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On cricket, Zimbabwe, John Howard, the ICC, Pakistan and Bob Woolmer

Guy Herbert this morning posted a piece commenting on Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to “ban” the Australian cricket team from touring Zimbabwe later this year. I generally have little time for Mr Howard, but in this case I can not personally be very harsh on him. What clearly happened is that the Australian Cricket Board (which these days prefers to call itself “Cricket Australia”) begged him at length the make such an announcement, and he eventually gave in despite considerable resistance, and he did this because the alternatives open to him were probably worse. I have no disagreement with Guy that the outcome is essentially a dishonourable one, but the other easy options were worse. Some background.

In international cricket, there are only three countries for who the game is directly profitable. These are India, Australia, and England (in decreasing order of profitability). The other countries that regularly play international cricket make money by playing the national teams of these three countries, and then selling television rights and other sponsorship opportunities for these matches. Thus it is very important to (say) Sri Lanka for (in particular) India and Australia to regularly tour Sri Lanka and play matches.

In order to assure its members of some sort of regular cricket and regular income, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has in recent years created a mandatory tour program, requiring each of its members to play each other both home and away over a five year period. Reactions to this rule have varied, and compliance with it has been variable. The rule allows two sides to postpone a series if both are in agreement, which has allowed India and Australia to at times get their way by offering more money or more matches if the matches are played at some undefined “later”. However, if a team takes a hard line, then (at least theoretically) the other side must tour, or must pay a fine to the ICC which will be then forwarded to the host team as compensation for the lost revenues from the matches that were to have been played. The ICC’s rules allow for two situations in which a fine is not payable: firstly in cases where there is a genuine issue of safety – tours of both Sri Lanka and Pakistan have been called off for this reason in times of high political tension and terrorist threat – and in cases where a government forbids a tour. This second rule has come into play more in cases where Zimbabwe were potentially the touring side, most notably when Zimbabwean players were refused visas by the government of New Zealand.

Zimbabwe are a full member of the ICC. In the mid 1990s Zimbabwe had quite a decent cricket team (of mostly but certainly not entirely white players) but in the years since then Zimbabwean cricket has gone the way of most other things in Zimbabwe. At the demand of the government, white players were pushed out of the team, as were any non-white players who dared to say anything critical of the government. Officials who ran the game and actually cared about cricket were replaced with compliant government yes-men. The organisation of cricket in Zimbabwe became a shambles, and we are not sure right now to what extent the domestic cricket is even taking place. (The Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians has recently been complaining about being unable to get scorecards for the domestic Logan Cup, which it has documented with no trouble for over a century). Inevitably, the standard of the national team has dropped from “decent, but not world beating”, to utterly woeful. Their performance in the recently completed World Cup was dreadful, and they have dropped to 11th in the world rankings, way behind the rapidly improving Bangladesh, and behind even Ireland, a side just consisting of part time Australian and English expatriates and who are not a full member of the ICC.

However, through all this Zimbabwe has maintained its full membership of the ICC. Zimbabwe has been “temporarily suspended” from playing test matches due to its declining standards, but it is still playing one day international cricket, and other teams are expected to tour in order to play these games. Australia was scheduled to tour Zimbabwe this year.

The obvious thing to do would be to expel Zimbabwe from the ICC, not necessarily on political grounds explicitly, but simply because cricket in Zimbabwe is no longer being administered and organised properly, that the board is no longer independent of government, and because selections are no longer taking place on the basis of merit. However, there are two reasons why this has not happened. The first is that there is a “third world” versus “first world” divide in international cricket, and some aspects of the administration of the game are a post-colonial nightmare. For many years Australia and England (and, prior to their expulsion from international cricket in the apartheid days, South Africa) had the right of veto over any decisions made in the ICC, and the other countries still have a lingering resentment of this. Once this veto was abolished, the Asian cricketing powers were eager to elevate other countries to membership of the ICC so as to gain a voting majority against the former “colonial” powers, and this is one factor that led to the elevation of Zimbabwe in the first place. Expelling Zimbabwe would increase the voting power of the “first world” bloc, and many people in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka do not want this.

