Hussain's diplomatic skills face greatest test

The ECB, used to resolving disputes with the bully-boy tactics of a Victorian mill owner, will not get its way without a scrap
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The Independent Online

Today's meeting at Lord's between the England players and the England and Wales Cricket Board, should provide plenty of lively debate. Nasser Hussain's side are due to arrive in India on 14 November, but military action in Afghanistan, and subsequent reaction around the Muslim world, has caused widespread apprehension among them.

Player power has risen over the last few years to ensure that the ECB, used to resolving disputes with the bully-boy tactics of a Victorian mill owner, will not get its way without a scrap. Equally, the Board cannot allow the trip to be cancelled, for that route could lead to embarrassment and, should the worst-case scenario of litigation and fines of up to £7m come to pass, possible financial ruin.

With a foot in both camps, Hussain has the unenviable challenge of finding a solution to keep both parties happy. When he took over the captaincy, he cannot have envisaged his greatest moment coming off the field of play. Yet with senior players lining up to stay at home, and an increasingly nervy employer, this could be it. Sir Rob Young, Britain's High Commissioner to India, will also be present to try to reassure the likes of Graham Thorpe, Andy Caddick and Craig White, the three loudest dissenting voices, that there is no imminent danger.

The issues at stake are many and complicated. Indeed, the only recent precedent was Australia's refusal to play any of its 1996 World Cup matches in Sri Lanka, whose civil war was deemed a risk too far, despite other teams playing there. Inevitably emotion plays a leading role and the media's talking heads have been lining up this past week to give their tuppence worth, especially after six Chelsea footballers declined to travel to Israel.

At six weeks, and with at least 10 flights, cricket tours are a different prospect from a one-off visit, especially in India, where huge numbers of people can get very close to you. It may be that players will get used to the gnawing uncertainty and prevent it from affecting their cricket, but I doubt it. Travel is a fraught business on the subcontinent and one cricket journalist has simply refused to tour India ever since becoming aware of the poor safety record of internal flights.

Verbal guarantees of security have been given by both the President of the Indian Board, Jagmohan Dalmiya, and the team captain, Sourav Ganguly. Similar guarantees were given to David Gower's side in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, but were found to be somewhat flawed when a press photographer went up to a policeman and said: "Hello, I'm from the IRA. Can you please take me to the England dressing-room?" His wish, with flak jacket and heavy camera bags dangling from his shoulders, was granted without delay.

One reason Dalmiya insists that England are safe is that there have been no major disturbances by Indian Muslims, though he neglects to mention why this might be. According to the latest Indian census, Muslims are outnumbered 10 to one by Hindus and are therefore inclined to be circumspect in their behaviour.

An England team, despite the Islamic roots of its captain, could quickly change that, especially now that Tony Blair's highly visible support for the United States has drawn clear battle lines within many Muslim minds. While the thesis that you are not safe anywhere is becoming truer with every powder-filled letter, an England side in India could be a provocative target for any fanatic bent on martyrdom.

As a player, the only comparable situation I experienced was when England travelled to Peshawar, in the north-west frontier province of Pakistan, during the 1987 World Cup. The Afghan war with Russia was still raging, but because of our media's lack of interest it was not really an issue, despite the town being a bolt-hole for resting mujahedin fighters and the Soviet agents intent on blowing them up.

Although it was cursorily discussed in team meetings, none of us felt a target. In fact, Allan Lamb and I, along with the famous lyricist Tim Rice, ventured out into the lawless tribal areas near the Khyber Pass, where a local warlord befriended us for the day. Apart from showing us his cunning tricks to smuggle hashish, his hospitality was faultless and he even let us fire his pride and joy, a captured Russian Kalashnikov rifle.

The tour management had kittens when we told them where we had been, but, plied with copious amounts of tea and samosas, never once had we felt threatened. Our warlord, like so many people in the subcontinent, was simply obsessed with cricket and could not do enough for us. So it is with India, where the finest players have long provided an alternative pantheon of gods.

If I was a player now, I would be inclined to go, but realise that a unanimous vote of acceptance is unlikely. With the players' safety competing against the remuneration interests of the Board, the team can no longer trust the judgement of the ECB. In the last week Lord MacLaurin, the ECB's chairman, has vacillated between the tour's "off" and "on" button with alarming rapidity, reportedly settling for the "on" only when India threatened to pull out of next summer's four-Test series in England.

It might have helped matters had the ECB been on better terms with their Indian counterparts. Then the prospect of neutral venues, or even a switch within India to the big Test grounds, might have occurred. Instead, the re-election of Dalmiya, a former president of the International Cricket Council and an old adversary of MacLaurin's, has caused old wounds to reopen.

It has not helped either, that England have not toured India since 1992-93, a hiatus based on little more than arrogance and one that no doubt contributed to them being given second division Test venues such as Mohali and Ahmedabad.

According to an ICC spokesman, talk of the ECB being bankrupted is a little premature. As yet, the hefty $2m fines (£1.4m) proposed by the ICC for countries not fulfilling their touring obligations have not been legally ratified and remain unenforceable.

Although the ECB is not thought to have lobbied the ICC to bring them in, the fines are essentially an attempt to dissuade Asian countries from breaking away and holding their own Test series. It is ironic then that Dalmiya, the man whose secessionist ambitions have long threatened such unity, could now be using them to blackmail the ECB into press-ganging their own players to tour India.