Danger in confusing passion with malice

Australia's example must be heeded to prevent further pitch invasions but cricket's unruly uprising was founded more in exuberance than violence
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The Independent Online

No one touched by the horror of Hillsborough, or who has felt the sickening impact of a riot, is likely to be cheered by the sight of fencing going up at Trent Bridge for today's match between Australia and Pakistan. But a little perspective, even if it is more easily achieved if you don't happen to be the Headingley steward nursing cracked ribs and an injured spleen, is urgently in order.

This is an isolated problem created by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic support of many Pakistani fans for their cricket team. Again the view might not be embraced by the battered steward, or those shocked by the requirement of the England captain, Alec Stewart, to concede for safety reasons an unresolved match, but what we have here is not some new and agonising threat to the future of the game as we know it.

It was not, as some headlines proclaimed, cricket's saddest day. That, if we really want to quantify such sadness, was surely the one just over two years ago when a crowd in Barbados became so inflamed by the dismissal of one their players, it sent a fusillade of bottles on to the field, one only narrowly failing to decapitate the current Australian captain, Steve Waugh. The real horror, though, was that Sir Garfield Sobers successfully intervened on behalf of the dismissed West Indian, that play was resumed after 45 minutes and the ground wasn't closed for, say, a couple of years. Talk about the imminence of roosting chickens.

What happened at Headingley on Sunday, was much less frightening and, much more simply, a day when the authorities, like so many rabbits frozen in the headlights, failed to anticipate and to properly deal with a problem which had been self-evident for 10 days.

When Pakistani fans spilled on to the Edgbaston field and caused a half hour's delay, though, blessedly, no physical injury, the need for quick and resolute action could not have been spelled out more plainly.

It didn't come at Headingley. Though the intention of the fans in the troublesome West Stand was evident some time before the aborted climax to the match, Yorkshire's chief executive, Chris Hassell, admitted that many of the stewards and the police were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later, Hassell said that it would have taken the British Army to keep the fans off the field. Given the rate of defence cuts, that may have been so, but a little bit of proactive thinking might just have helped.

Why, for example were such Pakistani heroes as the captain, Waqar Younis, and batting star Inzamam-ul-Haq not invited to make regular appeals to their fans? Why were the consequences of a pitch invasion not more carefully, and more vocally, explained, and why, most vitally, were those much graver risks to Australian players in Barbados so feebly responded to by the world's ruling body?

Listening to some of the bleaker pronouncements from leading officials, including the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Lord MacLaurin, you might have imagined cricket had suddenly been confronted by some vast, anarchic army of the night. There was no destruction at Headingley, no sickening, mass violence and if the injury to the steward was an intolerable product of indiscipline, if not gratuitous and vindictive action, it was not, thankfully, a reason to believe that cricket is suddenly in danger of attracting the large numbers of racist thugs who have for so long polluted football.

So what should be done? The Australian precedent screams for attention. As the beleaguered Stewart pointed out, in Australia large fines are imposed on anyone who runs on to the field with, as the captain added, the consequence that "you can count on one hand the number of people who come on in Australian cricket". So cricket should press for legislation which threatens no essential freedom other than the right to disrupt a sporting occasion and generally behave like a moron.

But such pressure needs to be applied evenly and for some time. When Waqar's men leave, the chances are it will be to a sigh of relief at the end of an immediate problem. That, too often, has been the pattern of the game's administration. So what we have is tinkering and Elastoplast, or, in the case of today's game, plastic fencing borrowed from rugby union. What happened at Edgbaston, and more seriously at Headingley, should certainly not be forgotten. But most importantly, it should be remembered for what it truly was.

It was not evidence of a tide of malice threatening the life of cricket. It was mostly a bunch of kids getting carried away, with excessive enthusiasm and what seemed a rather desperate pride in announcing who they were, and what splendid sporting allegiances they held, at the cost of good order and the health of a man employed to maintain safety.

Plainly, it cannot go on and swift and determined action is the only proper response. Stewart was placed in an impossible position, one that confirmed the much repeated fears of the Australian captain, Waugh, who remembers vividly enough the threat to his health and that of his team-mates which came on a violent, steamy afternoon when the authorities could do no better than sit on their hands.

We know that "crowd participation" has long been an element of cricket on the subcontinent, and it is not something to be encouraged here. But while we deal with the problem, it shouldn't be mistaken for an army of the Antichrist.

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