Secondly, what are the objections to Zimbabwe playing international cricket? For one thing, Zimbabwe is ruled by a dictatorship that restricts civil liberties. Well, other members of the ICC include Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are not exactly wonderful on this score either. South Africa is ruled by people who consider Robert Mugabe to be one of their old comrades in arms. If Zimbabwe were kicked out of world cricket on these grounds, then this would “set a bad example” to Pakistan and Bangladesh in particular. Did I mention that the governing body of cricket in Pakistan is traditionally a branch of the army and the head of its board is usually a general? That complicates matters further, and rules out the “We should expel Zimbabwe because the government controls cricket in the country” argument. The government of Sri Lanka appoints that nation’s cricket board too (although not through the army). As for “Zimbabwe selects players on something other than merit”, well, South Africa does that too. (Affirmative action with respect to black and coloured players). One would think that “Zimbabwe should be expelled because Zimbabwean cricket is a shambles” might be enough, but the organisation of cricket in a number of countries is a shambles (most notably Pakistan again, also (sadly) the West Indies). The ICC is also a shambles, having demonstrated in its organisation of the recently completed World Cup that it is an organisation that could not collectively get pissed in Porto)

Australia was scheduled to tour Zimbabwe later this year. The Australian players did not want to make the tour. The Australian government definitely did not want the tour to go ahead. However, until recently it stated that as Cricket Australia is a private organisation, then it is not the government’s job to decide. The Australian board mainly cares about making as much money as possible, but in the crunch it did not want to tour either, and really would have just preferred that the whole issue would go away. However, it did not especially want to upset the ICC, and it did not really want to pay a fine. Quite typically, the board asked the government to solve its problem for it.

When it initially got this request from Cricket Australia, the Australian government made comments about how it did want the tour to go ahead, and about how it might be willing to “indemnify” Cricket Australia against a fine from the ICC. What this means is that Cricket Australia would have cancelled the tour as this is what the government wanted and that the government would then have paid the fine on its behalf. This would have been an easy enough thing for the government to do – after all it was only taxpayers’ money,. However, when the government said this, it had not comprehended the full implications, which was that the fine would be paid to the Zimbabwean board in compensation, and that as the Zimbabwean board is controlled by Robert Mugabe, paying the fine would essentially mean giving a gift of $2 million directly to Robert Mugabe.

Once the Australian government comprehended this, paying the fine was not a feasible option. The Australian government was not going to give Robert Mugabe a $2 million gift. The only other option was to take advantage of the ICC’s rule that a government ban could stop a tour without a fine. In defence of John Howard, I believe he genuinely did this as a last resort. The alternative was worse.

However, from the point of view of Cricket Australia, there was another alternative, which was to simply withdraw from the ICC. The ICC is very culpable concerning Zimbabwe. The participating teams in the recent World Cup and other ICC tournaments have been given a share of the profits of the tournament. This includes Zimbabwe. The ICC is already partly funding Robert Mugabe, and Australia is partly implicated simply by participating in the ICC’s tournaments. The recent World Cup was such an organisational debacle that there is no great loss in not participating in future such events. If Australia were to leave, the ICC certainly could not stop Australia playing its traditional series against England, and if they tried then the national boards of England, New Zealand and probably other nations as well would follow Australia out of the ICC. Australian cricket is also based on expectations of receiving money from playing India frequently (next January’s series between Australia and India is anticipated to be extremely lucrative), but it is hard to imagine that India would not find a way to continue playing Australia – they need the revenues they receive from playing such games

What Australia should have done was called the ICC’s bluff. It may have suffered some short term financial insecurity as a consequence, but it would have regained control over its own destiny and would have at least fixed these kinds of problems for good.

