There have been recent reminders that cricket and politics are never far apart. This was most obviously apparent from the ongoing farrago between the Pakistan Cricket Board and the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
At the center of the storm lay the 2023 men’s Asia Cup, hosted by Pakistan but compromised by the BCCI’s refusal to allow its players to travel there. Reasons of security were cited, although it is not difficult to believe that other factors prevail.
India’s refusal to travel threw the whole tournament into jeopardy. In response, the PCB suggested a hybrid model in which some matches would be played in Pakistan and others at a neutral venue.
Sri Lanka emerged as the preferred option, rumors emerging that nine of the 13 matches will be played there. This was confirmed in the schedule, released on July 19. The 50-overs format tournament opens on Aug. 30 and closes on Sept. 17.
Six teams will participate – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. They have been divided into two groups, with the top two progressing to the Super Four stage. Then, the top two sides will contest the final.
At least one match is guaranteed between Pakistan and India, as they have been placed in the same group, together with Nepal, who qualified by beating the UAE.
The hybrid model was proposed by Najam Sethi when he was chair of the PCB’s cricket management committee and, despite early objections from the BCCI, was accepted by members of the Asia Cricket Council.
However, the Sethi-led committee, which was only appointed in December, was superseded on July 6 by a new committee under a new chair, Zaka Ashraf. Since the PCB’s patron is Pakistan’s president, this was a political appointment.
The 10-person committee, announced on July 8, includes the foreign and sports ministers. Its establishment and election process have been dogged with multiple court challenges brought by former committee members. As a result, it will initially sit for four months, with a main purpose of making recommendations on the Pakistani team’s participation in the 2023 World Cup in India.
Additionally, Ashraf appeared to have a remit to secure more Asia Cup matches in Pakistan, making this desire clear to ACC members during International Cricket Council meetings in Durban, South Africa, last week. A particular wish to host the match against Nepal in Multan has been agreed but the number of matches to be played in Pakistan remains at four, three in Lahore.
A much lighter political spat occurred during the second Test between England and Australia’s men’s teams at Lord’s. After a controversial, but legal, action by Australia’s wicketkeeper, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suggested that the spirit of cricket had been broken. His Australian counterpart, Anthony Albanese, responded, good-humoredly, by saying that Sunak should remain in his crease.
Humor was something entirely lacking when cricket and politics became embroiled in the anti-apartheid movements of the late 1960s.
These came back to my mind last week during an evening presentation given by two men who were parties to those fiercely political events. First was Peter (now, Lord) Hain, the second, Mike Procter, one of South Africa’s most celebrated cricketers.
At 19 years old, Hain became the face of the movement to stop the visit of South Africa’s men’s cricket team to England in 1970. This followed the disruptions caused to the South African rugby team’s tour of the UK and Ireland in the winter of 1969 to 1970.
A range of tactics were used, which included pitch invasions, damage to floodlights, demonstrations, boycotts of the team’s hotel and communication systems, even a hi-jacking of the team’s bus. All of this led the team to vote to go home. Its management ordered them to stay.
Hain’s motivation for his action was based on personal experience. He was born to South African parents who were anti-apartheid activists, for which they were prevented from working. Effectively exiled, they left for the UK in 1966, carrying vivid memories of Whites-only teams and partitioned-off Black spectators.
Hain knew how central sporting success was to South Africa’s White elite, providing them with international respectability and recognition. Hence, the target which held the best chance of bringing about change lay in sport.
In advance of the tour, due to start in May 1970, he formed a Stop the Seventy Tour campaign. Before long, opposition to the tour became much broader.
Thirteen African, along with Asian and Caribbean, countries voted to boycott the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh if the tour went ahead. Details of planned disruptions were leaked to the press, print and broadcasting unions urged members to take industrial action, and 14 county cricket grounds were vandalized.
This led England’s Cricket Council to announce a reduction in the tour from 28 to 12 matches and a delay of the start date to June 1.
Ultimately, further activity and government intervention led to the tour’s cancellation on May 22, 1970.
The South African team was one of the finest ever to be assembled. Prior to the proposed tour to England, it had thrashed Australia 4-0 down-under.
Sadly, top players were denied international careers, since it was not until July 1991 that South Africa was allowed to resume international cricket.
Bitterness on their part toward Hain, regarded by the British elite as public enemy No. 1, would be understandable. However, several of them subsequently stated that Hain was right, his campaign the turning point to effect much-needed change. South Africa became isolated in other sports, not just cricket.
During that isolation, Procter played English county cricket for Gloucestershire with distinction. In retirement, he has initiated a foundation which provides physical education and sporting opportunities to some 2,000 underprivileged schoolchildren in two townships close to Durban.
The fact that this type of intervention is needed 53 years on from South Africa’s exclusion, suggests that the pace of change is still hamstrung by the intersection of politics and cricket. The notion that they can be separated is fanciful.