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John Howard had generated much antipathy with his divisive policies during his 11-year reign as prime minister of Australia. Now, his nomination as the next vice-president of the International Cricket Council (ICC) seems to be dividing the cricketing world on racial lines. Howard will be next in line after India’s Sharad Pawar, who assumes the office of ICC president in July. The ICC has a policy of regional rotation for these posts, and this year it was the turn of Australia and New Zealand to propose a joint candidate. After much squabbling, they arrived at the name of Howard, who is scheduled to eventually become president in 2014.
That’s a prospect many member-nations in the ICC detest—Howard’s past is coming back to bite him. Of the ten members who would vote to ratify (or not) Howard, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and South Africa have registered their objections to the man; the Pakistan Cricket Board has referred the matter to their government; the Indian board members are mulling it and, according to sources, shaking their heads in disapproval at Howard’s resume. Four dissenting votes would make the candidature untenable.
“I can’t believe that Howard’s objecting to Mugabe is a racist position. It’s the only moral position to take.”
The objections of Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, on the face of it, don’t seem to be very grave, though they do believe him to be racist. Sri Lankans officially say they would prefer a career cricket administrator, though their real grievance is that Howard once called the great Muttiah Muralitharan a ‘chucker’. The Zimbabweans dislike him essentially for his role in that country’s suspension from the Commonwealth in 2002, and his call for boycott of relations with their country.
More serious are the concerns of South Africa and Pakistan. Howard, through the 1980s, opposed sanctions against the then white supremacist regime in South Africa. Right through the end, he was a critic of the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela. For the Pakistanis, his enthusiastic support for George Bush’s unilateral action in Iraq and Afghanistan is a big negative.
India’s position is curious—politically, it has been sympathetic to the regime in Zimbabwe and the two countries work together to boost trade. President Robert Mugabe is an old friend of India and blame for the turmoil in that country is laid at England’s door, though Mugabe’s recent record is alarming enough. On South Africa, there’s no room for ambiguity—India and South Africa are friends. This bonhomie is reflected in cricketing relations.
Pawar with ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat
Politically, thus, Pawar would be expected to align with the two African countries. However, he must tread with some caution; he doesn’t have a formal position in the BCCI, though he continues to hold great sway. For the moment, Pawar has endorsed the process behind the nomination of Howard, not wanting to commit himself, for he wouldn’t be unaware of the BCCI’s views. “We are unlikely to support Howard’s candidature,” a senior BCCI source told Outlook. “Two main reasons—we have very good relations with the countries that are opposing him, and Howard’s record as a politician is alarming, with reasons to suspect him of being a racist.”
“Howard refuses to see others’ views, especially when they’re non-Anglo. He has failed to oppose racism and injustice.”
Should the BCCI veto Howard, Pakistan would follow suit, says a PCB source. In that case, there will be unpleasantness, and Australia and New Zealand might have to come up with an alternative. But didn’t they realise they were courting controversy by nominating Howard? Historian and writer Gideon Haigh says: “ICC, Cricket Australia argues, has become not a cricket body but a political body, on which political experience and acumen are an essential.”
Cricket Australia (CA) believes the ICC is in a sickly state, largely irrelevant and subservient to commercial might. It can be made robust by a strong leader such as Howard. It’s no doubt a salutary thought, but critics say his intransigence and inability to accept a contrary opinion could be problematic. Says Australian historian Heather Goodall, “Right through, he’s displayed a stubborn refusal to see the other person’s side of any argument, especially when they were non-Anglo.” She says he alienated the Aboriginals and whipped “up racial hysteria to win cheap votes”, and fostered Islamophobia.
Howard’s shortcomings overshadow his deep love for the game. His critics say his convictions are antiquated. “I don’t think that, for him, the world has moved beyond when there was a British Empire,” says Dr Meredith Burgmann, former president of the NSW legislative council and a leader in the anti-apartheid sporting boycott campaigns. “When everyone else in Australia regarded Mandela as a hero, Howard was still saying he was a terrorist—right up to just before Mandela became president!”
Perhaps Howard only reflected the dominant opinion in Australia. Former Australian rugby player and commentator Peter FitzSimons confirms this: “I personally did not agree with much of what he did—moving us away from being a republic, taking us into the Iraq war, his policy on refugees, etc. But I was in the minority. He was, generally, a quite popular prime minister who won four elections.” It was also his belief, says Haigh, that every country is entitled to run its affairs without interference, and sporting contact should not be disrupted.
“I didn’t agree with his policies, but I was in the minority. He won four elections, and was a popular prime minister.”
But that was in the past. Howard has come round to believing in the power of sporting boycotts—against Zimbabwe, for instance. “And I can’t believe that objecting to Mugabe is a racist position; on the contrary, I think it is the only moral position to take,” Haigh argues.
But there are others in Australia who feel Howard is incapable of evolving in any real sense. “He’s not a modern thinker in terms of the world and political and racial issues,” Burgmann insists. And Goodall believes Howard’s legacy is injurious to Australia: “His legacy has been very long-lasting, and very divisive. He failed to oppose racism and social injustice in principle. His ruthless crushing of any dissent within the Liberals has left a lasting legacy of a whole polity shifting far to the right—with continuing and very bitter divisions.”
Should such a man be trusted with supervising an international body? With his past, many cricketing nations fear—with reasons real or imagined—the cricketing world could be wracked with divisions and ruined if he’s allowed to take charge of the ICC. Pawar, despite the position of neutrality he must maintain as the ICC’s top boss, will have to respect the government’s and the BCCI’s kinship with those opposing Howard. The BCCI seems ready to join the dissenters—the world awaits its formal decision.