This would have been good, because there is another cricketing crisis in the background. When Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer was murdered in March after Pakistan’s elimination from the World Cup. most of us speculated that the murder was in some way connected with subcontinental bookmakers, as cricket’s problems with match fixing and betting were well known. I expected that this would confirm and the details would leak out relatively quickly, but it did not happen. One thing I did not take adequate notice of was a series of strange articles that were published about the religious devotion of certain members of the Pakistan team, in particular captain Imzamam-al-Haq. Apparently a significant portion of the Pakistan team were devotees of the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat movement, which stresses living a pure and authentic Islamic lifestyle and which is aggressively evangelical. Apparently the team was factionalised between devotees of this movement and non-devotees, and there were prayer rooms set up in team hotels and Tablighi Jamaat clerics mingled with the team and were present in the dressing room. Allegedly Bob Woolmer saw this as divisive and detracting from the team performance.

There have been various leaks and observations since Woolmer’s death suggesting that he must have been murdered by someone he knew and who was connected to the team. The possibility is very real that he was murdered by someone in or closely connected to the team, and the reason that he was murdered was mixed in with fundamentalist Islam rather than bookmaking. There are now doubts that the final e-mail sent by Woolmer (resigning his position as coach) before he died was written by him (it does not sound like it was written by a native English speaker). which again suggest that the murderer may have been some what connected to the team, and somehow had access to his laptop. (Of course, this story has already long passed six impossible things happening before breakfast, so perhaps it was some bizarre combination of the two). The fact that we still do not know who killed Woolmer after two months does make me wonder if some sort of cover-up has gone in within the Pakistan team, and if so the “Islam” explanation becomes more likely and the bookmaking explanation less so, I think

I do not know what happened, obviously. The story gets stranger and stranger. It may be that the state of the Pakistan cricket team is symptomatic of the decay and radicalisation of the country of Pakistan every bit as much as the decay of the Zimbabwean cricket team is as symptomatic of the decay of that country. If so, countries such as Australia and England should not be playing Pakistan either. However great the rivalry between Pakistan and India, one cannot imagine some of these revelations increasing the eagerness of India to play Pakistan regularly either. If the ICC mandates regular tours of Pakistan, then this may well be another reason why the ICC is not an organisation that it is advantageous for cricketing authorities in Australia, England, or elsewhere to be connected to any more.

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15 comments to On cricket, Zimbabwe, John Howard, the ICC, Pakistan and Bob Woolmer

  • Excellent post. I agree with you 100% that Australia should have left the ICC immediately. We (I’m Australian) are in a sporting sense the best cricket playing nation in the world over the past decade, and in addition Cricket Australia runs the most professional and consistent organisation of any in world cricket. Losing Australia would be like losing Brazil from soccer – the ICC would have had no choice but to make a deal or face a mass exodus.

    Although not really the focus of your post, the situation in Pakistan is surely one of the major security threats of the next couple of decades – the sooner the west starts to take it very, very seriously the better.

  • Cricket Australia should withdraw from the ICC, just like all democratic contries should withdraw from the UN..

  • Actually the ICC could collectively get pissed in Porto.. the President of ICC, Percy Sonn, has quite a reputation on that score!

  • Phil A

    Good post. Austraila should have quit the ICC. The UK should look at the possibility too.

    International cricket existed quite happily before it existed and can continue to do so without it.

  • guy herbert

    Thanks for all that detail Michael. What’s most interesting to me is that the ICC is acting like a tool of government policy for some countries, notably South Africa as well as Zimbabwe. The cricket authorities in some places are under pressure to pretend there isn’t anything seriously wrong with Zimbabwe, because Mugabe’s anti-colonial rhetoric is an effective silencer.

    Interested too in the by-the-way remark about West Indies cricket being poorly organised. I’d always seen this as a strength in a region where the governments range from sensible to distinctly flaky. A weak organisation is much less susceptible to takeover by or being a tool for political interests, so that even the less fortunate islands might be insulated by incompetence.

    (I’m not sure, generalising the question, whether the “small strong” state beloved of traditional conservatives isn’t worse than a big weak one.)

  • Kim du Toit

    Ho ho ho… I see schism looming.

    On the one hand: England, Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies (call it, say, the “Empire” Cricket Board).

    On the other hand, the rump countries: Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Zimbabwe (no name, lest I offend the delicate sensibilities of some).

