In Lagaan, a Bollywood film set in British India, an experienced team of British soldiers challenge farmers from a village to a game of cricket. But this is to be no ordinary match. If the villagers win, the crippling tax (lagaan) they owe to the Raj is to be waived. If they lose, the tax is to be trebled. None of the farmers have played before, and the district's feudal prince begs them not to become lambs to the slaughter. But the villagers, whose captain is played by actor-director Aamir Khan, feel they have little to lose as the tax is already unaffordable. For readers who may not have seen this film, I won't spoil the ending. What I can say is that it is another example of how a global audience is reading and watching the history of India from its own perspective.
I was reminded of the film last month when a match between England and Pakistan ended abruptly amid much controversy on 20 August. As with the fictional Lagaan, this real game of cricket between a rich nation and its (former) colony offered its spectators the same mix of sport, power, colonial politics, allegations of racism and cheating, together with flashes of comedy. Its cast even included the descendant of royalty in the shape of Shahryar Khan, chair of Pakistan's cricket-governing board and the country's former ambassador to London; his grandmother was the queen of Bhopal in north India.
But life extended art as well as mirrored it. In a match between Pakistan's national side and England, the visitors were accused by Darrell Hair, an umpire from Australia, of tampering with the ball (and thus cheating). Pakistan's players denied the charge vehemently, but went further by briefly refusing to continue playing - even though they were poised to win the match. Controversially, the umpire decided to award the game to England because under cricket's "laws", a side that refuses to play is judged automatically to lose a match. In addition, the game's governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), announced there would be a hearing into the conduct of the Pakistan side.
Within hours, the abandoned game became an international diplomatic incident. General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is reported to have made a supportive phone call to his team's captain Inzamul Haq; Australia's John Howard meanwhile, voiced support for his country's umpire's decision to stick with the letter of the law.
In Pakistan, meanwhile, where cricket is a national obsession, effigies of the umpire were burnt. The controversy was debated in parliament, and the Supreme Court Bar Association set up a team of jurists to "defend the honour of the country and the cricket team". Five days after the aborted match, Pakistan's team felt vindicated in its protest when it emerged that the umpire had offered to resign - in return for $500,000 in lost earnings - to close the issue.
A pendulum swing
Cricket is an anomaly in global sport. It is played across the world, but at the highest level, the ten leading teams consists of England - where the game was invented, possibly as far back as 1550 - and countries with which it has a long, close historical association: Australia, New Zealand and seven former British colonies from the developing world (including South Africa, India and Pakistan).
Not a huge amount has changed in the two centuries since cricket became an international sport. Matches between nations - known as "tests" - are still played over five full days with generous breaks for "lunch" and "tea" in the afternoon. Players still wear white uniforms. Cricket bats are still made from two pieces of wood from the willow tree; and balls are still hand-made from string that is tightly bound and encased inside two leather hemispheres. The positions on the cricket field still use singular terms such as "short-leg" and "silly-point".
That a 21st-century sport resolutely retains an 18th century feel is partly - even mostly - down to the Marylebone Cricket Club, the body that makes the game's laws since its founding in 1787 in London. Until 1964, England and Australia alternately shared cricket's top spot. But since then England's form has declined, and other teams have improved, notably the West Indies side, which (according to the evidence of Peter Hartland's excellent The Balance of Power in Test Cricket, 1877-1998) was the best in the world for fifteen consecutive years until 1994. But you wouldn't know that the world of cricket has changed if your only window was the MCC. It sees itself as the guardian of what it calls "the spirit of cricket". Seven of the world's top-ten teams may be from developing countries, but the MCC and its key committees are chaired by people from one country: England.
How cricket is played in England and Australia also dominates the MCC's coaching manuals, and activities that have a knowledge component. Indeed, it is this issue that is at the heart of the current ball-tampering controversy between Pakistan and the umpire Darrell Hair.
Cricket in Australia and England is played mostly on cut and well-maintained grass surfaces. In contrast, in the developing world it is played mostly on gravel, stone or concrete surfaces, where a leather ball quickly becomes scuffed and becomes less spherical. Different playing conditions necessitate different playing techniques, and one of the techniques that many bowlers from Asia and the Caribbean countries have perfected is to be able to make a ball change direction sharply in mid-flight and at high speed.
Such movement, known as "reverse swing", needs a ball to have been in use for some time; and for one half to be shiny, the other half to have been scuffed. This is achieved relatively quickly in playing environments in India and Pakistan, and bowlers (such as Pakistan's former cricket captain, now politician, Imran Khan) are particularly good at inducing sudden changes in flight with an older cricket-ball.
The MCC, however, does not look kindly on reverse-swing. It recently introduced a new law penalising teams that scuff a ball too much. If you look up MCC Masterclass, the MCC coaching book, there is no description of how to do reverse-swing bowling. Instead, the bowling techniques it describes are those commonly used by bowlers in Australia and England.
A new balance
In a curiously democratic sort of way, while the MCC sets the rules, it does not enforce them. The twin roles of executive, judiciary (and much more) fall to a single organisation, the ICC, which is responsible for the game's umpires and referees, handling misconduct allegations, as well as training, development, sponsorship and negotiating TV rights. Unlike the MCC, The council is governed by representatives of different cricket-playing nations.
Until 2005, both the MCC and the ICC were based at the Lords cricket ground in London. But in August of that year the ICC moved to Dubai in what is seen as a deliberate push by the cricket governing bodies of Asia to break the symbolic dominance of England over ICC affairs.
It is no secret that ICC member-countries are frustrated with the MCC, and will no doubt use the Pakistan affair to press for reform in the MCC - in the very least for players and ex-players of other nations to become part of its governance structure. This will be no bad thing. The saying "It's not cricket" is used to criticise something that is considered unfair. The MCC needs to look into the mirror, and ask whether the way it sets the laws really "is cricket". When it does so, it may also discover just how far the rest of the world has moved on.