Watching the fiasco unfold during last week's cricket match between England and Pakistan, it was possible to see how wars start. The setting may have been the sunlit Brit Oval in London, but the atmosphere resembled the slow, inevitable spiral of tensions leading up to international conflict. On the fourth day of a five-day Test match last week, umpire Darrell Hair ruled that the Pakistan team had illegally tampered with the cricket ball. The Pakistan team professed its innocence, but Hair, in consultation with his fellow umpire Billy Doctrove, penalized the team and ordered the ball to be changed. After stewing over this perceived insult, Pakistan's players refused to resume the game following a tea break. The two umpires awarded the game to England, the first time a Test match has been forfeited in international cricket's 129-year history.
Like some wars, the ball-tampering row is, at base, about pride. For the Pakistan team, and especially for captain Inzamam-ul-Haq, it was a question of honor. "This game is about more than winning and losing," Inzamam told website Cricinfo. "If someone says to me, 'You are a cheat and Pakistan is doing wrong things,' my first priority is to my country." Hair, an Australian, has maintained that his first priority is to cricket. As far as he is concerned, he umpired by the book. "I have always taken a lot of pride in my performance," he told Australian newspaper the Courier-Mail. But Hair complicated matters and undermined his argument that he's an unimpeachable arbiter of the game by offering to resign to cricket's governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC) for a payment of $500,000. The offer, made in an e-mail released by the ICC, has become a scandal all its own, greatly inflaming the Pakistanis' indignation and making it almost impossible for Hair to umpire future Pakistan matches.
Pakistan (the country) has had a tough time of it over the past few years. Yes, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is a close ally of the West. To many Westerners, though, Pakistan is a global troublemaker, a country whose people harbor or become terrorists and leak nuclear secrets. But the cricket field was one place where Pakistan met Western countries on consistently friendly terms. Pakistani cricketers have been hit by allegations of cheating in the past, including such un-cricketing practices as match fixing, ball tampering and pitch scuffing. Under Inzamam, though, the team has earned plaudits for its spirited but fair play. Over the past few years, Pakistan (the cricket team) has even met its old foe India again, after years in which they refused to play each other. Now come public allegations of cheating on the field. A dressing down from Condoleezza Rice may not be pleasant, but at least it happens in private. This unfolded live on television.
In Pakistan, many fans saw the ruling as racist and anti-Muslim. Hair says such comments are ridiculous, and other cricketers have rushed to the umpire's defence. But Pakistan's players, who have become much more religious over the past few years the team's only Christian recently converted to Islam, the players now pray together before matches and often credit God with their improving performances are unlikely to be swayed. Asian teams have long seen cricket's governing body as a vestige of colonial rule, and resent what they see as the continuing influence of England and Australia, despite the fact that the subcontinent now generates most of the money.
Some argue that religion and nationality are irrelevant in this scandal. "The most stupid, the most catastrophically misguided aspect of this debate is the one that insists on bringing the world of religious politics into a row about cheating in a cricket match," wrote Martin Samuel in the London Times. In pure cricketing terms Samuel is right. But to say that any sport can divorce itself from the backgrounds of its teams is impossibly idealistic.
Cricket has recognized the intersection of the game and politics in the past. South Africa's cricketers may not have been personally responsible for apartheid, but the system was so abhorrent to other cricketing nations that they boycotted South Africa for two decades. Many think Zimbabwe should face similar sanctions because of the political oppression in that country. This is no excuse for Pakistan's refusal to play, of course. On the field, the umpire's word is absolute. In his judgment, the players broke the rules and they thus deserved punishment. But none of this happens in a vacuum. The saddest part of cricket's latest controversy is not that it hurts the sport, which it undoubtedly does, but that it hardens misguided but lingering attitudes Pakistanis are cheats, white officials are racist that the sport should help destroy.