Global warning for world game

Away from the tranquillity of Lord's abandoned tours and unrest in Pakistan and Zimbabwe put a cloud over future
  • @stephenbrenkley

As England fiddled around against Sri Lanka at Lord's and administrators worried if anybody would turn up, more pressing concerns prevailed elsewhere. Such as, will it ever be deemed safe to play international cricket again?

As England fiddled around against Sri Lanka at Lord's and administrators worried if anybody would turn up, more pressing concerns prevailed elsewhere. Such as, will it ever be deemed safe to play international cricket again?

In Pakistan and in Zimbabwe, the question has never been more pertinent and the concern never more necessary. Civil unrest in both countries has led to the cancellation or abandonment of recent tours, and there is no guarantee that other countries will be easily persuaded that it is safe to resume normal service.

Pakistan have been understanding to the point of saintliness, Zimbabwe are trying desperately not to think the unthinkable: that the six World Cup matches scheduled there next year, when South Africa will host most of the games, will be called off.

For the International Cricket Council, it represents a serious challenge, in the face of which they may be impotent. With Test cricket played by only 10 nations it is vital that all of them are in action regularly. Malcolm Gray, the ICC president, said: "There is no doubt that this is an extremely worrying time for us and for the countries involved. To some extent we are still feeling the effects of what happened on 11 September last year.

"Solutions are not easy. We thought we had turned a corner in getting to grips with what was wrong with the game, but this has provided another problem. We will be discussing what if anything needs to be done to offer financial help to the countries concerned. But we are aware cricket's status as a global game, which is played at the top level in only 10 countries, depends on being played in those countries." The latest casualty was New Zealand's tour of Pakistan, which was called off 10 days ago when a bomb exploded in front of the team's hotel. Shards of glass from the blast landed on some squad members.

In the past few days, several Australian players have voiced concerns about their tour to Pakistan in the autumn. The Australians withdrew from their tour of Zimbabwe this spring after riots following the presidential elections. The cricket boards of the two countries can only wait, hope and reassure.

Brigadier Munawar Rana, the chief executive of the Pakistan Cricket Board, said: "We understand totally why New Zealand went home and our sympathies went with them. We can only trust that in time the images of what happened will recede and can be looked at dispassionately. No guarantees can be given, but that is the same in other places. Had this latest unfortunate incident happened slightly later and the facts of it then became known then I'm sure the tour would still be going on." The finances of the Pakistan board are undoubtedly suffering, although Rana said that their sponsors have stuck by them. That position will only be sustained for so long, and much diplomatic toing and froing can be expected to persuade the Australians of Pakistan's intrinsic safety.

There is no question that while being eager to understand the fears of prospective touring teams, both Pakistan and Zimbabwe think their countries are essentially secure. Vince Hogg, head of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, said: "The Australian tour could have proceeded without incident. In Harare and Bulawayo life is going on as normal and there would have been no problems. Of course we appreciate their concerns, but we have no reason to believe that the World Cup games here next year will be affected. This is not the lawless country that has been painted."

Gray and Malcolm Speed, the ICC chief executive, have had a series of informal discussions about what their organisation can do to help. While Gray rejected the suggestion that they were powerless, he conceded that if countries did not want to tour that was their decision. The ICC recognise that they might have to help out the Pakistanis and Zimbabweans, but also know that cash hand-outs provide no real answer. The integrity of the World Test Championship, already criticised for being too simplistic and not a true reflection of the sides' status, is under a different threat.

Superficially, the proposal to circumvent the difficulties by playing Tests in neutral countries is attractive. But the series between Pakistan and West Indies in Sharjah earlier this year was a disincentive to much further experiment. The grounds were empty, the atmosphere was stagnant.

Television will have some influence on neutral venues. If producers think matches will have some appeal in the nations where they wish to show them and they fit into the time zone, then they may have a future. Sharjah is one example and Morocco, of all places, has now been suggested as a possible stage for future internationals. Globalisation of the game is one thing, but Morocco is not yet even an affiliate member of the ICC, the lowest of three membership tiers.

The ultimate evaluation of whether international cricket should be played at neutral venues must be based perhaps not on television or commerce but on its worthiness. If it means little to the players, it will mean less to those watching at the ground or at home and will certainly undermine the world rankings, whether at Test or one-day level.

"There are pressing concerns for the game," said Gray. "What we can do depends on events outside our control but we are constantly talking about them." Both Rana and Hogg paid tribute to the efforts of international administrators, but without cricket at home soon interest will wane, and they know it. They are murmuring quietly at present but it is discernible that they are beginning to suspect unfair treatment caused partly by naïveté. For instance, if there was unrest in London, would tours be called off? What if a bomb went off in London during a Lord's Test match? Did Australia jump ship last year when there were riots on the field? Sport, they are saying, is safe to play in their countries.

Pakistan are fearful not only of Australia's non-attendance but that of India next spring for political reasons. The next big joint test for both countries will come in the autumn. Pakistan are due to tour Zimbabwe. At least they must be seen to be playing each other.

As for the World Cup, Gray said contingency plans are already in place. And that also covers the possibility of unrest in the main host country, South Africa.