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Sunday, 7 December 2008

English Sportsmen in "Taking Moral Stand" Shock

In my last blog entry, I hesitated before congratulating the England cricket team for showing solidarity with their Indian counterparts at this terrible moment in India's history. At that stage, as Andrew Miller put it in on cricinfo, the Englishmen (and their admirable South African-born leader) were still one step short of a hero's welcome, having arrived at their training camp in Abu Dhabi, but not having fully committed to taking the plane from Dubai Airport to India for the resumption of their interrupted tour. But now that it has been formally announced that England will tour with their full squad, I can offer my warmest congratulations to every member of the team for standing up to terrorism and with their Indian fellow professionals, the Indian nation, and their touring supporters.

Press reports suggested that chief doubts surrounded two crucial members of the England squad, fast bowler Steve Harmison (who has in the past not required much incentive to quit tours and scurry back to his family in the northeast) and talisman Andrew Flintoff. Surely "Freddie" wouldn't jump ship? Not our Fred, who nobly stepped in on the last tour to India, when Vaughan was injured and stand-in captain Marcus Trescothick suffered the first onset of the stress-related injury that eventually ended his international career. Flintoff had been due to fly back for the birth of his child, but put the needs of the team above his personal concerns, an all too rare gesture in modern sport.

I don't imagine it took too many appeals from Kevin Pietersen to get Flintoff to do the right thing. Steve Harmison may have needed a little more persuasion, and I can imagine both KP and Freddie doing sterling work behind the scenes to get our sometimes reluctant fast bowler, but potential match winner, on board.

To announce that they will be arriving in India with their full squad (apart from the injured Sidebottom and Swann, who may arrive later) clearly raises the prestige of their decision to continue the tour. This makes the first time that a first-choice England team has toured India for many years -- there were players who dropped out in 2002 for "security reasons", when the world was just getting used to the idea that terrorism was no longer something that happened "over there", but a permanent feature of our lives that we must resist, or surrender everything that makes our civilization superior to the Islamo-nihilists bent on destroying it.

I have to say that the BCCI (Board for Control of Cricket in India) doesn't deserve this gesture; its shameless protection of Zimbabwe within the ICC, ignoring the fact that the Zimbabwean Cricket Board is merely an extention of Rubert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, is rife with finanical corruption and political interference, and chooses its team on blatantly racist lines, is a permanent and uneradicable stain on the reputation of cricket; the BCCI has sold its soul in return for Zimbabwe's vote within the ICC that allows India to run that organization as its own private fiefdom. For its role in propping up Mugabe's bloody dictatorship, everlasting shame should descend on the Indian board. Please spare me allegations of hypocrisy: there is no comparison between the MCC's embarrassing procrastination before doing the right thing over the Basil D'Oliveira affair and the BCCI's chronic and ongoing (and very possibly corrupt) opposition to the lancing of the Zimbabwean boil. The British were shamed into taking a stand against apartheid in South African sport; the BCCI have shown themselves to be quite beyond the reach of shame, and to have no interest in anything apart from maximizing their revenue from TV coverage.

But screw the BCCI and its narrow-minded, venal politicos; damn the bastards to hell; this is a gesture of solidarity with the Indian people, made for the good of cricket, the first time in a long time that anyone in the sport has taken a long-term, broad view for the good of the game.

Let's make no mistake too: it's a brave decision, even more than David Gower's decision to continue England's tour of India after Indira Gandhi's assissination in 1984. Then the act of terror and the ensuing unrest were confined to Indian nationals, or at least to non-cricketers: no one believed then that terrorists would lift a hand against the game of cricket, a second religion for Hindus and Muslims alike throughout the subcontinent. The main problem for Gower's team was going into a test match having been unable to practise for nearly two weeks because of a national period of mourning. The major danger to the players then, as Matthew Engel wrote in The Guardian, was incurring sunstroke beside their hotel swimming pool. (Admittedly, the crisis hit nearer home when, on the day before the Test match, Percy Norris, who had recently been appointed British Deputy High Commissioner to India, was murdered half a mile from the team's hotel, days after meeting the team.)

Even then, it took some aggressive persuasian to get some members of the squad to stay. According to Derek Pringle in The Daily Telegraph, team manager Tony Brown threw all their passports on a table and told those who wanted out to take theirs and 'piss off'.

One hopes that, even though there is a much clearer danger to Westernisers after the Bombay attacks, and even cricket may not be immune from the Islamo-nihililsts, such moral blackmail was not required this time. Kevin Pietersen had already shown that he has more subtle powers of persuasion in the summer, when he talked Harmison out of retirement from the one day game and Flintoff into batting at five in that format and six in the test match: excellent decisions that brought England victory in all the remaining fixtures of the summer bar the two that were rained off. It is to be hoped that reluctant members of the squad were persuaded by the force of the arguments rather than implied threats to their careers.

However this was achieved, Pietersen and no doubt others such as the England and Wales Cricket Board's managing director Hugh Morris, deserve enormous credit; and so do the rest of the squad, even those who initially dragged their feet. Because, make no mistake about it, it takes some courage to continue with a mere game after the atrocity that was inflicted on Bombay, where one target was the Taj Mahal hotel, where the team had been staying only days earlier, and where their kit was still awaiting their return, even as gunmen rounded up all the British, American, and Israeli nationals they could find and held them hostage.

