For 40 years, refusing or threatening to refuse to play cricket has been one of the diplomatic tactics at Britain’s disposal for showing disapproval of anti-democratic governments. Eventually, after long argument and political fence-sitting in both cases, South Africa and Zimbabwe were tested by the withdrawal of Test matches. But in the case of England’s tour of India, the way of demonstrating resistance to tyrannical politics is to carry on playing cricket. The model of sporting politics established by the African crises is disconcertingly reversed — from a perspective of protest, the only option is to go.
Understandably, some cricketers and their loved ones point out another crucial difference between the cases. Sending players to South Africa and Zimbabwe during their periods of most disgusting governance would have placed them in moral rather than physical danger.
In the Indian instance, even if we buy the need to side with a friendly elected government, the obstacle to touring is recent and appalling violence specifically targeted against tourists, including those from the UK.
That stark fact challenges the analogy most favored by those certain the tour should continue — that Australia continued playing in England throughout the summer of the London attacks in 2005 even though, it is now reported, the baggy green caps pleaded for the Lord’s Test to be suspended because of fears for the players’ shopping wives. The Aussies were apparently told to stop being such wimps.
For some, this parallel exposes a double standard whereby England is seen as a basically civilized country in which the occasional massacre by psychopaths must stoically be ignored, while similar violence on the subcontinent underlines the fact that the place is just not to be trusted, confirming a long tradition of sub-racist mutterings from England cricketers about gastric and other discomforts.
Yet this argument, though testing, isn’t quite a match. The terrorist intervention in London was indiscriminate to the extent that the killers, presumed Islamists, were prepared to murder Muslims. In that Ashes year, Londoners and Australian cricketers were taking equal risks, with the latter rather less likely to travel on public transport. But the suggestion from the Mumbai atrocities that western targets were specifically being sought could put you off your cover drive. It has also persuasively been argued that the England squad, before their tour was interrupted, saw Indian television coverage of the sieges far more graphic than the sanitized images screened here.
Further complications arise from the shape of the game and the psychology of cricketers. When soccer teams were required to play in Belfast, Israel or Egypt at times of high violence, it was possible to fly them in and out within a few hours, a period during which maximum security and reasonable team spirits are relatively easy to maintain. But the leisurely rhythms that make cricket so attractive to those who love it make it much harder to safeguard the bodies and minds of teams.
And, mentally, there’s strong evidence that cricketers are different from other athletes. David Frith’s unsettling book, By His Own Hand, explored the curiously high suicide rate among top-class cricketers, while Marcus Trescothick’s just-published autobiography explains how the batsman’s England career was ended by near-suicidal depression that began, as it happened, on a tour of then-peaceful India. Both volumes suggest that the problem with cricket is that, while theoretically a team game, it is an individual and introspective sport at the moments of greatest pressure — the batsman alone at the wicket, the bowler running in, both alone in hotel rooms for weeks on end. It’s a game that attracts and exacerbates worriers.