    India gets to pick which group it would prefer to play against. (No prizes for guessing which one they’d pick.)

    Problem solved.

    Too bad it won’t happen.

  • No point for India being the biggest fish in a very small pond though.

  • Good post, told me things I didn’t know which make the various situations regarding international cricket much clearer. I still don’t understand the game though :P.
    It is a shame that pastimes like cricket are so politicised at this level, such things should be used to bring the world together rather than drive us further apart, it is meant to be fun after all.

  • Julian Taylor

    Great post. One interesting thing which should shortly surface is how uneasy Mugabe’s ‘best mates’ in South Africa are beginning to feel about their frothing neighbour, what with South Africa currently in overdrive regarding their hosting of the 2010 World Cup. Even the BBC was recently heard to wonder what happens when Pretoria decides to literally pull the plug (South Africa is apparently the sole provider of Zimbabwe’s electricity now) and leave Comrade Bob without the power to torture his people opposition by.

  • Lee Moore

    But there’s a more general point about what the Australian government could do (or indeed any government in such a position) if that government is going to try to be liberal in th eold fashioned sense. Rather than intervene by banning an activity, it is much more consistent with limited government to make certain private contracts unenforceable if they are against public policy. Instead of banning the tour to Zimbabwe, why couldn’t the Australian government simply have legislated to make the contractual penalty provisions in the ICC contract unenforceable against Cricket Australia.

  • matt

    Personally, I think that Nation-Based sporting events are silly. We’d be better served as sports fans by merely having international championships amongst the club teams (a la Champions League Football).

  • guy herbert

    why couldn’t the Australian government simply have legislated to make the contractual penalty provisions in the ICC contract unenforceable against Cricket Australia.

    Two reasons:

    1. It is wrong in principle. Rule of Law requires that legislation be not retrospective and that it applies equally to all persons in the same position. Legislation to abrogate a particular contract for political effect is very nearly as bad as banning selected individuals from travelling for political effect.

    2. Australia cannot make such a law enforceable extraterritorially, and is unlikely to try; and consequently Australian legislation can’t abrogate or amend the agreements made by ICC members among themselves so as to permit Australian Cricket to remain a member of the ICC while exempt from whatever ICC rules suit it.

  • deltawingman

    Great post Michael Jennings (Are you any relation to the South African Cricketer Ray Jennings). You have helped me confirm my thoughts in my previous comment on this topic (different thread) that the Australian Cricket board (or even the players themselves if their board has lost its will) should leave the ICC and shake up world cricket (or world sport for that matter).

    World sporting bodies have gone the way of the United Nations where lots of tin pot countries ruled by dictators have the numerical majority in these curious forums to make the rules (or obstruct as they please) over the real economic and sporting powers in the world. In the long run that is bad for the sports because they are inevitably subject to spoiling politics rather than influence being gained on merit and free trade, i.e. where success is rewarded and mediocrity punished by a commensurate loss of influence.

    Perhaps world sporting bodies should be set up with the members relative influence determined by their teams rankings. Pulling out of the ICC and setting up a new body, based on where the real power in the game is (ie financial pull or sporting prowess) will be the best for the game itself.

    a Propos your comments on the religious divide in pakistani team it was, I am sure, tragic irony for Bob Woolmer because he had to deal with a similar divide in the South African team when he was coach there. It was, I believe, common knowledge that the South African Team at the time had a very religious “wing” with Hansie Cronje, Jonty Rhodes and Shawn Pollock being very fundamentalist christians while the Brian MacMillan faction were their antithesis, generating a lot of friction. Real funny how the very religious are always at the forefront of any skullduggery though.

  • PG

    Ha haha!!! John Howard now becomes the keeper of democracy. A guy who lies regularly (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_Overboard_Affair) tries to teach democracy to others. What about his support for the South African regime which was imposing apartheid in the 1980s.

  • Fintan

    comments on ireland being made up of ex pat aussies and english are a bit harsh if not stupid. Majority of the irish side is irish, in fact more irish than the english side is english i would say.

    apart from that i agree with everything else.