The game is sick because the world is sick

Cricket has been teaching us that men of all types can live under the same roof. It has been the story of India. How did we think it could be allowed to last? It was this very quality that angered the fanatics. By Peter Roebuck.

Cricket is a difficult game to run. Consider the 10 strongest nations. Two of them have been involved in the Iraq war. Two have been at loggerheads and worse about Kashmir. One has a civil war in its northern region and last month endured explosions and the assassination of a senior opposition editor. Another is trying to emerge from decades of oppression based on colour. Its neighbour gasps under the yoke of a greedy and evil dictatorship. The West Indies does not exist. Another has just experienced a savage mutiny. That leaves New Zealand as the only remotely calm constituent. And it thinks mostly about rugby.

Besides national conflicts, these 10 nations include colonial and post-colonial, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist. They contain black, brown and white, third and first world. Cricket is not played by a bunch of cosy Scandinavian neighbours. It is in the epicentre of the raging battle between ancient and modern, anger and love, prejudice and enlightenment. In some respects it was simpler in the old days when it was in the hands of a stuffy conservatives at Lord’s. Arguments raged about the no-ball rule, leg before wicket and over rates. Cricket occupied its own private world. Lord’s bound together in a loose confederacy a wide range of mutually suspicious nations.

It is the most vulnerable of games. Just how vulnerable had not been realised till the pins were pulled. It seemed possible to dislike cricket and cricketers, but not to hate them. Till a notably cosmopolitan Sri Lankan team was attacked, progressives had not understood how much offence they had given. How they celebrated when Graeme Smith embraced Makhaya Ntini at the SCG! How we rejoiced when a Muslim was invited to captain India, a black man put in charge of West Indies, and a Tamil was hero worshipped in Sri Lanka! The West Indies fields a white man and several players of Indian descent.

Cricket has been teaching us that men of all types can live under the same roof. It has been the story of India. How did we think it could be allowed to last? It was this very quality that angered the fanatics. It made a lie of their life. The attack on cricketers was as calculated as the assault on the Twin Towers. Cricket was a target because more it advanced causes anathema to the extremists. Toleration was not to be tolerated. It might catch on.

Its popularity also made it an enemy. John Lennon famously and foolishly said that The Beatles were more popular than God. Eventually it cost him his life. Cricket has made no such claims but it attracts and distracts youth.

What now? It’s difficult to see any representative teams going to Pakistan for several years. The Sri Lankans were almost wiped out. What if it had been India? Sachin Tendulkar? Kumar Sangakkara heard something whiz past his chin. This time it was not a bumper. It was a bullet. No one is going back to Pakistan till that memory has faded.

Somehow the game will go on, even in Pakistan. Cricket has a grip on the subcontinental soul that is not so easily removed. The most likely outcome is that Pakistan will stop playing international cricket for five years. The fanatics will lose but it might take time. Cricket is sick because the world is sick. It will be back because the world will be back. But it knows now that it no longer inhabits a separate place where gentlemen argue about leg before wicket.