problem with Cook - in the sense of redressing the antipathy so many fans have towards the England side and governing body who have kept him in situ - is that he does share Tony Blair's propensity for empty sound bites at every opportunity, but literally none of them land with the public in the way that the ex-premier's, love or loathe him, undoubtedly did at times. Watching him today in his press conference ahead of the Sri Lanka tour, he sat there in his breezily pleasant way, going through his roster of disarming aphorisms, his rosy, chiseled cheekbones as ever giving off the air that England are led by a Stepford Wife rather than a cricketer. He suggested England were in good shape heading to Sri Lanka, that the boys were looking forward to the tour and batted off the inevitable Pietersen question by saying the squad had not spoken about the book or situation and that the "camp was a better place" because of it. Tick, tick, tick. 

Cook, along with those left to toe the line (with some honourable exceptions), has been hard-wired into this media-trained monotony by his seniors and it grates for two reasons. Firstly, because it does Cook and the players themselves no favours in the bad times, when fans want to hear guttural despair rather than empty platitudes. And secondly, and most damningly, because, as any English cricket journalist honest enough to admit will acknowledge, the ECB media operation is run by those whose methodology is about as far removed from Cook's projections of quiet decency as imaginable.Sven-Göran Eriksson, admittedly not a paragon of virtue himself, would undoubtedly concur.

In twenty-five years of being obsessed with sport, I simply cannot recall any individual who has been briefed against by their own national administrative body as much as Pietersen has been. Every member of the press pack knows what's gone on. In many respects, it is just normal. It is a normal relationship between those defending power and those needing access to it, and it inevitably gets a bit rough and mucky. It is naive to think otherwise, but it is simply impossible to conclude that the ECB, or Cook himself, have ultimately been well served by how their press office has operated in the last year. You can criticise Pietersen's own behaviour, silly post-textgate YouTube video and ultimately unhelpful alignment with Piers Morgan, but this became a turf war the ECB could have chosen to deal with via a dignified aloofness but instead opted to counteract with whispered smears to trusted journalists, who were then left twisting in the wind when the allegations turned out to be utterly false. In fact, that itself is not quite true. They did deal with it with aloofness - repeatedly refusing to explain the reasons behind the sacking - but still managed to be fully engaged with media incompetency on numerous occasions. Even their much trumpeted Weapons of Misdemeanour dodgy dossier only actually materialised in a truncated, savagely ridiculed form via a botched leak, which for me should have been the signal for a senior head to roll in that media operation. If your whole autobiography fire-fighting strategy - which you've had six months to prepare - is geared around acting as a colander for a spittle of dubious accusations and you can't even leak that properly, then what on earth are you doing there?

The damaging paradox in all this - especially for those of us engrossed in Twitter - is derived from the fact that the papers which wield the most power, The Sun, The Mail, and The Telegraph, are those which have also taken the most anti-Pietersen stance. However much those of us online bleat about anachronistic incompetence, the ECB high brass can look at the coverage their media team has secured in that triumvirate and convince themselves - when do you think Clarke or Downton last checked Twitter? - it's been a job well done. It hasn't been, and the parallel strategy of just posting tedious videos of footballers playing cricket - imagine such a thing!!?? - and Graeme Swann titting about interminably is simply failing to engage people. A mediocre online operation (it is painful to admit how smooth Cricket Australia's is compared) as a corollary to those in seniority whispering sweet nothings to complicit hacks will inevitably come unstuck the more and more news moves away from its traditional roots. Pietersen's near immediate tweeted response to the trophy story is the best possible illustration of the way the wind is blowing.  At the moment, the ECB media team are pissing into it. 

Alastair Cook, whether or not he should be playing ODI cricket for England, is a nice man and undeniably a tremendous servant to his country. He deserves a lot more than being a media strait-jacketed hoover, to borrow a word, for the disgust of England fans, myself included. It's not his fault he's from a nice family. It's someone's fault no one stopped Clarke from saying it. It's not his fault chief selector James Whitaker couldn't even give a politburo style one-on-one interview with a friendly journalist without his phone going off. It's someone's - a press minder's - fault it was allowed to happen. It's not his fault Downton couldn't even keep to the terms of the ECB's own gagging order about Pietersen's book. It's the fault of those who prime the players to speak like automatons but allow the gaffe-prone hierarchy free rein to look  and sound and read like pompous nincompoops. It's not his fault someone printed a nonsense story about Pietersen not attending team lunches, which his wife scathingly refuted. It's the fault of the person who picked up the phone and lied through his teeth about it.

