A controversy which hit the headlines

THE World Cup has seen many controversies but none stranger than the one about Percy Sonn, the President of the South African Board.

BY AMRIT MATHUR

Percy Sonn (extreme right), President of the United Cricket Board of South Africa with Malcolm Speed, Chief Executive Officer, International Cricket Council and Ngconde Balfour, Sports Minister, South Africa. Percy was subject of a controversy recently.-— Pic. AP

THE World Cup has seen many controversies but none stranger than the one about Percy Sonn, the President of the South African Board. Percy was charged with drunken behaviour at Paarl, during India's game against Holland, when he was supposed to have had a drink too many and embarrassed himself and his guests.

This, naturally, caused extensive outrage and the UCB in an unprecedented move asked their chief to explain his conduct before the General Council. Whenever this happens Percy's experience as a respected, and skilled advocate will surely come in handy.

But while this controversy hits the headlines, a few things stand out. One, the fact that the cricket chief of a country is subject to such scrutiny. Two, the fact that the man himself was unfazed and seemingly unaffected by the adverse attention in the media. Even while others issued strident statements condemning his conduct, Percy, an extremely likeable, friendly person, made brave statements defending himself. "If I used foul language", he said defiantly, "it was most probably suitable to the circumstance".

Others too defended Percy stoutly, most notably Ali Bacher who said the President was honest, straightforward and a man of considerable integrity. He, therefore, did not see much in the allegations and expressed a desire that everyone moves ahead and concentrates instead on the wonderful cricket unfolding in the event. Anyway, a few days later, a more sober and mellow Percy shifted his stance to offer an unconditional apology and after this the matter was laid to rest.

Which ,in a way, is the correct thing to do because the World Cup is about cricket, not about contracts, not about drugs, not about drunken behaviour and not about political/moral/ethical opposition to Mugabe's regime. For the last several years Bacher has devoted his life to the success of the Cup. He says "he gets up each morning feeling tired but drives himself relentlessly, to ensure there are no glitches and South Africa puts up a show people won't forget and which others will find difficult to match".

The years of preparation shows in the staging, the attention to detail and the sheer logistics and bandobust of the World Cup is quite staggering. Yet, Bacher is amazingly cool and unflappable, he takes on fresh challenges without a trace of panic. "I tell everyone in my team", he explains, "that if things are okay and wonderful then don't bother me. But in case something is out of place then give me a shout on the mobile".

For the players things are very much in place, just as Bacher would like them to be. The only missing input is the absence of gymnasiums in most team hotels which forces them to go elsewhere for their mandatory workouts. "This is an issue", observed India's trainer who himself set a terrific example, not that players are expected to follow, by participating in a Cape Town half marathon and completing the 21 kilometre run in 90 minutes. Would Indian players be able to run this distance? I asked. "Yes", he replied, "quite a few, provided you did not bother about the timing".

The spectators too have received attention, their needs reflected in the excellent facilities at cricket venues. This concern for spectator comfort is a serious matter with administrators because cricket has to compete with other sports to attract patrons, and if for whatever reason cricket fails to deliver facilities of a required standard people could simply switch to rugby, soccer or something else.

Such commitment on the part of officials is properly announced, and prominently displayed, is integral to the Mission Statement of the South African Cricket Board. At Centurion, a magnificent setting for cricket, these objectives are not mere words but a reality, which is why spectators genuinely enjoy the experience of watching cricket.

When India played Australia there were several thousand Indians at the ground, many flown in by companies on special charters. This cricket group stayed at the team hotel, ate special meals served by Indian restaurants and busied itself collecting autographs and recording the movement of cricketers on video.

At times this became a terrible nuisance because whenever a player accessed the lobby he was besieged by enthusiastic fans. Even at breakfast, as he got down to dealing with his cereal and fruit, an enterprising fan would pop up to record the event for his private viewing later on.

But, of course, there is the other, more positive side to it as well. Cricket tourism demonstrates, once again, the strong support the game enjoys and the endless commercial possibilities it presents. Here was a group of people which had spent serious money to travel across the world to cheer India, all of them came armed with cameras, autograph sheets, banners and huge hopes.

Regrettably, as it happened, India performed poorly and this caused intense disappointment and dampened everyone's hopes. Despite loud and repeated requests (to Ganapati and Bharat Mata) wickets continued to tumble, India lost miserably and this messed up the party.

While many took this stoically (general assessment: Australia is superior, India had a bad day), others were not so forgiving. At least some agitated gents expressed their feelings in rather explicit terms, they had harsh words to say about the team.

Sharing their grief was the Hon'ble Speaker of the Lok Sabha (and former Mumbai cricket boss) Manohar Joshi who had flown in a day ahead with a group of MP's. He was no less disappointed but concealed his feelings admirably, even offered words of encouragement to the boys during the break.

As part of Joshi's parliamentary group were some MP's with a strong sports background. For Dinesh Trivedi, from Calcutta, sports is, as he says, "a major weakness". K. P. Singh Deo is of the opinion, "sports, fitness and discipline are the keys for successful nation building".

Also present was Kirti Azad, national cricket selector, someone who usually sports a positive outlook but seeing the on- field carnage he was shocked and dismayed. "I can't understand this, why should this happen", he asked in a completely bewildered tone. "The boys are good players, these are great conditions, the wicket is made for batting and yet we collapse without a fight"! All totally valid questions but are there any answers? Koi hai?