Friday, 29 January 2016

The Satanic Verses

It can take me a long time to get around to reading a book.  There are so many of them in the world.  Sometimes it takes something extra to prompt me to pick up something.  Hence, the current moral panic about Islam, and my various bits of reading on the subject, finally got me to reading Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

Salman Rushdie was born in Mumbai into a culturally Muslim but not particularly devout  Kashmiri family, and describes himself as an atheist.  He was educated in the UK and has spent most of his adult life there, working as an advertising copywriter before his second novel, Midnight's Children, won the Booker Prize and allowed him to become a full-time novelist.  The Satanic Verses is his fourth novel, published in 1988.

Its publication set off a storm of protest from Islamic fundamentalists around the world.  Copies of the book were burned in the streets in various countries including the UK and US, bookstores that stocked it were picketed and even bombed, and it was banned in many Muslim countries as well as some non-Muslim ones.

These protests went up a level in February 1989 when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, at that time supreme leader of revolutionary Iran, issued a fatwa pronouncing a sentence of death on Rushdie and anyone else who had assisted in the book's publication.  His proclamation encouraged Muslims around the world to take any opportunity they could to carry out the death sentence, and the Iranian government backed this with the offer of a monetary reward.

Both Rushdie and the British authorities took this threat very seriously.  Rushdie went into hiding and was given police protection.  The danger was very real - a number of attempts were made on his life although none managed to do him harm.  The book's Japanese translator,  Hitoshi Igarashi, was not so fortunate, stabbed to death in his university office in 1991.  Although Rushdie was not physically harmed he spent 10 years in hiding and the threats and constant vigilance took a heavy emotional toll.  He is still not completely safe.  The Iranian government formally withdrew its support for the sentence in 1998 as part of negotiations to restore diplomatic relations with Britain. However, Khomeini's successor as supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei, has reaffirmed it.

To us Westerners a death sentence seems extreme for writing a book.  Many Muslims agree.  In British and international law the sentence is clearly illegal and anyone carrying it out would be guilty of murder.  Many Islamic jurists have also condemned it on the grounds of Islamic law.  Khomeini never provided any reasons for the sentence (his pronouncement only contains the general accusation that it is "a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur'an") and there was never any attempt to try Rushdie or to give him opportunity to defend himself.  Formal accusation and trial are both normal expectations in Islamic law.

It's not even clear if the Ayatollah read the book before he condemned it.  For a start, it was written in English, a language in which he appears not to have been very fluent.  It is possible that he had little or no interest in its actual contents and just saw a political opportunity to make trouble for the Western nations who were enforcing sanctions against his regime. Even if he did read it, it is doubtful whether he would have really understood the genre in which it is written.

The Satanic Verses is a magical realist novel.  Magical realism was the height of literary fashion in the 1980s - The Satanic Verses was beaten to the 1988 Booker Prize by Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda.  Novels in this genre combine magical or fantasy elements with literary realism.  The best magical realist novels (and Rushdie is one of the masters) leave readers constantly unsure what to expect - will the story conform to the possibilities of real life, or should they be looking for something else?

This question is set very near the beginning of the story when its two main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, fall out of a plane over the English Channel and inexplicably survive.  For extra ambiguity, both characters are actors, and neither of the names they go by are their real names - Saladin has shortened his name for English consumption, while Gibreel's is an invented screen name (meaning, in case you missed it, the Angel Gabriel).

Although they miraculously survive, the two men are transformed, Saladin into an incarnation of Shaitan (complete with hooves and horns) and Gibreel, whose career has consisted of playing characters in religious epics, into a genuine incarnation of the angel whose name he has appropriated.

Rushdie uses this juxtaposition to explore the nature of faith, revelation, good and evil.  You could expect Gibreel to be good, the angel of light, and Shaitan to be the angel of darkness but for Rushdie it is not that simple, and ambiguities multiply.  Meanwhile, Gibreel has a series of tortured dreams in which he appears in angelic form to various characters which inhabit their own stories.

One of these subplots is particularly provocative.  In several scenes Gibreel appears to the prophet Mahoud, a name often used derogatorily of the Prophet Mohammed.  The scene from which the novel takes its name, and which is most often cited as the source of offence, is ironically based on an ancient but disputed Islamic tradition.  In this tradition, the prophet receives and communicates a revelation instructing his followers to worship the three main goddesses of Mecca alongside Allah.  This revelation is later revealed to be a device of Shaitan and retracted.  In Rushdie's version, however, both revelations come from Gibreel.  There is further ambiguity in that Gibreel has no control over the revelations he delivers, which are in some mysterious way drawn from him - they express not so much the will of Allah (who doesn't appear in the story) but the deepest desires of the Prophet himself.

