Angus Fraser: Stakes have become too high
Touring Asia used to be one of the game's great pleasures but those days are now over
Wednesday 04 March 2009
The dream of every aspirant young cricketer as he advances through the county system is to make his Test or one-day debut and then represent his country in exotic sounding destinations like Barbados, Cape Town, Mumbai, Sydney or Lahore. Playing in front of a home crowd is magnificent fun but touring with England is the ultimate experience.
Before "9/11" accepting an invitation to tour was a simple decision. It presented a quandary that took precisely one second of your time to solve. But that changed forever yesterday when the first terrorist bullet was fired at the Sri Lankan cricket team as it made its way to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore.
Up until that moment most cricketers believed that they were not and were unlikely to be the targets of terrorists. Yes, there was the possibility of a player being caught in the fallout of an attack on a city centre, but with the world being as it is there was a possibility of this happening whether you were shopping in Birmingham or Bangalore. In a strange way there were times when you actually felt safer in Asia, where cricketers are figures of worship. For many of the regions fans it was Sachin Tendulkar, Wasim Akram or Muttiah Muralitharan who provided rare moments of excitement and joy.
It is hard to believe the stomach of any true cricket fan failed to feel numb and empty once it became clear that Mahela Jayawardene's side were the intended targets of the abhorrent act. Every player who has toured Asia will have sat on a similar bus and made similar journeys to and from the ground they were playing at. On occasion each of us would have nervously looked out of the coach window and questioned the motives of the motorbike driver inquisitively staring at you.
But on nearly every occasion the stare turned to a smile once he had realised the coach was filled with cricketers. Considering the humble life of most of these people it was easy to thank your lucky stars for the position you were in. Your escort to the ground may have consisted of Jeeps full of armed guards and police cars with sirens blaring, but as you made your way to work you did not feel in peril.
Yesterday's act has placed cricketers in a horrible position because it will now make them seriously question doing what they have spent most of their life attempting to do. Teams cannot tolerate players picking and choosing the tours they go on. It does nothing for team spirit, but it may become an issue the selectors have to tolerate. Never before have the stakes been so high. Most cricketers accept that the job of playing international cricket goes further than simply bowling or hitting a small hard piece of leather. The honour of representing your country carries extra responsibility and there are times when you are required to place yourself in a position others would happily avoid. It was the case before Christmas when the terrorist attacks on Mumbai forced the England team to abandon their tour of India and return home. It is hard to believe any of those selected for the tour really wanted to return to India for the Test series. But there was a sense of duty to return, a belief that it was the right thing to do, not just for cricket but for the sake of liberty too. To many people the sight of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook walking out to bat in Chennai stuck two fingers up at the terrorists.
Yesterday's events, however, make you wonder how brave and big a statement a cricketer should be expected to make. Representing one's country is an honour bestowed on very few, and it is a privilege that should not be taken for granted. But, despite what some people think, there are many more important things in life. The health of yourself or a family member, or the chance to watch and be involved in your children growing up, is worth far more than any Test or one-day cap.
It would be impossible to count the number of times Paul Farbrace, the former Kent and Middlesex wicket-keeper and current Sri Lanka assistant coach, has been told what a lucky man he is. As surgeons in Lahore stitched him up yesterday morning and his wife, Liz, nervously waited for an update on his health, I wondered whether they felt the same.
That cricket appears to stand for so much more than the game is one of its greatest assets. Football and rugby rarely become embroiled in major political and international incidents. The water they sail on seems relatively calm to that of the honourable game. A week rarely goes by without cricket grabbing the headlines for off-field activities
It is not only Pakistan that will feel the consequences of yesterday's atrocities – India will too. Many people find it hard to differentiate between the countries in the region; they tend to classify them all as one. With India comes a considerable portion of the game's income, money that could quickly disappear if the Indian national side find opponents hard to come by and the highly lucrative Indian Premier League struggles to attract cricket's biggest stars.
Players of my generation may look on in envy at the sums Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff earn, but it is debatable whether they would swap the cash for the memories. In time the money will seem less relevant but the fun and the freedom we had can never be replaced. On future tours players may see little more than cricket grounds and hotel rooms and such restraint would not have allowed the likes of Ian Botham and Philip Tufnell to become the characters they are.
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