Byline By M.J. Akbar : Money and Murder: The Making of a Bloodsport
Cricket, tea and murder in the vicarage were the three archetypal metaphors for the British empire: Dennis Compton (Brylcreem and straight drives), Rupert Brook (tea at four at Grantchester) and Agatha Christie are the architecture on the cultural landscape of an empire sleepwalking its way towards new nations that would throw out Britain but keep cricket and tea. Who would have thought that Hercule Poirot would be needed as the third umpire at the West Indies World Cup? Cricket is dead, murder is alive, and the game is no longer my cup of tea.
The ironies would leave Christie breathless. Bob Woolmer is an Englishman who served the progeny of empire, and was killed by the new culture spawned by independent nations, a mindset controlled by crime and greed. Crime has maimed Pakistan, and greed is crippling India. Cricket is only one symptom of an all-pervasive cancer. India and Pakistan can take comfort in the fact that the only difference between them is that India defeated a joke called Bermuda, and Pakistan couldn’t.
Gentility began to ebb out of the gentleman’s game a long while ago, being shoved aside in rough stages by intensity. The British began to mix metaphors first, when the masters of the world were defeated by the minions of the world. Their first defeat by Australia created such heartburn that they declared cricket dead and preserved its ashes in an urn. It was intensity that led to bodyline, in which an English bowler, with the full approval of his captain and a typically weasel-MCC, turned a ball of leather into a lethal weapon aimed at the head of Australia’s immaculate batsmen. The two nations still go to war over the Ashes, as evident in the triumphs accorded to victors. When England last won the Ashes, even the Queen lost her reserve and handed out gongs. The star, Andrew Flintoff, arrived, so it was said, drunk to the gong ceremony and relieved himself on the regal lawns. What a jolly good lark, cheered everyone, for stupidity is the homage worshippers pay to idols. But of course, idols are perched on oily pedestals, as Flintoff found out when he drank after defeat and ended up in the ocean. He was pilloried by the most dangerous jury in the world, a press conference.
Cricket is a family game, hence the intensity. Would Cain have killed Abel were he not his brother? Unlikely. There is no ‘world’ in this World Cup. There cannot be, when you need seven joke teams to make up a tournament of 16. Bermuda was led by a sumo wrestler who defied the laws of gravity just once to take a magnificent catch against India, but confirmed that science cannot be dismissed lightly on a hundred occasions. India’s defeat was evident during the victory against Bermuda.
You could see the smugness return into the eyes of our spoilt, overpaid, pampered, immature dead duck cricketers as they hammered Bermuda’s jokers. Sachin Tendulkar, who cannot be allowed to retire because so much advertising rides on the memory of what he used to be, had the look of a man who had won the World Cup after he made a few runs. Rahul Dravid, who now believes that cricket should not be front page news, should retire from press conferences. I could go on, but what is the point: how many synonyms can you find for pathetic? But why blame an Uthappa alone, when we all conspire to convert him from unknown extra to divinity on the basis of just one innings in Chennai? Everyone is to blame, not least being the politicians, from Bengal to Jharkhand to Maharashtra to Kerala, who have muscled into cricket space in the hope that it will get them votes, and of course because they want a stake in the huge monies that have destroyed the game.
Pakistan looked a team in distress even before they had played a match. Their captain, Inzamamul Haq, could triple his personal endorsement revenues if someone eased that look of permanent pain on his visage. He also has the slightly irritating habit of confusing the Almighty with a cricket coach (irritating, I am sure, to the Almighty as well, which might explain the results). Apparently, he thought that massive quantities of ghee-strewn parathas and meat followed by a long sermon on religion from a cleric were adequate preparation for a World Cup match. It was entirely appropriate that a ‘joke’ team, Ireland, ended the fun.
Crime and corporations are the godfathers of Indian cricket. The two keep their distance from each other, but both know that they are linked by the cricketer. Crime got its opportunity because governments imbued with false morality have refused to permit licensed and regulated betting on cricket. For some obscure, fundamentalist reason, it is perfectly moral in India to bet on the performance of horses, but not on the performance of men. There is no point arguing that men can be corrupted and horses can’t, because the shenanigans of the race course would put any decent mafia to shame. Cricketers might even fetch a higher price from illegal bookmakers. Bribes are also race- and colour-neutral, as South Africa has shown.
Everyone knows that a cricket team on tour lives two lives. One is on the playing field that you see on television, and the other is in hotels with groupies who cajole and bribe their way to the penumbra of cricket celebrities. That is where the stench of corruption begins. It is in the interest of cricket’s administrators to pretend that they cannot smell the stink, since cricket has given them budgets that are beyond their wildest fantasies. But it has always been understood that this malicious odour would not waft into the public domain. Criminals have broken this implicit rule with the murder of Bob Woolmer. The culprits have surely left enough clues. Woolmer recognised his murderers, or he would not have allowed them into his room. That tightens the circle of suspicion. It is very likely that the murderers were seen by others when they knocked on Woolmer’s room or after they left. Woolmer was living in the team hotel, not in a monastery. If the murder is linked to betting syndicates, then either the game finds the will to change its structure or it will die an ignoble death.
Corporations may be guilty of no worse a crime than hysteria, but it is time to check what price their artificially injected mania has begun to demand. It is always a trifle risky to place nationalism in the custody of multinationals. Multinationals never get the balance of nationalism right, since their functioning ideology is non-patriotic. You do not have to scream like a banshee in order to sound like an Indian. That Jharkhand fan who broke a wall or two of Dhoni’s new home, being built on land gifted by a stupid government, was absolutely right when he alleged that Dhoni was much more interested in modelling than in cricket. Even if this is not completely true, since that modelling contract will not come without performance, it is fair to suggest that the Indian cricketer has acquired a split personality. A new, young and semi-tried fast bowler whose name I prefer to forget makes millions out of a war dance on the field, and is honoured by his state government after his idiocy: on which rational axis would you expect his brain to function? And it might be a good moment to ban all those ho-ho-ho cricket commentators who glamorise absurdity in order to keep on the right side of their paymasters.
The purge of Indian cricket can start with a simple decision. Sack the whole team and select a completely new eleven. After all, they would still defeat Bermuda. Naturally, this will not happen. The leaders of Indian cricket will not dare risk accountability, since they would also have to resign on that principle. The world’s administrators will try and dismiss Woolmer’s murder as a one-off crime, rather than a malign disease on the body of the game. Greed will screen the truth.
How do you convert a sport into a bloodsport? Mix greed, megalomania, nationalism, God, politicians, advertising and murder.