There are other issues.  One of the Prophet's scribes reveals he has made subtle alterations to the Prophet's words which have gone undetected.  A brothel enhances its business by having its women take on the characters of the Prophet's wives (although there is no suggestion that the wives themselves are anything other than virtuous).  In another subplot a young girl who receives a dubious angelic revelation is named Ayesha, after the Prophet's favourite wife.

Then again, if the Ayatollah actually read the book it is quite possible that the subplot which gave him the most offence was closer to home.  A fanatical religious leader lives in bitter exile in Paris before returning to launch a bloody revolution in his home country.  Guess which real life religious leader had similar experiences?

Aside from the obvious defence that this is a work of fiction, and that in any case an author is entitled to say what he wants, there are a couple of defences Rushdie could cite against the charge of blasphemy.  One is that these events occur, not in the real world, but in the world of Gibreel's dreams. Right to the end of the story, the author sustains ambiguity about the nature of Gibreel's transformation.  Does he, in fact, become an angel, or is this a manifestation of mental illness?  Are his dreams intended to portray "what really happened" or to present an alternative and slightly disordered version of reality to match the disorder of its protagonist's mind?

Another defence is that Rushdie is asking legitimate questions of our faith.  Merrold Westphal has pointed out that Freud's analysis of religion as an expression of our repressed desires and hatreds is psychologically correct as well as finding echoes in Christian theology.  Freud is a "prophet of original sin".  Hence Rushdie's suggestion that the Prophet's revelation is such an expression should be examined, not rejected in anger.  Indeed, its violent rejection rather tends to confirm Freud's analysis than contradict it.

None of these ambiguities are likely to influence a fundamentalist reader.  In fact, they were presented at the time to no affect.  Fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian or otherwise, represents a search for certainty.  Many fundamentalists distrust fiction altogether, seeing it as akin to lying.  They also tend to be blind to ambiguities in their own faith traditions, to subtleties of genre and intent in their sacred writings and traditions.  They tend to be hostile to critical scholarship, to not only prefer the literal and authoritative but to insist on it.   Rushdie's ambiguities and imaginative reconstructions challenge this simple view of the world and suggest that things may not be so straightforward.

If fundamentalists respond to their fear and suspicion by isolating themselves from the parts of the world that challenge their view, they harm only themselves and perhaps the harm is not that great.  However if, like the Ayatollah Khomeini, they try to impose their simplicities on the world around them, they harm all of us and the harm can be serious, even deadly as it was for Hitoshi Igarashi.  No society can just stand by and let this happen.

So in a sense, the fundamentalists were right.  Rushdie's book was indeed a direct challenge to their faith.  But about one thing there can be no ambiguity - they are not right to try and kill him for it.  They would be much better to listen to the questions, absorb them and work out their own answers.  If, after mature deliberation, they end up answering "no, I don't think it was like that" then fair enough.  They will still be wiser for the experience.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Farewell Nathan Hauritz

Amidst last year's retirements of numerous high-profile Australian cricketers, not to mention today's announcement from West Indies great Shivnarine Chanderpaul, it would be easy to miss Nathan Hauritz's retirement anouncement.

Hauritz could well have a productive second career as part of the answer to one of Australia's most difficult sports trivia questions: name the spin bowlers who have played Test cricket for Australia since Shane Warne's 2007 retirement.

Any casual cricket watcher would get Nathan Lyon, who recently became Australia's most prolific Test offspinner.  Most would also get Stuart MacGill, the world class leg-spinner who spent his whole career in Warne's shadow.  How would you go with the rest?  Brad Hogg, Beau Casson, Cameron White, Jason Krezja, Bryce McGain, Xavier Doherty, Michael Beer, Steven Smith, Glenn Maxwell, Ashton Agar, Steven O'Keeffe.  And Nathan Hauritz.

It is hardly a roll-call of glory.  Why is that a country which had such spin-bowling riches in Warne's era lurched straight into a period of such lack of distinction?  I think it can be explained in three letters.  A-F-L.

Australian Football and cricket would seem to be ideal partners in stadium management.  Both are played on oval grounds, cricket in summer and football in winter.  If the seasons overlap it is only likely to be by a few weeks.  The stadium can be used all year round, making it financially worthwhile to provide decent facilities.  As the AFL has become national in the last couple of decades it is increasingly the footballers who pay the bills, packing out grounds every second weekend while cricket is mostly played with the stands empty.

There is only one fly in the ointment - the pitch.  Cricket is played on a carefully-prepared strip of hard-packed dirt and grass.  On a major cricket ground, there will be a number of these in various stages of preparation, meaning the ground has a central square of hard dirt.  Each of these squares used to have its own characteristics.  Perth and Brisbane had hard, bouncy pitches which favoured fast bowlers.  Sydney and Adelaide had slower pitches on which the ball would grip and spin, favouring spin bowlers.  Melbourne varied between the two.  The result was that both pace bowlers and spinners got opportunities to develop their craft in favourable conditions.

