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Sikandar Raza Butt and the others world cricket has failed

  • Sikandar Raza Butt voices the sentiments of those world cricket has wronged, and it's a voice that won't be drowned.
SENIOR ANALYST
Feature
Modified 20 Dec 2019, 15:23 IST

Zimbabwe v United Arab Emirates - 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup
Sikander Raza Butt

There is a uniqueness to cricket, to all sport actually, seen only rarely in other facets of ordinary life. Like most things that combine to form a society, sport does epitomize it, even mirror it in a myriad of ways.

But somewhere it also operates in its own shell, insulated from the harsher realities of the outside world. This little cocoon is, where surreal things happen, where everyone believes in the power of hope, where they dare to dream. This, this is what makes the sport so special, it is what sport thrives on, why it exists. Above everything, making us believers in a better life and a happier, more equal world.

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It is this space that has allowed for the dream run of the cricket-mad Afghanistan. Their players winnings trophies, bagging individual contracts in various T20 leagues all over the world and, achieving Test match status last year, all the while the Taliban is wreaking havoc in their country.

As terror strikes Kabul, Herat and, other parts of Afghanistan, the rise of their cricket team has given a little something for the populace to be happy about. Their government has lost control, President Ashraf Ghani is requesting peace talks with the Taliban.

They are surrounded by war and have very little to hold on to. Cricket, for them, acquires an even greater meaning in this context.

The Afghani cricketers seek refuge in the game, if you may. All the while they’re on the field, in different parts of the world (bombs regularly exploded in the vicinity while they used to train in Kabul), the contest between bat and ball allows them to be free, to hope and dream big.

On the field, bullets are not being fired, grenades not being launched, people aren’t bleeding and no one is dying. For many, the sport is more exhilarating, more pulse-racing than their lives off the field, but not for these people.

They’ve seen hell, literally. Cricket must be a balm, something soothing like meditative therapy. Cricket is their escape from the strife back home, their way out of hell.

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The African country of Zimbabwe has been in a hell of its own. Poverty has increased to unprecedented levels, as have the unemployment rates. Robert Mugabe ruled for four decades and it is widely believed that he has lead Zimbabwe into an abyss.

He snatched land away from the white minority, many of them prosperous farmers, and distributed it amongst his friends and relatives. He was so anti-white, he attempted to drive them out of the country entirely and, violence against them was a regular feature. This is what Henry Olonga and Andy Flower were protesting against by wearing black armbands in the 2003 World Cup.

Mugabe, who was forced to resign last November, and, the rampant corruption synonymous with his regime have lead the Zimbabwean economy down a path from which it’ll take them many, many years to come back to the right direction.

In sharp contrast to the Afghanis, their cricket team hasn’t been rising like the Phoenix. They have, rather, been in terminal decline since the early 2000s, a time when they were coming into their own as a force to reckon with. And unsurprisingly, Mugabe has had much to do with this.

In 2004, the Zimbabwe Cricket Union sacked captain and star bowler Heath Streak. Most of their white players either walked out or, were dropped under pressure from Mugabe. Zimbabwean cricket never really recovered from that blow and much like the rest of the country, it has been in a perpetual freefall.

Mugabe took control of the cricket and Zimbabwe, totally incompetent without their best players, stopped playing Test matches from 2005-06 onwards, for six long years.

Corruption in the ZCU, along with impeded development, meant that there was never enough money for the growth and maintenance of the sport and its players. As a result, even after their Test return in 2011-upon which they defeated Pakistan, one of the very few moments of glory-player strikes over non-payment of salaries became regular affairs.

Established players like captain Brendan Taylor and fast bowler Kyle Jarvis, in order to lead financially stable lives, chose to play county cricket in England over their country. Some white players who had left with Streak did return eventually, newer ones came on the scene too, but the jolt in 2004 had been too severe for Zimbabwean cricket to recover from.

But they still fight, these guys. Even though they don’t win often, their spirit is intact. Without getting paid, without worrying about their future, they still come out and try to fight the seemingly unwinnable battle. And that requires courage of another kind. This is heroic in a very strange sort of way.

On the field, they are all equal, black or white, majority or minority. In the middle of a tight run chase, they’re not thinking about the money that’s owed to them but, about where in the field they could sneak in a boundary from.

Sport makes us lose ourselves in it, it allows us, to some extent, to ignore blunt truths about real life and to revel in its own fold. Like the Afghans, cricket is their escape too.

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It’s a weird kind of despondency that begins to engulf you when the realities of the capitalist world start creeping into the sport. It takes away its essence, it bursts the bubble the game thrives on.

