Saturday 7 March 2009
Brian Viner: Pakistan to play Australia in England
The Last Word
When terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on Tuesday, they dealt a devastating blow to the future of cricket on the subcontinent, where the 2011 World Cup is due to take place.
It will surely now be relocated, but that's not the half of it. Pakistan's home Test series against Australia next year is now almost certain to take place in England, The Last Word can exclusively reveal. Discussions have been taking place since last autumn, long before this week's tragic events, and I'm told that, bar a few final signatures, the deal is done. It will be the first Test series on English soil, in which England have not taken part, since 1912, when South Africa played the Australians here. And the irony is that if, as hoped, the three scheduled Test matches take place in London, Birmingham and Leeds, where there are large Pakistani communities, the team will get much more fervent support than it would on its own turf.
Although everyone follows them on radio, television and internet, Test matches in Pakistan rarely even half-fill the stadiums. It is a different matter for shorter versions of the game, of course, but Ehsan Mani, the former president of the International Cricket Council and still one of the most influential movers and shakers in world cricket, told me with a heavy heart on Thursday that in the wake of the terrorist attack he cannot envisage international matches of any kind taking place in his native land until at least 2014.
Moreover, on behalf of the Pakistan Cricket Board he recently negotiated a four-year $140m (£99m) television deal, but a great deal of that value hinges on matches with India, and following the atrocity in Mumbai, which they blamed on Pakistan, the Indians have no appetite for playing their neighbours anywhere in the world. Some Pakistanis, meanwhile, are in turn blaming Tuesday's outrage on India, or at least on shadowy factions hoping to destabilise a volatile country even further, perhaps to the point at which the international community seeks to remove its nuclear capability. Whatever the truth of the matter, Mani for one believes that there were much bigger and more sinister political forces at work this week than a bunch of zealots trying to disrupt a cricket tour.
No matter what unfolds on the international stage, cricket in Pakistan, he assured me, would continue to thrive. "Cricket is the soul of the country," he said, and recalled taking members of the ICC board up into the remote Hindu Kush mountains in 2005, where they were astounded, and thrilled, to find children playing vigorous matches in villages 16,000ft above sea level. He sent them, too, to Minto Park in Lahore where, with fielders overlapping, as many as 200 matches take place at the same time. That is where the stars of the future are to be found. Let us all hope that when the future comes round, Pakistan's home Test matches are taking place in Lahore, not Leeds.
Like ITV, lowly Charlton fail to make Grade
In 2004, when the deputy director general of the BBC, Mark Byford, briefly took the reins of the corporation in the wake of the Hutton Report, which had forced the resignation of Greg Dyke, there was a flurry of newspaper profiles about him, several of which alluded to the fact that he was a keen football fan who supported Leeds United and Southampton. This information dismayed me, and in print, tongue ever so slightly in cheek, I questioned the character of a man who could follow two football clubs. After all, it's not like supporting Manchester United and Budleigh Salterton Town. Plighting your troth to both Leeds and Southampton is the football equivalent of bigamy. And who wants a bigamous boss of the BBC?
I was in my local pub the Sunday lunchtime after these reflections were published, when my mobile phone rang. It was Byford. He had been stung by my words and wanted an opportunity to explain, which, for at least 25 minutes, he did. I wasn't sure whether to be alarmed that the man supposed to be running the BBC could spare 25 minutes to talk to me about something so manifestly light-hearted, or impressed that he was so anxious to set the record straight.
Whatever, I thought of Byford again this week while reading about his beleaguered former colleague, Michael Grade. Unlike Byford, Grade is a football monogamist, a Charlton Athletic devotee to his fingertips. But perhaps he half-wishes that his affections, like Byford's, were a little more flexible. Because Charlton, not so long ago a Premier League outfit almost synonymous with mid-table stability, now look like certainties for relegation into English football's third tier. And keeping perfect pace with them, in the sense of a once-solid performer pitifully reduced, is the company Grade chairs, ITV. The poor bloke must feel as though he has wronged the gods, unable even at a footy match on a Saturday afternoon to escape the feeling that a trapdoor has opened up beneath him.
Fishy fluke of Viv and Ivan
If any two birthdays confirmed that the signs of the zodiac are a complete nonsense, it is those, today, of Sir Viv Richards and Ivan Lendl. Astrologers will protest that they shared typically Piscean competitive fire but, really, were any two sporting personalities more different?
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