Footballers hate cricket pitches.  Every time they get tackled in the centre of the ground they get battered and grazed.  Cricketers hate footballers trampling all over their pitches and chewing them up with their studded boots.  Pitch management is one of the biggest tensions in ground sharing arrangements.

It is hard for cricket authorities to win.  If they leave the pitch in place not only do they have to deal with pressure from cashed up football clubs, they also have little time to prepare their pitches between seasons.  The result is under-prepared surfaces on which pace bowlers terrorise batsmen with unpredictable bounce.  The other alternative is to grow their pitches in green-houses over the winter, then drop them into the centre of the ground at the start of summer.  These wickets all end up the same - flat even surfaces that break bowlers' hearts.

Spin bowlers suffer the most from this.  Throughout the first decade of this century interstate cricket was played on crumbling pitches, innings were short and spinners, if they played at all, were limited to cameos in which their main job was to restrict the scoring while the fast men took wickets at the other end.  More recently, as more grounds have switched to drop-in pitches, pacemen and spinners alike have to toil long and hard while batsmen have all the fun.

Once injury forced Stuart MacGill into retirement in 2008 the Australian selectors had no idea what to do next.  Each State team had at least one spinner but none had the kind of record that said "pick me".  The selectors flailed about all over the place.  Brad Hogg stepped up from the one day team without success.  Beau Casson played a single Test in which he did OK but was never seen again.  Bryce McGain was contemptuously smashed to all parts of the ground in his single Test against South Africa.

In this environment if you had a choice you would do something else.  Cameron White was already focusing on his batting when he was called up to bowl his leg-spinners in India in 2008, his meagre returns there confirming his decision.  Steven Smith did the same a couple of years later.  Ashton Agar, whose surprise cameo in the 2013 Ashes featured the highest ever score by a Number 11 and some very ordinary bowling, looks set to follow suit.

Jason Krezja announced himself with the most expensive 13-wicket haul in history on his 2008 debut in India, and played two more expensive and mostly wicketless Tests in Australia before being sent back to State cricket.  Nathan Hauritz was the man who took Krezja's place and to everyone's surprise - including his own - he bucked the trend and held his spot for the best part of two years,

The omens were not good.  He learnt his trade in the toughest spin bowling school of all, the pacy pitches of Brisbane.  The Australian selectors thought he had promise and picked him in a number of one-day matches, then sent him to India as a back-up spinner in 2004 where he made his Test debut.  He took five wickets over the two innings, which seems OK until you realise that Michael Clarke took 6 for 9 in the second innings.  He managed a few more one day internationals before being banished back to Queensland and by the end of the 2004-05 season he had lost his place in the State team too.  He moved to Sydney in 2006 hoping to revive his career in more favourable conditions, but he struggled there too.

Then in 2008 he was the beneficiary of several strokes of luck.  An injury to one of his rivals allowed him a rare early season Sheffield Shield outing for NSW, where he claimed a four-wicket haul.  When Krezja got injured after the first Test of the summer those four wickets were still the best performance by a spinner that season and the selectors dragged him out of the NSW Second XI to bowl against New Zealand in Adelaide.

At this point he was averaging over 40 per wicket in first class cricket and had yet to take a five-wicket haul.  He was clearly nervous and the New Zealand batsmen showed little respect.  Opening batsman Aaron Redmond particularly liked the look of him, smashing him for two sixes over mid-on.  Yet Hauritz showed enough guile and courage to make you think he could succeed.  After Redmond's second six he persuaded the captain the put a fielder there and kept tossing it up, daring the batsman to try it again.  Redmond took the bait, and Hauritz had the last laugh.

When Krezja failed dismally on his return from injury the selectors had good enough memories, and few enough alternatives, that they recalled Hauritz for the Boxing Day Test.  From there he was an unlikely fixture in Australian Test and one-day teams for almost two years, playing a further 15 Tests and a total of more than 50 ODIs in his career.  Along the way he managed more than 60 Test wickets at a respectable average, including his first ever five wicket haul - two of them, in fact, against Pakistan in a series in 2009-10 during which he was Australia's leading wicket-taker.

It went downhill after that, and he was dropped for the beginning of the 2010-11 Ashes.  The selectors instead opted to try and neutralise Kevin Pietersen by exploiting a supposed weakness against left-arm finger-spin.  They picked first Xavier Doherty and then Michael Beer, proving along the way that Pietersen is only vulnerable to left-arm spinners if they are any good.  England retained the Ashes in emphatic style.

