Last Friday I went to watch England play Pakistan in a One Day International cricket match at the London Oval. This was an interesting match for several reasons. Firstly I’d gone dressed as a sailor. I quickly realised this as an error on 3 fronts: 1). It was too cold at the Oval to be dressed like that. 2). As every proper cricket fan knows, Saturday at the Test Match (not Friday at the One-Day game) is fancy dress day (apparently) and. 3). Being a man dressed as a sailor when you are going out in Vauxhall afterwards is a recipe for disaster!
The second reason was that 70 years ago this match would not have been conceptually possible. Pakistan was part of India and it was only after Partition in 1947 that it became a separate country.
Finally, the match was a demonstration about what is both brilliant and awful about the sub-continent. India and Pakistan have both always had players of prodigious talent, but as teams they have rarely lived up to their potential. All sorts of background politics, corruption, cheating, betting scandals and more have always got in the way of them simply getting on with the job of winning.
Their performance is affected through a combination of incompetence and poor organisation. Whilst both Pakistan and India have had incredible bowlers and batsmen over the years, players have often been kept and dropped for reasons well beyond their ability or performance. Poor players kept on and good players dropped at the whim of an all-powerful (and perhaps not unbiased) selection board.
And the coaches haven’t helped. The overall organisation of the teams: their fitness, their fielding and their coaching staff; have meant much of this talent is lost to inefficiency and an inability to tidy up round the edges of performance. Australia’s emergence as a cricketing superpower in the late 80s wasn’t just down to talented individuals suddenly appearing, but also the Australian Institute of Sport’s training and coaching, an incredible system of talent scouting that went to school divisions, and an unheard of focus on fielding and fitness. It meant that whilst other teams may have had superior talent in batting or bowling, Australia’s efficiency in the field meant they held onto catches, made more run-outs and reduced opponents’ scores, which all added up to victories.
India and Pakistan meanwhile seem to have held to the belief that talent will win them through in the end. That they can let a few runs slip through the covers, or drop a few catches, because they will bowl teams out and score lots if runs. And this mentality exists in all areas of sub-continental life, particularly the public sector. The civil service, the transport system and sport in India have long acceded to the damaging belief that they don’t have to deliver stuff particularly well or on time, so long as it is delivered! What’s worse is the patronage (often through bribery) of incompetent officials, meaning the best candidate often does not get the job.
In the last few years, India has worked hard to change this in both cricket and business. The results have been impressive: a cricket team that was No.1 in the world in One-Day and Test formats; one of the biggest and most consistent economic growth rates in the world; and Indian CEOs being quotes in business magazines around the world. Combining the sub-continent’s prodigious talent with organisation and efficiency have reaped outstanding rewards.
Of course, the elephant in the room overshadowing this match was the corruption scandal. Pakistan have been accused before of cheating in matches, and players have been accused of performing certain actions to the benefit of book-makers. In this instance, several Pakistan players (included the most exciting young bowler in the world, Mohammad Amir) have been suspended as part of an investigation into the deliberate bowling of no-balls.
Corruption is possibly the single thing which most stifles growth in the sub-continent. It is estimated that in parts of Northern India, as little as 10% of government food and building expenses get through to where they are destined. The rest is lost paying off bureaucrats, gangsters and union leaders. Corruption is endemic in the system, rarely targeted and hard to avoid. In this case it has stifled the potential development of some great cricketers.
But most embarrassing was the behaviour of Pakistani officials and representatives. As Jonathan Agnew points out, Pakistan’s High Commissioner spent ten minutes chatting to the accused players, decided he was Hercule Poirot, declared the players innocent and claimed it was an international conspiracy to tarnish Pakistan’s name. How kind of him to save the ICC work. Even worse was the ludicrous claims of Ijaz Butt, chairman of Pakistan’s Cricket Board. In a moment of pique he threw his toys out of the pram, declared all the stories were made up and that England had in fact accepted enormous bribes to lose the Third ODI at the Oval.
Needless to say, this didn’t go down well with England captain Andrew Strauss. But such histrionics are unfortunately typical of sub-continental authority figures, politicians and public officials who refuse to accept responsibility for overseeing corrupt and failing systems and, rather than trying to admit there is a problem and going out fixing it, would rather blame someone else and start hysterical arguments. The same behaviour can regularly be seen in India’s Parliament, where some politicians are well known gang lords and criminals.
Cricket has the reputation of a noble gentleman’s sport. Has this latest Pakistani transgression pushed the rest of the cricketing world too far, or will Pakistan help itself in transforming its reputation among the cricketing nations? You can bet a lot more will come out before this saga is over.
In the end though, none of this mattered on the Friday, as we were treated to an unexpectedly thrilling innings. After a poor batting display from Pakistan, England went into bat with an achievable target and started well, led ably by Andrew Strauss. However, some fantastic bowling by Umar Gul led to an England collapse and a comfortable Pakistani victory. It was an example of what makes cricket such an exciting game, which can change in moments. Whatever happens in the background, cricket is still a magnificent sport and although England lost, for a single cold evening in South London, English cricket fans believed in the competitiveness of their sport once again.