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16 outraged, you weren’t paying attention. This was no place to stage a major sports event.
The 2003 World Cup had not been awarded to Zimbabwe. It had been awarded to South Africa, which decided to make it more African, and more helpful to their World Cup football bid, by handing six matches to Zimbabwe and a couple to Kenya. Irrespective of whether you approved, it was an unmistakably political decision, taken, as the World Cup organiser Dr Ali Bacher was careful to point out, by the government. There was no sporting reason to stage matches in Zimbabwe or Kenya: it meant worse pitches, smaller crowds, longer flights. Companies wishing to be World Cup sponsors had to show they were furthering the cause of black employment: again, this was a fine thing, but clearly political. The South African team was selected on political lines, with pressure from above to make sure it wasn’t all-white, even though the success of Herschelle Gibbs and Makhaya Ntini all but guaranteed that anyway. The Zimbabwean selectors were under similar orders to pick Dion Ebrahim, who was palpably not in the strongest XI; one of those selectors, Andy Pycroft, resigned in protest. The notion that politics should be kept out of sport, still trotted out by the more blinkered inhabitants of planet cricket, was never an option. Politics ran through this World Cup like the zebra-skin logo that bedecked the stands.
One poll after another suggested that three-quarters of UK sports followers thought visiting teams should be allowed to switch their Zimbabwe games to South African venues (which were already on standby in case of security problems). Malcolm Speed reacted to this idea like a new father who hears someone criticising his baby. He took umbrage and insisted, to the open-mouthed disbelief of those who had observed their machinations over the years, that the ICC were non-political. It hadn’t stopped them stomaching plenty of political activity from the South Africans. It hadn’t stopped them letting matches go ahead in Zimbabwe under a repugnant regime. And it didn’t stop them standing by in silence as Mugabe’s police arrested dozens of people for making polite protests at Australia’s game in Bulawayo.
Before the tournament, Nasser Hussain grasped three crucial points: that England and Zimbabwe had a singularly complex relationship, the legacy of colonialism; that the England players could hardly represent their country if their country didn’t want them to go; and that they would be making a political statement whether they went to Zimbabwe or not. Speed couldn’t see it. Vision? Decisiveness? Spirit? None of the above. The ICC ended up doing something that ought to have been impossible: washing their hands at the same time as burying their heads in the sand.
The gravest threat Before becoming an administrator, initially with Basketball Australia, Speed was a barrister, then a businessman with his own sports-management company. His time at the top of world cricket already bears this double
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stamp. It has been the most grimly legalistic period in the game’s history, and the most dismally corporate.
Not content with being a body, the ICC decided in 2001 that they should also be a brand. It was a need that possibly only a sports-management executive would have felt. The 2003 World Cup became the ICC Cricket World Cup. In South Africa in February, the ICC’s name was everywhere: on bats, balls, hats, shirts, stickers, badges, postcards, and every player’s chest. Supporters could go to the game in an ICC T-shirt and smear themselves in ICC sun-block, which perfectly encapsulated the ICC’s sudden desire to go from behind the scenes to in your face.
What the fans couldn’t do was drink Coke, because Pepsi was a sponsor; or express opinions, because they might offend Mugabe. The back of each ticket was a thicket of rules and regulations. The organisers were so anxious to quash ambush marketing, they even persuaded the South African government to pass a law banning spectators from carrying the wrong brand of mineral water. At the gate, fans found themselves being frisked by the soft-drink police. As if cricket didn’t have enough fussy rules, here were a load more. Sport ought to have at least some connection with freedom and self-expression, and a game famous for its spirit should tread very softly in this area. Instead, cricket is marching to the beat of big business. A couple of years ago, the gravest threat to the game’s fabric was corruption; now, it is corporatisation.
Armband protest: Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wore black armbands for Zimbabwe’s first match in the World Cup. Pictures by Howard Burditt, Popperfoto/Reuters and Joe Alexander, AFP.
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