After that the selectors changed tack and decided that instead of trying to pick the best of a bad lot from the Sheffield Shield they would create their own Test spinner from scratch.  They picked Nathan Lyon on the strength of some promising T20 performances and stuck with him (barring the occasional failure of nerve) to the point where he now enjoys the ironic nickname of the Greatest of All Time, conveniently abbreviated to GOAT.

That was pretty much it for Hauritz.  Before long he was back in the NSW seconds.  In 2012 he moved home to Queensland, but it didn't help.  His announcement this week simply confirmed the inevitable - he lost his Queensland contract at the end of the 2014-15 season and this year he bowled just two overs for 29 runs for the Melbourne Renegades in the BBL.

Hauritz never had any illusions about himself.  I remember a reporter once asked him about his first class record at the venue of the upcoming Test.  "Terrible," he said, "just like everywhere else."  The season his Test career was terminated he managed his one and only five-wicket haul in the Sheffield Shield,  but he couldn't sustain it.  While he averaged just under 35 runs per wicket in Test cricket, his first class average remained stubbornly in the 40s.  He did better in one day cricket but as he played more and more in the Second XI he lost his edge and his performances in the short game declined too.  At 34, an age where many spinners are just reaching their peak, it is all over for him.

You wonder what might have happened if he had been able to learn his craft in helpful conditions, or if the selectors had chosen him as their project instead of Nathan Lyon.  You also wonder, given he has two first class centuries to his name, whether he would have been wiser to follow White and Smith and concentrate on his batting.  The man himself would probably tell you, with a resigned shake of the head, that he wasn't much of a batsman either.

With the same modesty he would probably tell you that if, at the start of his career, you had told him he would play 17 Tests and 50-odd one-dayers, travel the world with the Australian cricket team and bowl his country to victory in a Boxing Day Test, he would have been more than happy to take it.  His own summing up is characteristically understated. "I have a lot of good memories, obviously a few bad ones mixed among them, but I'll definitely look back at my career very proud and very happy with what I achieved."

I'm not sure what his plans are, although he has a gig coming up in the Masters Champions League in UAE where he will get to play some low-key games alongside retired greats like Adam Gilchrist, Dan Vettori, Mahela Jayawardena and the equally modest Shiv Chanderpaul.  I suppose one day he will have to get a real job, but in the meantime I hope he gets to live the dream a little bit longer.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Inside Muslim Minds

One of the mistakes we make as Westerners is that if we want to know what Muslims think, we go and read the Q'uran.  Not that I think we shouldn't read it - we really should - but we shouldn't assume that once we have read it we know how Muslims think.  What's to say they interpret it the same way we do?  What's to say they emphasise the bits that stand out to us?

Of course the question "what do Muslims think?" is highly simplistic.  There are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, of all ages, a wide variety of nationalities, languages and cultures and widely differing levels of education.  Naturally they don't all think the same thing.  Still the obvious way to find out what Muslims think is to ask them.

That's why I am surprised that in all the media I have been seeing on Islamic issues in the past few years, and the various bits of reading I've done, no-one has yet referred to Riaz Hassan's Inside Muslim Minds.

Hassan is a South Australian sociologist.  At the time he wrote this book he was Professor of Sociology at Adelaide's Flinders University and is now associated with the University of South Australia as well as holding fellowships with a number of overseas universities.

Inside Muslim Minds was published in 2008, but it reports on research conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  The fieldwork on which it is based involved surveys of over 6,000 Muslims in seven major Muslim-majority countries - Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Egypt, Iran and Turkey.  These countries between them are home to approximately half the world's Muslims.

The countries were selected to provide a diversity of regions and governance arrangements, and within each country the survey sample was stratified as carefully as the social and political situation allowed to include a diversity of ages, genders and levels of income and education.  It would be a stretch to say that the survey represents "all Muslims" but it provides an insight into the views of a wide cross-section of the world's Islamic population.  These views are interpreted in the light of sociological theory and the history of Muslim culture and thought.

Hassan and his colleagues asked their respondents a series of questions aimed at assessing their level of religious commitment and their views on various social and political issues.  His findings are neither as alarming as our anti-Muslim campaigners would like us to think, nor as reassuring as peace-loving lefties like me wish they were.

He starts out by briefly tracing the history of Islamic identity.  He locates the roots of our current Islamic identity politics in the experience of colonialism and more recently  of what he refers to as the "failure of the national project" exemplified by corrupt and authoritarian governments in much of the Islamic world.  These twin experiences of oppression led to movements aimed at renewing and "purifying" Islam as part of a re-assertion of independence.  The two main strands of renewal were Salafism and Wahhabism, which by now are effectively fused into what he calls "salafabism".  Elements of this world view include a profound alienation from both the modern world and Islamic tradition, puritanism, belief in the sufficiency of Islam as a worldview, patriarchy, literalist and uncritical interpretations of Islamic texts and reliance on these to regulate social and personal life.