As a particular sport develops and gains traction in the world over, as cricket certainly has, you expect that it’s governing body will do all it can in order to enhance the number of top-level matches newer teams get to play. This seems to make perfect sense, even seems blatantly obvious. But the ICC thinks otherwise.

The 2003 World Cup had 14 teams. So did the ones in 2011 and 2015. In 2007, 16 teams participated.

The highlight of the 2003 edition was Kenya’s stupendous run to the semi-finals. 2007, had Ireland knocking Pakistan out in the group stages. 2011, is remembered for Ireland’s Kevin O’Brien single-handedly decimating England. 2015, gave Afghanistan their first victory at the world stage. Also, Scotland’s Josh Davey finished in the top ten wicket-takers list despite having played two matches less than most of those above him.

The game was growing, the associate nations were moving in the right direction, somewhat beginning to hold their own against the bigger countries. Very valid cases were being made for the ICC to allot them more fixtures against top-flight teams, in between the World Cups. That way, they would improve quicker and cricket would be better for it.

But no, sponsors, TV rights, money came before everything else. Actually, it was all that mattered.

Under pressure from the Big Three(India, England and Australia), the ICC, instead of awarding them more matches, reduced future World Cups to ten teams, with the top eight making the cut automatically and an intense qualifying event to decide the remaining two.

Many dreams, some unborn, were crushed by virtue of this decision. The World Cup was virtually the only top-flight cricket the associates had and now, that too had been taken away from them.

Why would any Dutch or Scottish kid want to take up professional cricket? What motivation would they have when they see no opportunities are being given to them? Why will newer countries want to take this sport seriously?

Andrew Leonard, formerly employed with the ICC and Ireland Cricket pointed out on Twitter that “The 2019 Cricket World Cup will officially be the first Men's World Cup in the sports of Cricket, Football, Basketball, Hockey, Rugby Union, Rugby League or Volleyball for over a quarter of a century to have no sides from outside the Top 10 ranked nations participating.”

The ‘World’ in the World Cup surely doesn’t refer to just ten countries, does it?

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Scotland takes on the West Indies on the 21st of March, 2018. It is possibly the biggest match of their lives. A win would get them a place in the 2019 World Cup, at least nine guaranteed fixtures against Test playing nations and a $1 million participation fee from the ICC.

Tim Wigmore, writing in the Telegraph, states that “Scotland receive only about £0.9 million a year from the ICC – £7 million less than Zimbabwe earn – and struggle to pay for fixtures.” A loss would mean considerably less money, almost zilch, hardly any fixtures and long years in oblivion.

Things look rosy for them at the halfway stage. Even though they are the underdogs coming into this game, they manage to keep the Windies down to 198. Some sensible, calm batting would see them through.

But panic prevails and they find themselves three wickets down for 25, before Callum Macleod, Richie Berrington, and George Munsey, add another eighty runs for the loss of only one more wicket.

But then, under cloudy skies, with Duckworth Lewis calculations being an important factor in the way Scotland were going about their chase, off-spinner Ashley Nurse hit Berrington on the pad. The ball was clearly sliding down the leg side, but he was adjudged out. There is no DRS available here, so Berrington had to walk back. This pushes Scotland back considerably. New man Michael Leask and Munsey add another 20 runs in quick time before the clouds open up and it starts pouring.

No further play is possible. Scotland agonizingly fall five runs short of winning a game of cricket, of qualifying for a World Cup, of securing the jobs of their players for four years, of ensuring cricket-loving kids continue to dream in their country. Never before in the history of our sport would five runs have meant so much.

They lost not because of how they played. They lost because there was no reserve day for any matches in such an important tournament. They lost because DRS wasn’t available even in the matches that were televised. They lost because the ICC and the powerful cricketing boards of India, Australia, and England have failed them and all the other associate countries.

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16 May 2010, Australia vs England, World T20 Final. Having been put into bat, Australia, normally at their composed and ruthless best in World Cup finals, are besieged by panic. They lose their first three wickets for just eight runs in two overs and never really recover from that. England, who had never won a global trophy, finally succeed this time.

23 June 2013, England vs India, Champions Trophy Final. England need 20 runs to win off 15 balls with six wickets in hand. Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara are well set at the crease. This should be a breeze. But Ishant Sharma has been having a rough day with the ball, gets both of them off the next two balls.

The new batsmen struggle on the sluggish wicket and India goes on to win a game that totally belonged to England, only if both or even one of Morgan and Bopara stayed till the end.

