The show must go on, come what may

Published : Nov 10, 2001 00:00 IST


THE security man at the North Gate - the back entrance to Lord's on the far side from the main Grace Gate - was having trouble with three young lads who tried to sneak past him to "have a look round, mate, that's all" so he was distracted when I drove up to the barrier that protects the sacred monument against unwanted guests.

I had forgotten my medallion, the passport to all top level cricket in England for the privileged few. But I am a familiar face and I was not anticipating an argument.

"ID, sir," he asked, his eyes narrowing. "I'm afraid I haven't brought any," I said, pointing in a pathetic way at my car park pass.

"You ought to have your press medallion at least," he snapped.

"But you and I have known each other for, well, perhaps 15 years," I replied. "Yes," he said, reaching for the button that swings the barrier out of the way. "But these are changed days."

Yes, indeed, I thought as I drove into the car park, I am grateful to know the new atmosphere of more friendly thinking that has been obvious at Lord's since Roger Knight was made secretary of MCC ten years ago, was still in place. He was a friendly cove when he played for Surrey, Gloucestershire and Sussex; now he is a smiling ambassador for the club that once had gatemen allegedly turned down by the prison service because they were too harsh.

Despite the worry that a terrorist might see the most famous sports ground in the country as a target Lord's is still in kindly hands.

We had gathered to hear the outcome of the discussions between players and the Board about the trip to India. The tour party were rightly determined to discover how they might be protected; ECB wanted to put the case for touring.

Since September 11 the whole world has changed and, although there is no war, no rioting and no sign of antagonism anywhere in India, who knows what might happen next, as Mark Butcher said when he cautiously agreed to continue his profession on the sub-continent this winter.

(I wrote this sentence before the murder of Christians at worship in Pakistan and wonder if that dreadful event changes everything. At least it proves Craig White, Andrew Caddick, Marcus Trescothick, Robert Croft and Ashley Giles are right to be apprehensive. Many of the 11 who accepted touring terms are no more convinced it is safe to travel than Butcher)

I will not have the argument that they should all be proud to serve and that, with a quick chorus of Land of Hope and Glory they should be ready to march off to Mohali, Ahmedabad and Bangalore with, metaphorically speaking, drums beating, flags waving and fixed bayonets gleaming in the sun.

Of course they were right to consult their families, right to ask what assurances were built into their visit; right to want to know how their insurance was affected and doubly right to inquire why Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the Board, claimed the tour was in doubt at one moment and would go ahead 36 hours later.

It is no insult to India to want to be sure you are safe abroad. "I have been looking forward to a tour of India all my cricketing life," said Butcher but he did not reckon that he might have to fight off a terrorist attack. These men are young cricketers not gladiators from Delta Force.

There are still unanswered questions. Why was Darren Gough, who declined the tour before the party was picked, at the meeting? Why was Alec Stewart, another stay-at-home, not present? Why has the coach Duncan Fletcher said nothing?

The player who declines to tour must also take the consequences. If White, described by Geoff Boycott as the only Test class all-rounder in this country, stays in his comfortable seaside home in north Yorkshire instead of risking the perils of five star living in north India, he cannot expect to replace Andrew Flintoff by right next summer.

Especially if Flintoff has bowled Sachin first ball, caught Sourav to win the decisive match and hit a century in 80 balls to bring the Mohali fans to their feet.

In the show biz world of international sporting achievement we frequently hang a star on the dressing room door of the understudy made good. "Minnows smash giants" is still the headline that grabs our attention. If the underdog becomes top dog, even for a moment, we cheer the louder.

As a much-injured fast bowler, a Young Australia under-achiever who threw in his lot with Yorkshire and England, White knows that cricket is often unfair. If you step out of the limelight the shadows soon hide you. He will expect to re-apply for the No.7 spot in the Test side. The sporting life has always been that way.

I suggest he and his fellow refusniks think along different lines.

Those who make the trip will be heroes to an Indian cricketing public who relish an England tour, who have not seen our Test side since that appalling Gower-less, Russell-free, Gooch-led trip in 1993. Those passionate enthusiasts still respect this country for setting the standards.

Instead, here is an opportunity for England to demonstrate the show business maxim: The Show Must Go On. War, death, famine, pestilence and personal grief must not be allowed to get in the way. Elton John did not weep until he had finished A Candle In The Wind for Diana, Princess of Wales and the Fearsome Five must not cry too soon either.

As hostilities stand at the moment they are much more likely to be run over by the local free shopping bus than hit by a rocket that has flown 500 miles from the Afghan border.

"Cricket is our business and we want to continue trading," said Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the ECB. He has won admirers by the way he has handled this huge crisis which has threatened to cancel the tour, disrupt relations with India, bring a heavy fine from ICC and damage this country's reputation for supporting freedom. He has also found the right words and that is an important factor for a man constantly in the spotlight.

Just in case cricket faded away I walked round Lord's after our meeting. Just to renew the memories.

There was the spot where in more liberal times Bill Frindall, the BBC scorer, was allowed to park his car a few feet from the back entrance to the pavilion. Colin Cowdrey's car always stood under those trees behind the old Press Box.

The 19th century equivalent of the flying saucer that is now the Press Box must have been over there. Reporters were allowed to stand in the long grass outside the old score box so that they could check the scores. Hard times even for the men from The Times.

As I walked behind the pavilion I recalled furious debate with Fred Trueman, Peter Parfitt, Geoff Miller, John Edrich, Tom Graveney, and Lord MacLaurin's son Neil every Saturday morning in a tent on the green and wondered if we might ever witness such happy days again. That is why those of us who love the game enough to place it in a special context that forgets death and destruction hope that all the selected players make the effort to go.

Tell me if I am wrong, call me sentimental if you like, but my belief is that if those chosen make the trip to hospitable India and forget the world outside for two months they will have the time of their lives, will be endlessly thanked for being India's guests and might even come away with a prize that escaped that team of champions from Australia.

Surely that is the best way to forget the horrors of September 11.

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