How deeply has this world view penetrated the Muslim world?  According to Hassan's research, quite deeply.  Responses to a series of questions designed to test agreement with basic salafabist ideas showed either strong or very strong agreement with most of them, even in Kazakhstan, the least "religious" of the countries surveyed.  It is clear that the Islamic revival of the past century has had a real effect among ordinary Muslims.

This has strong practical effects on religious piety.  In all countries except Kazakhstan, a majority of Muslims practice the key elements of Muslim worship - declaration of belief, daily prayer, payment of the zakat (tithe), fasting at Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca.  There is also a comparatively high level of personal piety, exemplified by private prayer and study of the Q'uran.  Kazakhstan is the only one of the seven countries surveyed where a majority of Muslims could be said to be merely "cultural", a fact Hassan attributes to the long period of Soviet rule during which religious practice was strictly controlled.

What are the consequences of this religiosity for the way Muslims act in the world?  Should we be worried?

Well, on some fronts we should.  For a start, the attitudes of Muslims, both men and women, to the role and status of women are shown to be highly misogynistic.  There is strong support for the notion that women need to be veiled and segregated from men.  This is not simply a dress preference, it is grounded in the idea that women are a potent source of social disruption and that if they are not veiled and segregated they will cause men to commit acts of sexual misconduct.  This pervasive view of women as the source of sexual problems, as irresistibly alluring, and of men as unable to control their own behaviour, has huge practical consequences for women.  It not only limits their rights and freedoms but leaves them at huge risk of blame for male crimes like rape.  It also provides an environment in many countries where honour killings are tacitly or even openly approved.

Another thing we should be worried about is that this form of Islamic consciousness involves a high level of suspicion and distrust of non-Muslims.  This is shown both in general, in a high level of agreement with the statement "a person who says there is no Allah is likely to hold dangerous political views", and in a strong perception that the major Western countries are anti-Islamic.

However, Hassan is quick to point out that these perceptions are not necessarily irrational - from the point of view of people in Islamic countries, events such as the invasion of Iraq and Western support for Israel, plus the legacy of colonialism in general, can easily be seen to lend support to this view.  It does, however, point to the risk of a spiral - they think we hate them, we think they hate us.  Current policy settings around the world hardly seem calculated to reduce this distrust.

On other fronts Hassan's finding are a lot more encouraging.  Three stood out for me - trust in Islamic institutions, attitudes to democracy and civil society, and attitudes to war or jihad.

In Indonesia, Malaysia and Egypt the key institutions of the Islamic faith are highly regarded.  They receive much less respect in Turkey with its strong tradition of secularism, Kazakhstan where the level of religious practice is generally low, and Iran and Pakistan, where these institutions have a formal role in governance.

Hassan's understanding of this finding is that Islamic institutions have the highest standing where they are perceived to play an active role in mitigating the evils of the State or holding it to account, particularly where there is repressive government as in Suharto-era Indonesia or Mubarak-era Egypt.  Where there is a good level of trust in a functioning secular State apparatus Islamic institutions have a less valued role.  The situations in which they do the worst, however, are in places like Pakistan and Iran where they have a direct role in governance - in these cases they come to share responsibility for any government repression, corruption or misgovernance and their standing declines.  This suggests that Islamic theocracies will struggle for long-term legitimacy.

Related to this is the question of Muslim attitudes to democracy.  It has often been held that Islam is incompatible with the development of civil society and that its ideological tendency is towards uniformity and lack of differentiation in institutions.  However, Hassan draws attention to the findings of the World Values Survey which shows strong Muslim approval of democratic values and disapproval of "strong leaders" - pretty much on the same level as people from other backgrounds.

Where Muslims differ is in holding much more conservative views on matters such as gender equality (although over half approve), homosexuality, abortion and divorce.  This portrait of Muslim politics is, in fact, not strikingly different from that of conservative Christian groups like the ACL.  Along with this, Hassan points to the fact that despite the shortcomings of democratic governance in most Islamic countries, civil society organisations have multiplied steadily over the past few decades in all the countries surveyed.

Finally, he comments on Muslim attitudes to jihad.  He points out that in Islamic teaching the word jihad has a broad meaning, encompassing various forms of struggle.  He also points out that war is never "holy", it is always seen as a necessary evil to be resorted to when other means fail, and conducted within strict limits.  In fact, the traditional Islamic view of war is not too far different from the "just war" theology which dominates Christian attitudes to war.  He does, however, acknowledge that modern jihadi movements have significantly expanded the scope of war.  How widely supported are these expanded views?