6 April 2014, India vs Sri Lanka, World T20 Final. Batting first, India are going decently and preparing for a launch in the second half of the innings when Yuvraj Singh, joins Virat Kohli who is blazing away as he has all tournament.

Yuvraj is at the wicket for eight overs, from the 11th to the 19th. He faces 21 balls and manages to score a measly 11. He consequently robs Kohli of his momentum and the strike. India end with 130 after 20 overs, when Kohli could have easily taken them to a score in excess of 160. India goes on to lose very comfortably.

While it is unfair to compare what heart-breaking losses mean to one player, one team or one country with what another heart-breaking loss would mean to a player from another country, another team and to people of that country, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to say that a loss like that of Scotland last week has more damaging ramifications than those involving the 'Big Three' or any other cricketing prowess.

Despite the heartbreak, the Warners, Watsons, Morgans, Boparas, the Yuvis of this world would have a job, a very hefty sum of money in their banks. One loss wouldn’t mean their team disappears into oblivion for four years, nor do things reach a stage where their board hardly has any money to organize matches, let alone pay the players a decent salary.

These heavyweights wouldn’t need to go back to day jobs and take leave to play cricket. They wouldn’t need to fight the fight the associates have to, every step of the way, fighting the monster that takes many forms, all somewhere a derivative of capitalism.

These heavyweights fight cricketing battles, associates fight for survival in an unjust world. Sports was supposed to make us believe in an equal world. It has failed royally here.

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Sikandar Raza Butt is a very likable 31-year-old cricketer from Zimbabwe. He is a total utility player, good middle-order batsman, bowls more than handy off breaks and is a livewire in the field.

He has enjoyed an outstanding run of form in the World Cup Qualifiers, where he scored 319 runs at a shade over 53 and took 15 wickets at 17.60 with three ‘Player of the Match’ awards. Very rightly, he was adjudged the player of the tournament.

When he went on stage to collect his award, there wasn’t a hint of happiness in either his words or his demeanor. There was despair written all over him.

Zimbabwe had, like Scotland, narrowly missed out on qualifying for the World Cup by virtue of a defeat to the UAE in their last game. The competitive, cut-throat nature of the tournament meant that despite their strong start, one loss at a crucial stage sent Zimbabwe packing.

He was almost in tears as he started speaking. His voice was quivering, but there was an unimaginable amount of hurt and force in his voice that made it reach the different parts of this globe. Those in power in the ICC or in the boards that supported cutting down the number of World Cup participants must have felt the strength of these words too, though they may pretend to ignore or ridicule it.

His statement was possibly one of the most dignified and subtle shows of resistance to the big, bad bullies that exist in the cricketing world and have vowed to destroy it’s very essence to bits.

“I think this trophy will serve as a painful reminder of the dreams that we had and we couldn't get it done. This trophy will also serve as a reminder for the 15 million dreams that we crushed.

"When I started playing cricket, I thought it was to unite countries, players of different background coming together to play this beautiful sport. Unfortunately, you'll see that's not going to happen in next year's World Cup.” 

And he said this with ICC CEO Dave Richardson standing right there at the presentation ceremony.

To say this was gutsy on his part. And, in a very beautiful way, it was glorious too.

But more than anything, it was his reality. And that of William Porterfield, Rohan Mustafa, Kyle Coetzer, Peter Borren, Babar Hayat, Paras Khadka, Assad Vala, Graeme Cremer and all the players under them.

Just like Afghanistan, just like Zimbabwe, every smaller cricketing nation has a history of struggle and overcoming seemingly unscalable mountains behind them. It is a shame that, with the current state of affairs, we won’t get to know more about their history, that we won’t get to see these culminating in dream runs like that of Afghanistan.

It is one of the greatest travesties of our sport that we’ve made these young men feel like they’ve played a part in crushing the dreams of the people back in their country. That we’ve made them feel so much guilt at losing a game of cricket, that they have to come out and apologize to their country. That we’re snatching their livelihoods and dreams away from them and have made them feel responsible for it.

I am no one important, just another writer sitting in some corner of India and typing away at my laptop, but I somehow feel the need to apologize to Sikandar Raza Butt and every single player from outside the top nine ODI teams.

I am sorry. The ICC has failed you. The powerful cricketing nations have failed you. Cricket has failed you.

It is very easy for an observer to say, I know, but still, just hang in there. Don’t stop your beautiful fight.

I will hope that one day, this sport gives you back as much as what you continue to give it day in, day out.

You make cricket much richer. You make it what it is. 

Published 28 Mar 2018, 23:29 IST
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