Stephen Brenkley: Where to play? Cricket's 21st-century conundrum
Friday 28 November 2008
There was a brooding sense yesterday that cricket is running out of places to play. Whatever the good intentions expressed after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the determination to proceed normally as quickly as possible, future reality may be different.
The nature of the outrages in India's most cosmopolitan city will change attitudes, perhaps for ever. It is one thing for the game's authorities to insist, rightly, that they will not bow to violent intimidation and that cricket will continue to be played; it is quite another to persuade players that they are safe to do so.
Lalit Modi, the vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, was yesterday adamant in one breath that the Test series against England will go ahead and that the Twenty20 Champions League, postponed yesterday, will be rearranged early in January. But in another he appeared to recognise the plain human difficulties.
"I would not expect to play matches in Mumbai soon and certainly wouldn't ask players to stay in a hotel where these outrages have taken place," he said. "There are grave psychological effects to consider."
Nor was Modi expecting England to fly home, a fact which may make their return far from straightforward to negotiate. Yesterday morning he had suggested that the squad moving to southern India and Dubai was another possibility. But when it was announced they were leaving the country he said: "I agree with it. The home environment for a few days will calm the players down."
Equally, dwelling on what has happened and what lies ahead for them may lead players – as well as thousands of other visitors – understandably to conclude that if it can happen in Mumbai, it can happen in any other Indian city and any other Indian hotel from Chennai to Kolkata. The events yesterday brought into much sharper focus the terrorist attacks which have been committed throughout India all this year.
If they were more characteristic – either suicide bombings or explosives being planted – they have also been widespread, in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and New Delhi. The taking of hostages in five-star hotels, the fact that westerners are clearly being targeted, changes the perspective, as Modi conceded. Players will begin to think that nowhere is safe.
Modi, who is the most single important and influential cricket administrator in the world, was at his most conciliatory and gracious yesterday and he was quite obviously shaken and moved by what had happened. But he still has a sport to run and millions upon millions of dollars tied up in it – and he had spoken to the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Giles Clarke, who is on business in Colombia and implied that there had been an accord that the Tests should take place.
He is well aware that if the Test series cannot be salvaged it may make it more difficult to reschedule the Champions League, which was due to start in Mumbai next week, and could make the vaunted Indian Premier League vulnerable.
This in turn will put the onus on players, and Modi probably – no, definitely – knows it. If, for instance, England players are reluctant to take part in the Test series because of security fears they could hardly change their stance simply because of the prospect of a small personal fortune in the IPL.
Politics will, sooner or later, rear its many heads. If there is the slightest sign of English reluctance it will be pointed out that the World Twenty20 is due to be played in England next summer. Modi carefully avoided that subject yesterday but he said: "We will not bow to terrorism and the two Tests against England will take place. The second will be moved from Mumbai because it is quite understandable, in view of the horrific events that have taken place that players would feel deeply uncomfortable.
"But we should recognise that it is important to carry on, not as though nothing has happened, but to ensure there remains a sense of normality."
Modi insisted that the Champions League, in which Middlesex are the English representatives, had been postponed not on security grounds but because of logistics. While matches could not be played in Mumbai next week it was simply too late for him to find an alternative venue. But he will have done that by January. "Everybody is prepared to come and I am confident it will take place."
But there are potential repercussions beyond India. If it is deemed to be safe to play in India after this, then almost by extension it must be safe in Pakistan, where the Champions Trophy was due to be played last September, only to be postponed because of the terrorist threat. Equally, if it is not safe in Pakistan, then why should it be safe in India after this? And then there is Sri Lanka. The Foreign Office advice about that country at present is that there is "high threat from terrorism." That is the most extreme on the FCO's four-point scale.
The International Cricket Council is unlikely to play any part, which is hardly unusual, and its president, David Morgan, was more diplomatic even than usual, considering his background as chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board.
"When Australia were last in England, they were playing a one-day international in Leeds at the time of the London Underground suicide bombings. A few days later they were in London, playing at The Oval. One of their players suggested that they ought to head home but the management prevailed and the tour went to the end. As Britons it is all too easy for us to have a different perspective."
But Morgan recognised that perceptions would be difficult to alter, whatever the official security reports say. "It's very worrying for cricket obviously, but not just for cricket but for life. The ICC will not get involved unless there is a disagreement over security between the boards, and we can only hope that the Indian authorities will deal with this."
On England's tour of India in 1984, the team had just arrived when the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi a mile from the team's hotel. They sought sanctuary in Sri Lanka for nine days before returning. Then, on the eve of the First Test in Mumbai four weeks later, Percy Norris, the British deputy high commissioner who had entertained the team at his home the night before, was shot dead.
The initial reaction was that the team should come home. But their manager Tony Brown sought advice on the ground, liaised with London and decided they should stay – and although England lost the first Test, they went on to win the series. The circumstances this time are different and the fundamental aspects of the terrorism are different. But a degree of reflection is essential at this juncture because otherwise the playing of cricket anywhere, the idea of normality, really is in danger.
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