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August 3, 1999


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A tale of two countries

Harsha Bhogle

You really cannot get two more dissimilar cricketing nations than England and Pakistan. One plays cricket on lovely old grounds, at a leisurely pace and as part of a very well-organised system. The other has children playing in streets, on dusty maidans, even in mosques and graveyards; it has no system at all but manages to play with the kind of passion that other countries can only dream of. And yet, the irony couldn’t have escaped too many that their different routes, only joined by a fairly vehemant dislike for each other, are leading them down an identical path; one of turmoil and uncertainty.

English cricket has no talent, Pakistani cricket no trust. England produce hard-working, industrious cricketers, the Pakistanis are brilliant and sometimes, as we have now been told, devious.

For many years now the people who should know, people who have come through the system and those that have been extinguished by it, have said that England play too much cricket. When you play it every day, it douses the fire and numbs the competitive instinct. An unchanging routine is fine when you want to produce identical products but in the people business, where you need time away from a challenge to rouse you into fighting one, this is not much use.

A production line that produces outstanding industrial or consumer products cannot produce outstanding individual performers. If you wanted to buy an automobile spare part or a shampoo, you would close your eyes and buy an English product. Being English bestows on it, in your mind, a commitment to quality. You want, and you know, that every part and every shampoo will be identical. But would you want that with actors and cricketers?

Every year, the English cricket establishment talks and does nothing. And so the system continues unchanged even though it is failing in its objective of producing fit and talented cricketers. (Remember, when we were children we were always told: talk less do more. I didn’t quite embrace that, though I see its value !). Nobody can have two equally demanding masters, especially if they often have contrary objectives. An England player is expected to play for country and county with equal commitment and energy. It is physically impossible, and as England once again failed to put forward its best Test team for the disastrous Lord's test against New Zealand, the call to separate loyalties was raised once again.

Leading the charge this time was the new captain, Nasser Hussain. In an incisive article written midway through a Test match, he lamented the fact that Darren Gough and Alex Tudor were lost to the national team because they had to turn out for Yorkshire and Surrey respectively when they weren’t fully fit. England needed them to rest, the counties needed them to play. For a little skirmish, the battle was lost.

It reminded me of a situation, reported with some agony by English newspapers, immediately after England went out of the World Cup at Birmingham. Apparently, there were a few tears in the dressing room but they hadn’t quite dried when counties started coming on the line asking if their players, who probably didn’t want to see a game of cricket for a week, were available to play the next day. There was no time to grieve, to embrace sadness and to vow that it wouldn’t happen again. Bat and kit bag were picked up, once symbols of pride, now tools of a profession, one set of clothes were exchanged for another and England’s players were back on the motorways.

Nasser Hussain was part of that and I remember wtching him on a television interview, expressing an emptiness at turning out at Edgbaston the next day for Essex with the stadium still echoing the cheers of jubilant Indians. It was clear then that he did not like it and he has made it clear now, one and a half Tests into his captaincy, that he still doesn’t. When the country’s captain expresses a point of view so strongly, people are bound to sit up and do something.

Now if Hussain were Indian, as he once was, he would have had to wait for two months after the end of the series to state a point of view. He would have had to pick his words very carefully for fear of not offending important people. That, rather than a sincere attempt to change things, would have been the over-riding objective.

English cricket has many problems, but a lack of transparency is not among them. That is a disease peculiar to the sub-continent and especially to Pakistan, who have proved once again that their biggest enemy to progress comes from within. Unlike the English, Pakistan seem to have no shortage of talent and given a fairly disorganised domestic cricket system, there is no fear of the players having two masters. And their motto seems to be `to do’ rather than `to think’.

In Pakistan, the government controls everything. That is both a problem and a perpetual threat, for it means that their cricket is permanently at the mercy of the bureaucracy. Pakistan is a far more feudal society than even India is, and so every time a new man comes in, he establishes the fact that he is now head of the family quite quickly.

Invariably, he comes in with a broom and sweeps out everything that could remind him of the past; and because Pakistan’s cricket community seems relatively small, he then sweeps in those that were swept out a little earlier.

They are a bit like warring chieftains there, more concerned with establishing the authority of one tribe and bringing shame on the other. And in the battle of one little chieftain against the other, the kingdom gets lost. Pakistani cricket is like the politics of medieval courts where the whispers of petty courtiers seem to count more than the voices of bold rebels. And so, those lovely adventurous cricketers are often reduced to currying favour with bureaucrats; they can be in trouble for not attending dinners thrown by senators, for example.

The tragedy is that the players seem to have little sympathy left, for everyone in Pakistan is convinced that they are guilty. The politicians are, Justice Qayyum is and just as important, the man in the street is. His opinion often counts for little but, like in India, he watches the matches and buys the products that make cricket and cricketers rich. He bets as well and that is why it is easy to transfer the blame for backing a wrong horse onto the jockey.

I remember being amazed, in the one week I spent there in 1997, at the extent to which betting takes place there. I was being taken around Lahore by a man I had never met before (having grown up in Hyderabad, I knew that the hospitality in traditional Muslim families is unmatched) and stopped at a little shop selling some beautiful cloth. The shopkeeper spoke Urdu in a beautiful, natural accent (and not the more prevalent Punjabi) and said “Toronto se aayen hain aap? Bada marwa diya aapne humko. Pakistan pe pachas hazaar khele the hum ne....(you are from Toronto? You’ve ruined me. I had bet fifty thousand on Pakistan....) “Pachas hazaar?” I said even as my eyes went for a walk, for this was no prosperous trader I was speaking to. “Haan huzoor, khelna to hai. Poore pachas lagaaye the hamne” ( yes sir, I have to do it...I had put a full fifty thousand). And then he added a bit wistfully “Bahut khaaye sahab in logon ne...” (these cricketers have made a lot.....)

I bought his cloth because it was lovely. I didn’t buy his story. A few yards down the road I told my new friend “He couldn’t spend fifty thousand”. “Yes, yes,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you cannot afford it, but everyone in Pakistan bets.” And as he looked at my disbelieving face he said “Now you know how they make so much money...”

A little part of me still subscribes to the blame-the-jockey-for-my-mistake theory. But Pakistan’s new bureaucracy doesn’t. The Accountability Bureau is driving a juggernaut at the moment, but you can never tell when that will change. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Wasim Akram is captain of Pakistan in September.

But there is something I like about this whole process; the name assigned to the investigating agency. The Accountability Bureau. It isn’t a word we are particularly well acquainted, in our cricket.

Harsha Bhogle

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