I don't envy anyone in the ECB press office who's had to deal with the vitriol of the last year, but the simple fact remains that the relationship of the England cricket team with the public as a whole - not just people who get their news from those three vaunted outlets above - has never been lower. Results have obviously been a factor, but time after time after time the ECB's media operation has shot itself in the face when taking aim at Pietersen's groin. It has been, by anyone's standards, a parade of shambles to rival even FIFA. People think Cook has got some chutzpah for clinging on to his position, but if I was the person responsible for crafting the most disastrous reputation of an English sporting outfit since - well, the Faria Alam scandal - I'd be embarrassed to still be in my job. 

Friday, 17 October 2014

Prosecution Call for Pistorius to Sit Through Entire India-Sri Lanka ODI Series

Pretoria - In closing arguments ahead of Oscar Pistorius's sentencing for culpable homicide next week, chief prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, called for the fallen idol to have to watch all five of the hastily scheduled India versus Sri Lanka ODIs. Nel - who is known as "The Pitbull" because he shares a surname with snarling fast-bowling gargoyle Andre - argued that this punishment would be "far more unbearable"for the disgraced athlete than the maximum custodial sentence of ten years. 

Addressing the court, an impassioned Nel implored the trial judge thus: "My Lady, we accept that this was all clearly a bit of an accident which could have happened to anyone, but even so, the prosecution feels that the state must send a message that shooting people for going to the toilet isn't really on. A long prison sentence was our initial preference, but in light of developments in India, we believe being forced to repeatedly watch Thisara Perera bowl to Ambati Rayudu in the middle overs on a road is the worst possible punishment anyone could ever face."

Legal observers feel Nel has little chance of having his wish granted because a sentence of such utter depravity may well infringe Pistorius's human rights. However, there were signs of a compromise being reached when the chief prosecutor indicated that he may accept the defence's plea bargain of Pistorius being spared both prison and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan's commentary "if he watches a YouTube compilation of Dwayne Bravo's hilarious dance moves on loop for six months." The trial continues. 


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Cricketers on Holiday: Memories and Regrets

The domestic one day cup final at Lord's is not only one of English cricket's gala events, but also a rather sad indication that summer is coming to an end. For some, this is no bad thing. Philip Larkin, for instance, wrote in his verse Mother, Summer, I of “an autumn more appropriate”, explaining that he was relieved the beauty of summer had finished because the sunny weather carried with it the obligation to have a carefree and joyous time, something which was entirely against his natural character. Many traditional cricket fans possibly find that poem of great comfort whenever they accidentally tune in to the IPL, but the point is that most souls, Larkin aside, do regret the days shortening gloomily and the leaves turning so prodigiously their action may well come under ICC suspicion. So, in order to try and preserve the spirit of summer for just a little while longer, we asked some of cricket's leading luminaries to give us their favourite holiday memories of their younger days:

Luke Wright, Sussex and England
“Coming from Grantham we often used to head off to nearby Skegness. I remember one time I was walking behind an old man on a packed beach and he dropped a pound coin. Of course, I immediately picked it up and gave it back to him. He was very grateful, but then everybody on the beach stood up and started cheering and applauding my honesty. Then the local paper came down and took my picture and in the end the town mayor held a huge street festival in my honour. It was all a bit embarrassing really, just for doing something almost everyone else would would have done, and especially as there were loads of people watching me anyway. I'm glad we don't have this sort of bemusing veneration of subjective morality in cricket.”

Alastair Cook, England Captain
“Nowadays, of course, leading England and practising my resolute look into the middle distance doesn't leave me much time for summer holidays, but back in the day I'd often pop down to Southend-on-Sea with the folks. One of my favourite activities was actually Go-Karting and even back then I was already something of a strategist. A lot of the other kids would zoom off at the start, rather naively thinking this was the best way to win, but I liked to keep a steady pace at the back of the pack. After studying Go-Kart algorithms on my Commodore 64, I'd worked out that nobody wins a race unless they finish it so when all the other drivers crashed into each other or the track barriers and had to retire I'd feel pretty vindicated with my victory. My best friend Graeme kept pointing out that I only ever won about one in every nine races, but I solved that problem by saying Graeme couldn't be my friend any more and not speaking to him.”

Andrew Gale, Yorkshire Skipper
“I'm not a big fan of overseas, but I recall one year me and some mates went to South Africa to do some fruit picking. We had all the right work visas and stuff, but the local farm workers kept telling us to go home because we were taking their jobs. I'm afraid I've subsequently found this blinkered attitude rather typical of foreigners as a whole so now I just tend to holiday in Britain during the off season. A couple of weeks at a B&B in Leeds in mid-November is my idea of heaven.”

