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Some background to the Woolmer affair: how did cricket get here?

When I decided that I would blog the cricket World Cup in detail, I thought I would be reporting on cricket matches. Right now, I should be sitting in a pub watching Australia play South Africa, the biggest game for my team so far. However, I am at my computer writing at length about peculiar historical events. When I started I thought I was writing the following piece for my own blog. However, as it went on, I realised I was writing a background piece to what was being discussed (as much in the comments as the article, and as much by myself as by Brian) in Brian’s piece on Bob Woolmer’s murder yesterday. The piece starts with some history, but this is crucial to understand the weird and pathological events of the game today, if indeed they can be understood.

For Samizdata readers, there is one point that I sort of assume knowledge of, but which may not be obvious to people who do not follow cricket. I get to it at the end of the post, but I may as well emphasise it now. Cricket has an odd structure, which stems from a century in which it was unable to decide if it were an amateur or professional game. Cricket is today a professional game, but the principal professional teams are national representative teams, which play together all year long. Australians must play for Australia, Indians for India, Englishmen for England. If a player falls out with management, that can end a career, whereas in baseball or soccer he would simply find another team. This also means that if a very good player has the misfortune to come from a small poor country, he will not make nearly as much money as an equally good player from a larger or richer country. It also means that a quite good player who comes from a country with a strong team might not get much of a professional career, whereas the same player would easily do so if he came from a country with a weaker team. It also is partly responsible for the fact that playing strength, expertise in the game, money, and good governance are all too be found in different countries. These imbalances are one thing that makes the game as prone to corruption and criminality as it now seems to be.

In soccer, the World Cup is played between teams of players who spend most of their time (and make most of their income) playing for clubs. In cricket, it is played between the same teams who play together for the rest of the year.

In 1983, India unexpectedly won the World Cup in England. This was a huge event for India, and it led to India and Pakistan asking for and gaining the right to host the 1987 World Cup. This was a big thing for the cricket World Cup, as it had been a largely English event (hosted by England, under English local playing conditions) until that point. The 1987 event ended up on the subcontinent at least partly because the England board had to some extent lost interest, and they were not too bothered by somebody else taking it off their hands. (It was not too long later that the cricketing boards of the world – including England – started arguing bitterly over the right to host it – but interest in it was limited at that point).

India followed up the 1983 win with a win in the seven nation World Championship of cricket, held in Australia in 1985 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the state of Victoria (or some such excuse). At the time, this event was not regarded as much less than a World Cup (which was, as I said, England’s event) – the key thing is that all seven test playing countries were participating. That 1983 win had something that the Australian organisers would not have preferred but which must have gone down well on the subcontinent – an India v Pakistan final, won by India.

Thus India in Pakistan went into the 1987 event believing that they were the teams to beat, and that the event represented a coming of age for subcontinental cricket. The two teams did indeed play well, topping the points tables in the two groups, and each playing home semi-finals. The expectation of everyone was that India and Pakistan would meet in the final.

This did not happen. Australia and England each won their respective semi-finals and met in the final, with Australia winning the tournament. (Expectations in Australia were so low that nobody had even purchased the television rights to the tournament until midway through it – and then after Channel Nine did so, it did not bother to show any of the semi-finals live, and then chose to show a movie rather than the second (England) innings of the final. Australians did not get to see Australia’s first World Cup victory on live television). Some people in India compared the final to a wedding without the bridge and groom. The event was in truth a huge success, and probably the first major subcontinental media saturating cricket event, of a type we have had many of since. The victory by Australia seemed to many to be a complete fluke at the time, but looking from 2007 it seems almost fated – the first of a great many Australian victories that have filled the last 20 years. I remember reading in an English newspaper a couple of months after the event that gave no credit to Australia whatsoever, blamed the victory mostly on Mike Gatting’s reverse sweep, and that it was a game that “England would have won nine times out of ten”. You cannot imagine an English commentator saying that about England v Australia matches these days, but that kind of attitude might help to explain why we still enjoy beating England so much. 1987 was also probably the time when the curious inability of home sides to win the World Cup started to become clear. Nobody had expected England to win any of the three previous tournaments in England, and England did actually do well enough, especially in 1979. However, India and Pakistan could not do it in 1987, and then Australia could not even make the semi-finals despite being pre-tournament favourites in 1992.

But as I was saying, 1987 was the first big subcontinental cricketing media event. The media has loved such events to promote the Indian team, promote the Pakistan team, promote the rivalry, and promote the media and products. In 1996 the tournament was back in India and Pakistan, but much the same thing happened. Unfortunately from the organisers point of view, India and Pakistan ended up meeting in a knock out quarter final. Knock-out quarter finals have not been used in a World Cup since. This is probably not a coincidence. India won this, but were beaten by Sri Lanka in a semi-final and went on to win the tournament. That rather romantic result made the tournament, but it was a more bad-tempered event than 1987, the low point being India defaulting the semi-final to Sri Lanka after a crowd riot when it became obvious Sri Lanka were going to win the match.

