Death by Cricket

On Saturday, our cricket team matched up against a team from Timken Corporation. The match had been arranged because some of the lads at Timken had seen the newspaper articles describing our victory over the team from the British Deputy High Commission last month. An American team good at cricket? They had to see for themselves. The Timken players had arrived from different parts of the country including Bangalore and Jamshedpur.

Our team’s mood was subdued that morning — the exhaustion of staying up until 2am only to watch India lose badly to Sri Lanka. Barring a miracle performance by Bermuda against Bangladesh, India was due to be kicked out of the World Cup in the first stage. The morning papers carried little analysis, as the game had been ongoing at printing time, but at that point there was little analysis that could or needed to be done, and who really cared anyway? It wasn’t even a close match.

Hanging over the Indian team’s loss, and over the entire World Cup too, was the rapidly unfolding story of Pakistan’s coach, Bob Woolmer. Pakistan, like India, had badly underperformed (though hopes hadn’t been as high), being knocked out of the tournament by losing to among others, Ireland. Granted that that match had taken place on St. Patrick’s Day, but this was Ireland’s first entry in the tournament. The day after the loss, Woolmer was found dead in his hotel room. Heart attack and suicide were the initial media diagnoses, but by the day of our match the story had made it into the American papers — Woolmer had been murdered.

It seems an open secret that betting and match-fixing plagues cricket. Woolmer was believed to have been writing a tell-all memoir about his experiences, including demands that he fix matches. For the West Indies, hosting its first World Cup, the timing couldn’t have been worse. In India, Woolmer’s death split the spotlight and took some of the glare off the Indian team. Of course, there have still been the predictable calls for the entire team to be dismantled and for the coach, an Australian, to be sent back Down Under. There is blame directed at the corporate sponsors for feeding into the players’ egos and fattening them on commercials and celebdom. Effigies have been burnt, players’ houses have been vandalized. It’s bad enough that all such reactions seem acceptable on some level here (another story for another day), but Woolmer’s death has damaged S. Asian cricket in a much more insidious way.

One can debate endlessly the vestiges of the colonial era, ongoing racism that is only sometimes subtle, and endemic corruption in S. Asia, but after the pundits have finished excusing and explaining performance failures, all that is left is the reputation of S. Asian cricket. That reputation has often been suspect for different reasons, some of them valid and others baseless, but Woolmer’s death has placed the real issue into stark relief: The coach of a cricket team was murdered. That team comes from S. Asia. There are likely links to gambling and undue influence. Ergo, this is what makes S. Asians less civilized than the rest of the cricket world.

Or put it another way. Here’s what people might say out loud after a beer: “What do you expect? It’s Pakistan. The country is full of the radical and the dangerous and it’s not surprising that their coach was offed in his hotel room. Their national cricket organization is hopelessly susceptible to financial and public pressure, to strong-arm tactics, and so are the players.” And the subtler messages: “there’s no sense of ethics among these guys, violence is an accepted societal norm particularly as a response to losing a cricket match, nationalism in Pakistan involves the elimination of the other and not any sense of real patriotism. Most of all, they’re brown, uncivilized people who have no concept of morality. Isn’t it all just a bit fundamentalist in spirit?”

Corruption and gambling scandals are not new to American sports. The Chicago Black Sox in 1919, Pete Rose, numerous NCAA basketball and football programs, to name a few. But the participation and competition in these sports is so broad that it’s possible to maintain the integrity of the sport and punish the few teams that have brought disrepute to the game. College football programs suspend players, universities are sanctioned, but the season goes on and the games are played and people feel that justice has been done.

Not so in international cricket and certainly not in S. Asia. Every hint of corruption takes anti-corruption progress 10 steps backwards because corruption, match-fixing, and violence not only undermine faith in process, but also faith in the entire system. Everything and everyone is suspect and as a result paranoia finds a home in even the most mundane aspects of life. There have been match fixing scandals in Australia and S. Africa, but one gets the sense that the world will give you the benefit of the doubt if you can demonstrate that at the end of the day law and order do prevail.
I don’t know cricket well enough to know whether it has a phrase that is the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot or scoring an own goal or self-inflicted wounds. Maybe there’s one in Hindi or Urdu. But for now, let’s just say that S. Asia has “Woolmered” its reputation once again. And there’s no one who thinks that any of S. Asia’s ruling cricket bodies have the moral high-ground or ability to make things right again.

Postscript: Our match ended after midday, under a sun that was overpowered by the humidity in the air. We beat Timken by 10 runs or so. My white cricket pants are full of grass and dirt stains. It seems appropriate.

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