Bob Willis, Sky Analyst
“I'm from County Durham, so it wasn't uncommon that we'd go across the border to Scotland for our holidays. One year in the early sixties we stayed near the Queen's country retreat of Balmoral and I actually got to play croquet with some of the younger royals. I'm obviously not one to moan, but what should have been an incredible experience was completely ruined by the weather. “This rain's bloody terrible, isn't it, Robert?”, said one of the soaked through princes, turning to me with a disappointed sigh. I shook my head in sympathy: “Absolutely awful, Charles,” I replied.

Geoffrey Boycott, England and Yorkshire opener
“When I were young, the only holiday I wanted were taking a quick single up the other end if Mikey Holding was on! He were quick. Sorry, what was the question? My favourite holiday when I was a child? Oh right, well I remember my mother did take us along to Scarborough a few times. She'd make a lovely picnic, a few sticks of rhubarb, and then let me play beach cricket with all the other youngsters. People don't realise, but it could be very hot in Scarborough in the summer and, of course, in those days beaches were uncovered so there were no sun umbrellas available. Didn't stop me batting for long periods, though, and I never got burnt like my dear old mum. I'd say to her, “You've caught the sun” and she'd reply, “What? In my pinny?” and I'd say, “You could have done! Underrating the danger of UV rays is that easy!”. Then I'd have a little chuckle to myself and get back to batting. I bloody love beach cricket. You can barely score a run even if you want to. Happy days.”

Nick Knight, Sky Sports Commentator
“Was one of the great joys of going away on holiday helping my mum to pack? Yes, I suppose it was. I recall watching her look things out to put in her suitcase and being enthralled by which ones she ultimately decided on: Sun cream.....should take it............does take it!! Hair dryer.....should take it.........does take it!! Inflatable lilo......should take it.......Oh, no! Doesn't take it!! Did I use to love that aspect of going away? Yes, I guess I did.”  


Friday, 19 September 2014

ECB decide Gale To Be Booed By India Fans For Two Matches

It was today announced that Yorkshire captain, Andrew Gale, will be sanctioned for his outburst at Lancashire's Ashwell Prince by being booed for two matches by the Indian fans who recently abused Moeen Ali. The ECB disciplinary commission which imposed the measure said that they believed the best way for someone accused of doing something which people weren't completely sure was racist to be punished was to be subjected to an ordeal which people weren't completely sure was racist. 

Speaking after the hearing, ECB chairman, Giles Clarke, explained the thinking: “While we don't think that telling someone to, “Fuck off back to your own country” is terribly pleasant, we couldn't quite agree on whether the words 'You Kolpak fucker' were racist or merely an expression of Mr Gale's frustration at present EU employment law as it affects Britain. In his evidence to the commission, Mr Gale claimed that he only used the word 'Kolpak' to save time because his side were trying to get in another over before close of play. Had he not been in such a rush he said he would have elaborated upon his point by instead shouting, 'Fuck off back to your own country, you economic migrant whose legal right to work here I take issue with'. We, er, again weren't entirely sure if that was racist either so in the end decided that the best thing to do would be for Mr Gale to be given a dose of some possibly racist medicine by being possibly racistly booed by some possibly racist Indians. It's a pickle to be honest.”

When it was pointed out to Clarke that a few Indian fans jeering Gale would probably be construed as just a bit odd rather than in any way racist, the ECB chairman responded that in addition to the booing, the Yorkshire skipper would also be banned from eating any biryani cooked by Ambati Rayudu for three years. "We are determined to take a very firm stand indeed on possible racism,” he said very firmly.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Will Cook fuck the fuck off?

There's a bit in The Thick of It, the expletive-laden BBC political comedy, where spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker - Dr Who to younger readers - tries to convince minister Hugh Abbott that there is such a thing as "a good resignation". Abbott responds incredulously, astounded at the idea any falling on his sword could have a positive, but Tucker reassures him thus: 

"Look, people really like it when you go just a bit early! You know; steely jawed, faraway look in your eyes! Before you get to the point when they're sitting round in the pub saying "Oh, that fucker's got to go!", you surprise them! "Blimey, he's gone! I didn't expect that! Resigned? You don't see that much anymore! Old school! Respect! I rather liked the guy! He was hounded out by the fucking press!" How about that, eh? What a way to go!" Abbott instead chooses to cling on, later in the episode expressing regret that he's missed his "ideal resigning point." 

Quitting the captaincy of your country because you no longer think you're up to it - ask Michael Vaughan - must be one of the most distressing things a sportsman ever has to do. It's wholly understandable Cook should want to stay in position, but everybody in world cricket except the ECB can see he missed his ideal resigning point as ODI skipper a long, long time ago. You'd have to be pretty mean-spirited to ever describe someone as docile and inoffensive as Cook - however blindly stubborn he is - as "a fucker", but the anger towards him down the pub is real nonetheless, even if it's still substantially dwarfed by the, fully justified, anger on Twitter. 

