Tours of Duty

As published in Inside Sport, April 2009

In more innocent times, the most serious threats to the health and wellbeing of touring Australian cricket teams was a severe case of Delhi belly or any combination of Holding, Garner, Roberts, Marshall or Croft. Sure, rum-infused locals fed up with rain delays in a 1978 WSC Supertest in Guyana became a tad demonstrative, but the only casualties were the grandstands. Things are different now.  Attitudes to touring troublespots will now be divided into two eras: pre Lahore, scene of the recent attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers, and post.

Pre Lahore? In the wake of the tragic Mumbai attacks last year, Simon Barnes (multi-award-winning writer for The Times) hit the courage of Australia’s cricket team for six, labelling them the “weasels of international sport”.

“One hint of a murmur of a rumour of a firework going off in any city on the subcontinent and the Australian plane is making a mad U-turn and heading back to God’s Own.” Certainly no weasel words at play here.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by fellow Australians.  As the world has lurched into seemingly endless, mutating wars between unidentifiable enemies, the future of international cricket and other sports has become perched on a precipice.  A self-proclaimed world leader in terms of sporting obsession and excellence (and at the same time seen by extremists as major enemies of Islam), Australian sportspeople and administrators have been in an unenviable position. Questions are now raised about whether our cricketers should avoid any subcontinental tour.

Obviously players must weigh up the potential danger to themselves and repercussions to their families.  Decisions are also complicated by one’s standing in the game – up and comers are less likely to forgo an opportunity or risk losing their place in the team. Meanwhile, administrators are torn between political fallout and the fear of having blood on their hands should the unthinkable happen. When individual players threaten to pull out of tours, as Andrew Symonds did in 2008, where does that leave the touring group, the selectors, Cricket Australia and the future of the player in question?

Most Australians would contend that our deep-seated subcontinental fears are totally reasonable. Sri Lanka’s civil unrest famously led to the Aussies forfeiting a World Cup game back in 1996, while the Kiwis bore witness to a bombing outside their Karachi hotel in 2002.  In the past nine months in India, fatal attacks have struck Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujurat, Argatala, Imphal and Assam. Mumbai alone has seen over 600 lives lost to terrorism in the past 15 years; now even Westerners and cricketers themselves have become targets. Regular suicide bombers and other acts of terrorism, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, have plagued Pakistan to the point where Australia hasn’t toured there in ten years. The most recent attacks in Lahore have ruled out any tours by any country to Pakistan for years.

Asian conspiracy theorists and cricket lovers, however, will question why the Russell Square bombing in London never threatened to derail Australia’s 2005 Ashes campaign. More recently it came to light that a potentially devastating terrorist attack on the AFL grand final the same year was foiled in safe and cosy Melbourne. In a war without boundaries, guessing the next likely target is a futile exercise. The unknown abroad is perhaps no greater a target than our complacency at home, or popular holiday destinations.

Psychologists have determined that people rank fatal events by roughly squaring the death toll per event.  Under that rationale, the 2985 deaths from the watershed September 11 attacks take on the gravity of almost nine million.  It’s little wonder subsequent incidents such as Bali have poured fuel on omnipresent fears that have far outstripped their likely occurrence. Statistically speaking, meeting one’s maker by lightning strike, drowning, or even your clothes igniting loom larger than death by terrorist acts.

Nevertheless, to have our intestinal fortitude questioned strikes a chord. There is a strong argument to say that our easy, conflict-free way of life has bred a risk aversion that has played into the hands of terrorists.

It’s no shame for athletes to be just a little spooked by events of this millennium and as lounge critics, it’s all well and good for us to expect our professional athletes to take on responsibilities that never entered the equation when dreaming of representing their country.

Ironically, the Twenty20 Champions League competition (of dubious worth), cancelled after events in Mumbai in ’08 but rescheduled for October this year, is now set to take on an unforeseen significance: should Australian teams travel to India?

Australians are not weasels, however the events of Lahore must not elicit the tempting knee-jerk response of pulling out of all subcontinental tours, particularly if, as claimed, grossly inadequate security in an increasingly unstable Pakistan invited this particular incident.  We owe more to our subcontinent counterparts, with whom we too often struggle to find a common cultural understanding.  All efforts must be made to assist Pakistan as a passionate cricketing nation to continue playing, wherever that may be.

Risk entails a level of pragmatic consideration. Those who seek to destroy innocent peoples’ lives and life’s pleasures (such as sport) cannot be handed victory, nor can athletes become martyrs.

We must pause to reflect and draw a deep breath, but the show must go on.

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