He cites two pieces of evidence.  The first is a Pew Research Centre study which asked people in Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco and Jordan whether suicide bombings were justifiable if carried out by Palestinians against Israelis, and by Iraqis against Americans in their country.  This survey showed majority approval on both questions in all countries but Turkey.  How are we to interpret these findings?  Do they indicate a general level of support for suicide terrorism or are they specific to these situations, viewed by most Muslims as hostile foreign occupation?

Hassan asked his subjects a more general question - did they agree with the statement, "War is justified when other ways of settling international disputes fail".  This relatively mild and general way of putting the question drew a range of responses, from over 60% agreement in Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt to less than 40% in Malaysia and Indonesia and 11% in Kazakhstan.

I haven't been able to find a precise comparison, but a 2009 ANU report on Australian attitudes to defence found that, for instance, 68% of Australians would support their child entering the military, 82% supported our military's role in protecting Australia from attack and 42% in protecting our allies from attack, and 53% either approved or strongly approved of our role in the war in Afghanistan.  It seems fair to suggest the best interpretation of this evidence is that Muslims are about as warlike as we are.

So, should we be concerned?  Well yes, we should be concerned about the plight of many Muslim women who face violence and inequality, as we should be concerned about this same issue here at home.  Yes, we should be concerned at the spiral of mutual distrust and suspicion that continues to move upwards and places us all at risk of more violence.  We should be looking for ways to break down these barriers and build greater trust and understanding.

But we should also take heart.  Muslims value democracy as much as we do and generally distrust theocracy.  They are no more war-like than we are and prefer political solutions to military ones.  There are real differences in our cultures and outlooks, and real tensions and dangers for us on the road ahead, but we also have a lot more in common than you might think.  The situation is not yet hopeless.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

What's Wrong With Test Cricket?

Cricket commentators around the world are asking, "can Test cricket survive?"

They're particularly asking it here in Australia because we have just witnessed a soggy and depressing end to one of the least interesting Test series in history, played between Australia and a team of young men impersonating the West Indies.  Not many people turned up to watch, TV ratings were lukewarm and as one wit put it, by the third test even Mother Nature got bored and decided it was better to spend the time watering the grass.


Meanwhile Australia's domestic cricketers, along with a fair number of actual West Indians and a smattering from other countries, have been playing T20 cricket in the Big Bash League in front of packed stadia and large TV audiences.  Even the women's version of the competition, in its very first year, is attracting enough interest for Channel 10 to increase its coverage.

Of course threats to Test Cricket are not new.  In 1960, long before TV coverage was even dreamed of, commentators were speculating about the death of Test Cricket in Australia. The game was dominated by boring, defensive play and the six days that Tests took in those days could seem like an eternity.  Crowds stayed away in droves.  Then the West Indies arrived.

Sir Donald Bradman, then Chairman of the Australian Cricket Board, begged the two teams to play attacking, entertaining cricket and the two captains, Richie Benaud and Frank Worrell, were only too happy to oblige.  The result was a pulsating, entertaining series, huge crowds, enduring popularity for the charismatic West Indians, the first ever tied Test and salvation for Test cricket.

Why is it that fifty years later a clash between the two countries can attract so little interest?

I think the beginnings of the answer lie in the late 1970s and Kerry Packer's conversion of cricket from game to broadcast content.  Up until that time cricketers were essentially amateurs, paid little more than costs and playing for the love of the game and for fame and glory.  Where the game was broadcast at all it was on public radio and TV, and most of the revenue came from ticket sales.

The problem was that while the various Cricket Boards around the world were happy with this situation, the players jumped at the chance to earn more money and defected to Packer faster than you could say "chequebook".  Broadcasters in other countries followed suit and within a decade or so, international cricket and a good deal of domestic cricket was fully professional, funded largely through broadcast deals and the huge sponsorship dollars authorities could leverage off them.

There were two prices to be paid for this.  The first was that national teams had to play lots more cricket.  Regular Test tours were augmented by a seemingly endless and mind-numbing made-for-TV one day tournaments played under lights for prime-time viewing.  No-one can remember who won what or even who played who, but the ratings and advertising dollars flowed.

All this was nice for the players' bank balances and for those of their boards, but some consequences followed.  Domestic cricket became all but invisible because no-one would pay to broadcast it.  International players barely played in their own domestic competitions because they were so busy with international cricket.  Audiences for domestic cricket dwindled, games were played in cavernous, near-empty stadiums and the cricket authorities only kept the competitions alive because they needed a way to develop their international stars.