Slow-moving, doomed and a relic of the last century, the England ODI side have become cricket's Titanic, the only difference being the Titanic wasn't actually captained by the iceberg. The ECB won't change course and sack Cook because it would be an admission of their own longstanding ignorance and failures concerning the trends of global limited overs cricket. It's Cook alone who can save England from himself and no one would think any less of him for doing so. It will be far too late, but by sacrificing himself for the good of the team - the most selfless act any captain can undertake - Alastair Cook can still have a good resignation. 

Friday, 29 August 2014

Jesse: The Movie

Enough Said was James Gandolfini's final film before being all too abruptly whacked by the beyond. He plays a divorcee, unavoidably of some physical presence, who inadvertently starts to date his ex-wife's new masseuse. She's played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, carrying her Veep form onto the big screen to such great effect she makes AB de Villiers look out of nick. 

Though ostensibly a romcom, it barely feels like one given it isn't overly formulaic and makes a convincing attempt at gently exposing the flaws of adults passing into middle-age. One of the tenets of Gandolfini's character - one of the reasons for the breakdown of his marriage - is that he's a bit of a lumbering slob, a point illustrated in one scene where his and Louise-Dreyfus's attempts at stepping up their relationship in the bedroom are thwarted by his clumsy pawing and heaving stature. The only problem with this facet of the story is that, for all his genius, Gandolfini isn't overly convincing as a cack-handed brute. It's no comment on his flawless acting. It's just that he belongs to a very specific category of colossally-framed men which exude grace rather than oafishness. 

Jesse Ryder's dimensions aren't quite on a par with Gandolfini's but he shares that unshakable inability to make a surfeit of flesh look inelegant. On Thursday, he batted in vain for 90 in the Royal London Cup quarter final, at the start of his knock playing the ball as often as possible right beneath those eyes which are part eagle and part traumatised Nam vet. He was initially cautious trying to scaffold Essex's rickety chase, but the photon off side slashes and drives started to emerge, their ridiculous power and pace emphasised, not that it were needed, by the cosy boundaries of Chelmsford. In this mode, there's rarely an ounce of energy misplaced in them, just a happy consummation between timing and muscle. There's rarely an ounce of energy misplaced in anything he does. He even fist-bumps the way you imagine Baloo might fist-bump Mowgli if they'd ever batted together, a gentle paw barely impacting the knuckles of his fellow batsman. 

Towards the end of his knock he took his Kiwi colleague Jeetan Patel, a pivotal figure this success strewn last couple of weeks for Warwickshire, for a couple of sixes. The first he anticipated the turn precisely, his perfect, louche, southpaw Mickelson swing sending the ball arrowing back immediately back over the bowler's head. The second he played squarer, across the line and against the turn over wide long on, but it was as pure a straight drive as imaginable. Ryder's bat and tyrannical forearms ended up above his head as the familiar dark bit of cloth he has hanging out of the back of his helmet bounced off the base of his neck. That piece of fabric is a great thing, after a long stint in the middle giving him the air of a world-weary Mongol warrior who's nonetheless still utterly committed to the aesthetics of combat.  

For all the grace and thrills, there's something a bit sad about seeing him bat like that, knowing all the strength, beauty and luthier's touch is part of the same person who's suffered the problems he has as you can't help but wonder just how far he's come in finally overcoming them. Largely succeeding, Enough Said works incredibly hard to be bittersweet. Jesse Ryder, cricket's Gandolfini, last night nailed it without trying. 

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Moeen and the World's Murky Matrix

This morning the campaigning media organisation, Exaro News, was preparing to publicise they had eventually secured the release of a police report handed to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in 1970. The document outlined the police's strong belief that the Liberal MP for Rochdale, Cyril Smith, was a long term sexual abuser of children. The report was suppressed and never acted on and so Smith, a friend and most likely paedophilic cohort of Jimmy Savile, was left unprosecuted and free to carry on his behaviour for decades more until his death in 2010.  Another public figure, another grimy cover up. 


