Two English institutions leave unpleasant memories

TWO English cricket institutions stumbled in the showpiece week of the English cricket season. The word 'institution' is one we must use with care. While it means 'establishment' or 'organisation' it implies much more. Institutions nurture their product, there is a strong association with grace and good spirit. During, and just before, the Lord's Test, both Lord's and Wisden found themselves short of these qualities.

England is a beautiful place for cricket, don't allow your opinion to be led otherwise. But the true strength of English cricket comes from the people who love the game and not from those that seek ownership of that love. From that point of view the last week of July was very disappointing.

Lord's may have been a great cricket ground once. It is still an astonishingly beautiful ground but it has the charm of a museum, not of a passionate sports arena. Greatness symbolises a largeness of heart which Lord's seems to have long lost. It is a petty and pompous place where people believe they are bigger than the game. Nobody can be, not Don Bradman, nor Garry Sobers, not Sachin Tendulkar. Certainly not Lord's where they are paranoid of people, not welcoming of them. To go there is like going to a beautiful garden that is fenced off, it is like a museum with "do not touch" signs all over. It is cold but that is their prerogative. It is also extremely rude, rude beyond comprehension, and that is not something anyone can have a right over.

When a player gets too big for his boots, you drop him. So then, when a ground starts believing it is bigger than the game that sustains it, it is time to give it a bit of a rest. Cricket can do without it and the net level of happiness in the game will rise. The real face of English cricket is the fan who pays very good money to watch, is largely fair, collects material and asks for autographs more politely than anywhere else. To make Lord's the symbol of English cricket is staggering.

Sadly, Wisden, the more acceptable face of English cricket, stumbled too. They are trying to sell the 'Wisden' brand globally which is a fine, and acceptable, business strategy. The Indian market, which is huge and still evolving, represents an enticing opportunity and by publishing a fine magazine, television shows and now, by staging events, they are trying to make an impact here. So far so good.

The Wisden Indian Cricketer of the Century was an ambitious venture but the manner in which they approached the participation of Mohammad Azharuddin was deplorable. Faced with a fork in the road, one leading to grace, the other to pettiness, they opted for the latter.

Wisden had sent Azhar an invitation which he accepted and a contract which he signed. He was in the final short list of 16 cricketers and by publishing, and therefore accepting, that fact they acknowledged his right to be present at the function where the final nominee would be announced. The contract was only proof of that. Then, to call him up and ask him not to attend, was a slap in the face. You don't do that. It is a question of good manners, but even more so it is a question of principle.

Azharuddin was in that list, picked by a member of the jury (not me!) because he had made 6000 Test runs and 9000 one-day runs, had 24 hundreds from 99 Test appearances, held a couple of world batting records and was captain of India for nine years. He batted at number three in the team that was eventually picked as the Indian team of the century. Those achievements stand, irrespective of what the BCCI decided later, and the nomination was a reflection of that. If an engineer has built a fine bridge, and doubts are later expressed about his integrity, it doesn't devalue the quality of the bridge. If a surgeon is thought to be involved in tax irregularities, it doesn't make his incisions less valuable.

It wasn't just the insult that was depressing, for make no mistake it was a stinging insult, it was the reason ascribed to it. I read a quote that suggested that the English media would not have taken too kindly to Azhar's presence. If that is indeed true, a sadder word has not been spoken in our cricket history.

Within an India that is making giant economic strides, that is producing a vibrant new generation of world achievers, the very fact that the perception in the English media about an event to celebrate Indian cricket should count is sad and revolting. Oh, the weakness of it all! Is this all the voice of independent India can manage? I hadn't been a believer before but now I can see why there should be no majority foreign holding in the Indian media.

Don't forget too, that 18 months after the ban on Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja, the courts and the Indian public have still not been presented with any evidence. We have had a trial by media and a trial by suspicion. We have been told there is evidence but we haven't seen any yet. If you really want to purge Indian cricket of match-fixing, the best way to do it is to show the fans what their heroes did. But you cannot say, your heroes did this but we will not let you see any evidence. I think it is time India's public, that silent accepting mass, was presented a trial by evidence. They deserve to know.

Then we can move on. But till then we cannot and that is not fair; not to India's cricket fans and certainly not to Jadeja and Azhar. Everybody is entitled to make a start in life again. Remember the outstanding obituary to Hansie Cronje by the greatest human being alive, Nelson Mandela. "Here was a man," he said, "who was trying hard to pick himself up and be a role model again." It is a sign of civilised society that it gives people a second chance in life. What do you say to another that ostracises people without furnishing evidence of wrongdoing?

Let us move on. Let us see some pride.