The two World Cups since then have been played in England and South Africa, and although the Indian money and sponsorship was present in both cases, it did not overwhelm the events. This was partly due to the cultures of the host countries, and partly due to the dominance of countries other than India and Pakistan. Pakistan made the final in England in 1999, but were overwhelmed by Australia in the final. That final was notable for two titanic struggles between Australia and South Africa in the Super Six round and the semi-final. In 2003 in South Africa India made the final and generally played well, but that tournament was notable for the truly awe inspiring dominance of Australia. No other side was ever in the hunt. There were stirrings of controversy and suspicion in those tournaments when occasional upsets occurred. However, in the cricketing world at large, there were unending one day internationals involving India and Pakistan (many played in the United Arab Emirates, which was apparently a hotbed of bookmaking and corruption) more and more Indian television money, Indian sponsorship, and at times dubious results and match fixing scandals. (The most publicised of these were the ones in which players and officials from countries other than India and Pakistan became implicated. The most notorious of these occurred in 2000, when South African captain Hansie Cronje was had a telephone conversation recorded in which he was talking to an Indian bookmaker and agreeing to fix matches. In the subsequent scandal, Cronje was given immunity from prosecution in return for testimony in which he told all. Cronje repeatedly changed his story, appearing to be trying to tell as little as he could get away with and then being found out repeatedly. Eventually a web of match fixing appeared, and it became clear that Cronje had hundreds of undisclosed bank accounts throughout the world. Despite Cronje’s inconsistency, he kept his immunity and after getting a life ban from international cricket that he bizarrely but unsuccessfully contested in court he died mysteriously in a plane crash in South Africa in 2002).

This year’s World Cup was given to the West Indies as a compromise at the end of a very bitter struggle for the rights to host the 1996 World Cup that occurred in around 1993. England considered that the 1996 tournament was “their turn”, and India and Pakistan wanted to host the tournament for financial reasons. After a heated and apparently very bitter meeting, the tournament was given to the subcontinentals, with an agreement that a “rotation” policy would be instituted going forwards, with the following tournaments given to England, South Africa, the West Indies, Australia, and then the subcontinent one more (it was a bit vague after that). The Indians last year suggested that given the bulk of money in cricket now comes from India, they should not have to wait until 2016 to next host the tournament and should host every third tournament in future. The Australian board (presumably upon being offered a large sum of money) made way, and the 2012 tournament was given to India and Pakistan with the 2016 tournament going to Australia. There will be a fight over the right to host the 2020 tournament between England and South Africa, as the Indians are going to clearly want 2024 and money will likely speak, all assuming that international cricket does not implode by then.

Anyway, as a consequence of that deal of more than a decade ago, this present tournament is being held in the poor countries of the English speaking West Indies. It is clear now that Indian money and influence has dominated the planning and organisation of this tournament. As an example, the four major sponsors whose names appear on the grounds at every game are international companies, but with an Indian twist. We have “Hutch” – the Indian mobile phone company that has just been sold by Hong Kong Conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa to Vodafone. Hutchison runs mobile phone networks in lots of other countries as well as India, but under the brand “Three”. It is their Indian business that is being promoted. (The business is going to be re-branded as “Vodafone” shortly. If that had happened first, an international business might have been able to get some value out of the sponsorship. Then we have “Hero Honda”. This is another global company – the Japanese car company. But it is not just “Honda”, it is the Indian subsidiary specifically. We have “Pepsi”, obviously a global brand, but one with a long history of sponsoring Indian cricket. India, not coincidentally is a market where Pepsi does far better in its global war with Coke than it does in most places. And we have “LG”, the Korean chaebol and the closest to a generally internationally aimed sponsorship of the four. But it is a chaebol very much aiming its sales at mid income markets like India. If Samsung were to advertise, that would not necessarily be aimed at India, as Samsung sees itself as much more a first world company. LG suits the Indian market.

This year’s World Cup was, as I said, organised for the benefit of the subcontinental and particularly Indian markets far more than any in some time. And from that perspective something went terribly wrong. It was supposed to be easy for the best eight teams including India and Pakistan to go through to the Super Eight stage of the tournament, which is to take up four weeks of the six and a half week schedule. However, four days into the tournament Pakistan managed to be eliminated, and India managed to lose unexpectedly, putting their place in the Super Eight in jeopardy. Pakistan’s coach Bob Wollmer was then murdered, with ramifications we are still trying to figure out. India then had a struggle to make Super Eight, needing to win against both Bermuda and Sri Lanka. They beat Bermuda easily enough, but yesterday lost badly to Sri Lanka, almost certainly ensuring that India will not progress further in the tournament. (To do so, Bermuda will have to beat Bangladesh tomorrow, which is inconceivable, not withstanding the fact that so far this is a tournament in which six inconceivable things seem to be regularly happening before breakfast.