At around the same time on Test Match Special, Jonathan Agnew and Vic Marks were discussing the ICC's decision to ban Moeen Ali from wearing two wristbands which stated "Free Palestine" and "Save Gaza". Despite the support of the ECB, Ali was censored by cricket's world body because, according to a spokesman, "equipment and clothing regulations do not permit the display of messages that relate to political, religious or racial activities or causes during an international match". Marks was his usual phlegmatic, sharp self, adopting the persona he always does for complex matters, one of resigned regret that the world throws up such thorny matters but attempting to see the nuances. Agnew was rather firmer, suggesting that there should be "zero tolerance" of any such political statements on the cricket field. He then seamlessly moved on to talk about the British military charity, Help for Heroes, whose logo was being worn on the England players' collars, including that of Ali himself. Regardless of one's views on Gaza or the British Military and government's various foreign interventions, it was peculiar that neither Agnew nor the ICC had spotted the apparent double standard. 

During their chat on Ali's stance, Marks and Agnew had brought up Basil D'Oliveira, the South African born cricketer who in 1968 was barred from playing for England in his apartheid-blighted home country because of his skin colour. The inference was that Dolly differed from Ali in that he never mentioned his absurd predicament on the field and so was thus dealing with political matters in a more refined way than the present England all rounder. This point overlooked the fact that D'Oliveira was so trapped in a mesh of political and racial politics he had no option but to allow others to fight his cause for him, most notably another TMS commentator, John Arlott and the Reverend David Sheppard (a Test cricketer who went on to become the Bishop of Liverpool). That particular 1968 tour was eventually called off, but South African sports teams were still allowed to visit Britain, although the Springboks rugby tour of 1969 was severely disrupted by protesters led by a young Kenyan-born anti-apartheid student campaigner who was to go on to become a UK foreign office minister and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The actions of that activist and his fellow protesters extended to sabotaging the Twickenham pitch with nails and eventually the situation was deemed so parlous that the scheduled 1970 visit of the South African cricket team was also eventually cancelled, much to the disappointment of both the two nations' cricket boards and governments. 

The student continued his anti-apartheid protests, becoming no stranger to court fines, but things took a more sinister turn in 1972 when an attempt was made on his life, by - it is strongly alleged - the South African secret service. The letter bomb sent was opened by his sister but thankfully malfunctioned. Four years later, the student was prosecuted for allegedly stealing £490 from a branch of Barclays Bank. The case was one of clear cut mistaken identity and he was acquitted amid suspicions he had been framed by the same organisation who had sent the letter bomb. So pitiful was the prosecution's case, there were calls for the DPP to resign.


The other cricket-based political controversy which was brought up today in light of Moeen's wristband ban was that of Andy Flower and Henry Olonga protesting against the 'death of democracy' in Mugabe's Zimbabwe during the 2003 World Cup. Then the British government left England captain, Nasser Hussain, twisting in the wind over whether or not his side should fulfill their fixture against the hosts in Harare. In the end, Hussain chose not to, incurring the wrath of the ICC and the loss of a couple of group points, although by this point matters on the field seemed rather inconsequential. Eight years earlier (when an opposition MP), a member of that 2003 Blair government had written a thriller called "The Peking Connection" in which a sympathetic portrait of a Mugabe clone had been painted, with the MP allegedly even going on to present the book in person to the Zimbabwean dictator. For those brought up in the shadow of British colonialism and apartheid, as the politician was, viewing Mugabe as a bulwark to the ills of white men rather than the land-grabbing tyrant he was to become was a not uncommon view, but ultimately a very damaging one. Mugabe stayed in power and by 2003 Flower and Olonga were suffering along with millions of their countrymen. The novelist, by that point a minister, had also become one of the dictator's biggest critics. 


The Director of Public Prosecutions who decided to try the anti-apartheid student for robbery in 1976 on flimsy evidence but, for whatever reason, decided to let the police's deep fears about Cyril Smith in 1970 go unheeded was the same man, Sir Norman Skelton. That victimised student himself was the same man, Peter Hain, who went on to become a government minister, apparently shifting his views on Mugabe along the way. 

It's a murky, dirty, interconnected matrix of a world whose permanently fluctuating ills are inbred over decades and centuries. Sport and cricket cannot pretend they do not play or haven't played their part or that they are not firewood in the furnace of geopolitics. Flower, Hain, Mugabe, Skelton, Olonga and D'Oliveira are all interlinked, tenuously in some instances, but interlinked nonetheless.

In the context of all the above, banning a pair wristbands ranks fairly low on the list of establishment cover ups, but the ICC looks hypocritical for telling Ali to shut up about his choice of political gesture while allowing the England team to so overtly display their collective one. Even if we eschew history and accept the facade that cricket and politics don't mix, then the sport's governing body should go about maintaining such a facade in an even-handed manner. The very least Moeen Ali should get is a statement from the ICC clarifying why his wristbands weren't permitted but his collar logo was. When those in authority can't adequately explain why they want things kept quiet, it's always time for everyone else to start shouting just a little bit louder. 


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