However, it is not as though terrorism is something that happens far away to other people any more. In July 2005, terrorists struck in the heart of London right near the beginning of the Ashes tour. If the Australians had gone home then, we would not only have been deprived of one of the great sporting contests of recent history, but the terrorists would also have been emboldened to new atrocities by the success in disrupting the British way of life. What happened instead was a show of defiance by Londoners from all walks of life: on the Sunday after the atrocity, the nation commemorated jointly the anniversaries of VE and VJ day in the capital. As England and Australia began their one-day international at Lord's, the famous ground was buzzed by RAF jets. A million poppies were dropped from the London skies over Buckingham Palace to commemorate those who died in an earlier struggle with a different group of fascists. An anti-monarchist, I was nevertheless proud of our Queen for defying the terrorists and riding through the capital as scheduled in an open coach. As the Daily Record wrote,

Grief for those killed last week merged with painful memories of a city devastated by the blitz 60 years ago. It brought generations together. And the quiet dignity of the day sent a silent - but crystal clear - message to the world. Londoners said: our city will never be beaten.

It is clear that we have a duty to India as a fellow member of the cricketing commonwealth, to stand by it in its hour of need, just as Australia did with us.

In case anyone asks of me: What about you? Why aren't you in India right now? Isn't it easy to demand that other people make these sorts of decisions, which might potentially have tragic consequences for them and their families?

Well, I would be in India right now if I had the money and leisure to follow the England cricket team. ButI do have a little experience in being in a foreign country in the midst of an international crisis: On 30th April, 1986 I was studying in the city of Minsk in what is now the Republic of Belarus, when word got to us via some of the Russian students that there had been some kind of nuclear accident near Kiev.

The following day, we were evacuated from Minsk by order of the British Foreign Office; but none of us wanted to go. We wanted to stay as a gesture of solidarity to our roommates and fellow students. After all, they had nowhere to go. But we were bundled on an overnight train to Moscow, while our Russian friends waved us goodbye from the platform, tears in their eyes. My roommate Sergey was still on board the train, giving me last minute advice about eating more cake (I was terribly thin in those days), and had to jump off the moving train in the nick of time.

I should say that the British Embassy was absolutely useless in this whole affair: they had been unable to find us tickets to Moscow (the following day was May Day and thousands of people were travelling to the capital to take part in the biggest holiday in the Soviet calendar), but eventually our tutor Viktor Viktorovich, who had always managed to get us scarce opera and theatre tickets, came up with the goods. The Embassy got its collective finger out and got us a plane out of Moscow only when it became apparent that otherwise they'd have to allow a bunch of student oinks to stay overnight at the palatial British Embassy itself.

I can still recall our horror and disgust at the sensational headlines that awaited us when we boarded the plane, after hours of delay while we underwent compulsory medical checks by the Soviet authorities on the outskirts of Moscow. "Millions of Red Babies at Risk", "Students Escape Nuclear Hell-Hole..." The Soviet authorities in this pre-glasnost era were secretive, but the British press made up for lack of information with ghoulish and sensational speculation.

I read in The Times the next day that the Soviets had refused to allow our plane to leave Moscow Airport until Soviet sympathizers among the students (our group and another from Kiev) had been able to make propaganda statements. I can safely say that there were no Communist sympathizers in our group. We made a joint statement via the oldest member of our party (a retired subeditor in his sixties) that we didn't want to leave but were being forced to do so, and that we thanked our Russian friends for their hospitality and friendship, and hoped that they were in no present danger. The other group stated something similar. Nor had we been prevented from leaving until such statements were made; a Russian official merely boarded the plane and invited us to do so. A far longer delay was caused by British Airways's requirement that we doff all our clothes and put them into the hold, and wear BA tracksuits to board the train.

There were reporters on the plane from the Daily Mail who had boarded British Airways airbus in Gatwick without a visa in their bid for a scoop. But to our party's credit, we refused to talk to them or feed their desire for sensational headlines.

On arrival in Gatwick, after a rowdy flight in which the British Airways pilot had made the bold decision, which he later regretted, of making all drinks on board, including alcohol, free by way of apology to the passengers who had been waiting for hours on the runway while we underwent our checks and the rest (students + free alchohol + four hour flight is not a pretty mixture), we were met by a scum of journalists (my preferred collective noun for that profession). I pushed angrily past a Daily Express man who wanted me to tell my story.

When I got home, I started smashing up my room in a fit of rage. My parents couldn't understand why I was so angry: why wasn't I happy to have escaped from the potential danger?

Because for more than 48 hours, we had been helpless pawns in an international game, unable to do anything but obey orders. Because we had exposed to the sheer mindlessness of the British tabloid and broadsheet press. But most of all because we had been denied the opportunity to make a moral decision to stay with our friends and continue our studies in the face of unknown peril. At least England's cricketers have been given the opportunity to make this brave decision, and I salute them for it.

Now then. What about announcing a date for the postponed ICC Trophy tournament in Pakistan?

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