A crucial break has opened up in international cricket in recent years. All the money has been generated in India, but the Indian team and its oldest rivals have simply not been as good as teams from other parts of the world. Teams from other parts of the world (most notably Australia) have been much better. In most professional sports, the market would correct this, and in some ways it has in cricket too. (The best side in the world is Australia. Australia and India play one another a lot, and the Australians are paid a great deal to do this. Australians are also paid a lot of money to be sponsored and to make advertisements by Indian companies). However, cricket’s curious structure in which players play for national representative teams that play together for most of the year, and players are unable to transfer between teams has prevented this happening to an extent that would probably be healthy. (The subcontinental teams have of course been able to hire Australian and English/South African coaches in an attempt to improve their playing strength. Australian Dav Whatmore led Sri Lanka to the World Cup in 1996, and this has led to Pakistan and India to also import coaches. (Whatmore now coaches Bangladesh, whose victory of India last week completely threw a spanner in the works). After Bob Woolmer’s murder, one does tend to think that they may difficulty hiring more, however. In particular, if I were Indian’s Australian coach Greg Chappell, I would be getting on a plane back to Brisbane, and fast.

This strange structure has encouraged corruption, and the nature or the countries involved (India and Pakistan) has fed this hugely. As it happens, the early elimination of the teams representing and of most interest to the nation for whose benefit the tournament is essentially being held is having and will have huge financial ramifications, for sponsors, for television companies, and for bookmakers and gangsters, and for the International Cricket Council. One man has been murdered, but I think we have only seen the beginning of the fallout. The losers go up to some of the richest men in the world, but they are not really the problem. Rupert Murdoch can afford to shrug his shoulders. People with financial connections to the Bombay and Karachi underworlds cannot do so so easily. The question we are waiting for the answer to is just who, precisely, fits into this category of people, and how many of them are players, coaches, and administrators of the game of cricket.

Cross-posted from Michael Jennings

15 comments to Some background to the Woolmer affair: how did cricket get here?

  • Only four words needed: kinky sex gone wrong.

  • kinky sex gone wrong

    I’m sure that’s of great comfort a good man’s grieving widow.

    You nob.

  • RAB

    Sheesh Thaddeus!
    This is not a Michael Hutchence Moondance.
    This is another ball game entirely!

  • Great article, Michael. I say that as a completely uninterested and most irregular consumer of televised sport, including cricket.

  • Chris Harper

    What James said.

  • Brian

    An interesting analysis of the problem. You’ve left the solutions unstated, though:

    1) Expel Pakistan from international cricket until they can prove they’ve stopped cheating, and

    2) Legalise gambling in the Indian subcontinent.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    the “bridge and groom”. Shurley shome mishtake. Seriously, good article. Funnily enough, with all the other disasters and violence surrounding European football in recent years (Heysel, Hillsborough, the violence of fans in England, Holland, etc), football does not seem to have had a case of a man actually murdered in such circumstances, although the Italian match-fixing scandal of last year probably may yield some grisly examples.

  • Ed Thomas

    Thaddeus Tremayne- that’s much more ridiculous than it would be to say the Pakistani team did it (which, in fact, is a conclusion I am mulling over as a possibility). I don’t think Woolmer would really have his mind on kinky sex the night after his career hit the biggest speedbump in cricket’s history, and with the hysterical Pakistani reaction the monkey on his back (no kinkiness implied there).

    Why would the shady underworld, meanwhile, invest in an obvious Pakistani victory? They would surely more likely have been well satisfied assuming that the serious- crooked – money would be won on the side of backing Ireland.

    No. I think the motive is much more base. Cricket in Pakistan is visceral. It is also the country that has brought us honour killings, in another context, admittedly. The probable motive is revenge- and the killers apparently knew Woolmer.

    There is one motive to add however- the desire to have a clear scapegoat and expurgation of 100 plus million impoverished people’s bitter disappointment. A consideration the players would have been the ones to feel most keenly.

  • Well, I confess I do know more about bridges than brides. I probably should work on that…..

  • Michael

    Very interesting post. There was a very interesting article in the weekend press over here on the (malign) influence of the Tablighi Jemaat sect of Sunni Islam on the Pakistani players. This is the same group that is behind the London Olympic mosque plans.

  • Shan

    It seems to me your article unfairly punishes India and Pakistan for the passion they show the game. It is not the fault of these countries that the English and Australians would rather play and watch football. The market follows the money, and the money now and for the forseeable future is in the subcontinent.

    Further, talk of expelling Pakistan is certainly premature. Such imperialist overreaction would kill cricket in England and Australia, as the subcontinent forms its own version of the ICC. Cricket without England or Australia would be realtively unchanged from tis current version. Cricket without the subcontinent would be on par with badminton or water polo.

  • Shan

    Cricket in Pakistan is visceral.

    I’m disappointed, I must say, with the underlying specter of the uncivilized brown man prevalent on this blog. Sports anywhere are visceral. England(Link), of all places should know that. Perhaps England should be expelled from FIFA?

  • A word or two from my local Pakistani Moslem shopkeeper:
    1)Pakistan is the only team to come back from the World Cup Cricket with the Ashes;
    2)They’re all so disgusted at losing to Ireland, they are going to convert to Bobslaying.

  • More third world corrution. !
    Pray tell me how the WI police can let the prime suspects depart the crime scene. We have already concluded that the culprit was in the hotel and wa known to Bob

    Surely even they have seen Poirot at work?
    More third world corrution. !

  • i need some imformation on evolution of cricket in england and influence of media…..if anyone knows it kindly mail me—me_sakshi@hotmail.com…..