A further consequence of all this was that cricketing success and player pay became hugely unequal.  While the stable wealth of England and Australia ensured the health of their teams and infrastructure, the centre of cricketing power shifted rapidly to India with its huge population of cricket fanatics and its booming economy.  When India sneezes, global cricket gets pneumonia.

Meanwhile, little New Zealand and troubled Sri Lanka continue to struggle on the periphery while Pakistan, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have descended into national chaos and the poor, fractious nations of the West Indies struggled to keep up.  Only South Africa has bucked the trend, with its largely European cricketing population so far successfully navigating the murky waters of change.  Wealthy countries are able to prop up domestic competitions and pay domestic players at least a living wage, although you only get rich by playing international cricket.  They can also fund coaches, academies, development programs and the like.  Meanwhile poorer countries just have to do the best they can with their meagre resources.  The more you can afford to pay, the better your team will be.

All this has meant that far too much international cricket is uncompetitive.  This situation is exacerbated by the crowded nature of the calendar and the reluctance of cricketing authorities to stage matches for which there is no TV audience.

To give you an idea of how this works, that iconic West Indian team of 1960-61 played a total of 22 matches on its tour of Australia, including 14 first class matches.  One day cricket had not yet been invented - these were all long-form games of cricket played with the red ball.  By the time of the first Test in Brisbane they had played a total of seven matches, including games against five full-strength State teams and a strong Australian XI.  When the first Test came around they were ready to rumble and the result was the famous tied Test and a close-fought five-Test series.

By contrast, the current West Indies tourists played just one match before the first Test in Hobart, a limp affair in Brisbane against an Australian XI made up of second-string State players in which the tourists got soundly thrashed.  They went into the first Test woefully unprepared and then had only a two-day match against a similarly weak Victorian team before they faced up to Australia again in the second and third tests.

This is the pattern around the world.  The problem is, conditions in each country are very different.  Pitches are relatively harder or softer, the atmosphere is more or less humid, each country uses a different make of ball and they all play slightly differently. Players need to adjust their techniques to take account of how high the ball bounces, how much it swings or spins.  You can't do that overnight, either as a batter or bowler.  Even though the current West Indians are a mere shadow of their 1960-61 forerunners, they started to get the hang of it by the third test and were showing a bit more fight.  What could they have achieved if they had been allowed to acclimatise properly?

This is the pattern for most tours.  In 2007-08 India brought possibly its best ever Test team to Australia for a four-Test series with a realistic chance of beating the Aussies on home soil for the first time.  When the tour was being planned Indian captain Rahul Dravid requested four warm-up matches before the first Test to help them acclimatise to conditions which are the polar opposite to India.  Commercial imperatives won out and they were granted only two short games against relatively weak opponents, neither played on the pacy Brisbane pitch which was to host the first Test.

Predictably, they were soundly beaten in the first Test and lost a tense second in the final hour.  The series was pretty much over by the time they hit their straps for a victory in the third.  If an Indian team featuring greats like Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag, Ganguly, Kumble and Harbajan couldn't adjust that quickly, what chance did the modest and inexperienced West Indians have?  And how will the Australians go in New Zealand later this year when they take on a Test series there without a single red-ball warm up match?

This combination of wealth disparity and poor preparation means too many series are dominated by the home team.  The results are too predictable.  The public switches off, literally and figuratively, and the goose's golden-egg laying powers seem to be on the wane.

All of this could have been managed in some typically haphazard way if it wasn't for the advent of T20 cricket.  T20 is a broadcaster's dream.  The whole game can be fitted into a single prime-time TV slot.  The fact that there are still 11 batters but only 20 overs encourages the batting team to take risks and the result is constant big hitting with no time for the match to become a televisually boring war of attrition.

In the late 1970s Kerry Packer dragged cricket authorities into the world of commercial broadcasting by setting up his own competition.  This time around the cricketing authorities were much more astute.  The Board of Cricket Control India cut off the rebel Indian Cricket League at the pass by setting up its own much more handsomely funded Indian Premier League.  The IPL model has since been copied in Bangladesh, the Caribbean, South Africa and Australia, with England gradually inching its way towards the same thing.

All these competitions feature newly created city-based teams with fancy names and huge marketing departments whose job is to whip up instant brand loyalty.  Players are recruited through a bidding process and local players are supplemented by big name (and highly paid) overseas recruits.  Competitions are short and sharp, typically lasting for around six weeks with virtually daily games.

The result is a cadre of professional players who make a living travelling from tournament to tournament.  Some of these are big names near the end of their careers like Chris Gayle or Kevin Pietersen, who are paid handsomely to be the public face of these competitions.  There are also a lot of lesser known and more modestly paid players who, after years of struggling to survive in second tier competitions, finally have a way of making a decent living that doesn't rely on selection in their national team.

These competitions have been hugely successful.  The IPL continues to attract large audiences in India both at the grounds and on TV.  Over the last two years the same has happened in Australia. Five years into the Big Bash League, games are breaking long-standing domestic crowd records (over 80,000 to a recent game at the MCG) and over 400,000 people are watching nightly games on TV.


All this sucks both the air, and the players, out of Test cricket.  It sucks out the air because the competition is run alongside the Test series.  There is only so much cricket people will watch, and if the Tests are one-sided and the T20 goes down to the last over, which will they choose?  It sucks out the players because those from poor countries like the West Indian nations, Pakistan and Bangladesh can get paid much better in the T20 leagues than hanging out in their domestic first-class competitions trying to get selected for their country - and even in some cases more than they would if they did get selected.

All this was graphically illustrated this summer, because while a relatively anonymous group of players travelled as the West Indies, a number of their higher profile and arguably more talented countrymen are appearing in the BBL.  This is the result of a pay dispute between players and the West Indies Cricket Board in which their most marketable players have voted with their feet and become T20 freelancers.  Of course Chris Gayle's bad back doesn't allow him to play Test cricket any more, but Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell, Lendl Simmons and Samuel Badree could all potentially strengthen the current West Indies team.  They still may not have beaten Australia but at least there would have been some charisma and entertainment on offer to lure the fans.

The thing is that all this hollows out not only Test and ODI cricket, but also the domestic first class and 50-over competitions that underpin them.  Here in Australia, our domestic cricketers get to play in front of huge crowds for a glorious six-week period in December and January.  Prior to that, however, in October they played a 50-over competition which was staged in empty suburban cricket grounds, followed by the first half of an equally anonymous Sheffield Shield four day competition.

By the end of January they will be back in those same empty stadiums completing the Sheffield Shield.  The winner will be lucky to rate a mention on the sports pages of our daily papers or in our TV news.  Cricket Australia, which has poured money into the creation and promotion of the BBL, hardly spends a cent promoting these other domestic competitions.  Who could blame the players of they got a better offer to play T20 cricket elsewhere and decamped?

Can the problem be solved?

I think there are two potential solutions - altruism, and the "bison solution".

The altruistic solution would involve the players playing for the love of the game.  If they say that Test Cricket is the pinnacle of the game and that irrespective of the money, this is where they want to test themselves, then perhaps they could lead its promotion, and the promotion of the four-day domestic competitions that underpin it.  .  Perhaps they could forego some of the money on offer in the T20 leagues to devote time to train for, and play in, Test and first class series.  Perhaps they could do this, and play their best cricket, irrespective of the size of the audience or the size of the pay-cheque.  Perhaps, indeed, such non-cynical behaviour would attract the interest of a sporting public jaded by the crass commercialism of what they are currently seeing.

And perhaps pigs might fly, and Chris Gayle might learn to treat women with respect.

More realistic is what I think of as the "bison option".  When I went to school and we learned about the extinction of species, the American bison was one of the classic object lessons.  They once roamed the plains of the mid-west in herds numbering in the millions, but with the arrival of European invaders they became victims of the "Indian wars", all but exterminated to destroy the economies of native peoples and hasten their surrender.  In the 1970s bison numbered in the hundreds and it was doubtful they would survive.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I travelled to the US in 1992 and saw bison standing in fields all over Colorado, hardly even noticed by my American hosts.  Apparently, in the intervening 20 years American entrepreneurs discovered what the native peoples had always known - that bison are valuable livestock with lots of tasty meat and a furry hide that makes great leather.  The market for bison products grew and in a couple of decades farmers achieved what conservationists could not, and saved the bison.  The lesson - money talks.

This is, hopefully, what our cricket authorities (or perhaps, a newly formed rebel league) will eventually rediscover.  There is in fact a market for long-form cricket.  Sure, many people prefer the quick thrills of T20, but they also enjoy the more subtle skills, the more complex tactics, the drawn-out tension of a four or five day match.  Cricket authorities just need to work out how to market it.

Cricket Australia is currently experimenting with day-night tests, and the first was a qualified success - people turned up to watch, but the players struggled to see the ball.  Perhaps this can be part of the answer, but I can't help thinking this solution just shows lack of imagination.   The only solution authorities can think of is to make Test cricket more like T20.

Perhaps rather than this, what is needed is for cricket authorities themselves to develop some confidence in their product.  They currently mouth the sentiment that Test and first class cricket is the pinnacle of the game, but if you follow the money it tells a very different story.  The money, in promotion, player payments, branding and merchandising, is going to T20.  Test and first class cricket is drowned in the flood.  If you don't sell your product, you can't complain if no-one buys it.