Terror cannot destroy cricket

2009-03-06 00:00

SUDDENLY Peter Siddle’s sore hoof seems important. It is not just that the wholehearted Victorian bowled mightily in Johannesburg and deserved another crack at the hosts. It is not even that he represents the best of the game, effort, loyalty, strength, skill and a sort of integrity.

Admittedly he provokes the wrath of local supporters, but that is not a serious matter and owes more to his willingness to accept the bad guy role (the competition was not that hot) than to any inherent hostility. No, it is not that. These things are the amusing byplays of the game, the little dramas that sustain the story. No, Siddle’s foot matters because it is a cricketing matter, important to a small group of players and supporters but otherwise quite without significance. Previously such matters seemed trifling. Reporters joke about writing yet another yarn about a groin strain. Now the rageless trivial has its attractions. It bears no scars or screams or acrid smoke.

Such a change has come over the cricketing world in the last few days that events in the previous match in Johannesburg seemed ancient history. Poor fools like your correspondent suffering from a surfeit of optimism cling to the hope that eventually it might be possible to play cricket and to forget about all the other issues that restrict the game and our lives.

After all it is a simple game of bat and ball, a distraction that challenges and frustrates players, delights and dulls spectators, excites statisticians and periodically pleases artists. It is played in all sorts of ways by all sorts of people, most of them in the third world. Yet as every day passes it finds itself more immersed in the terrors of the age. That cricket has a large number of fine people and a deep pool of mutual respect cannot be denied. But the same can be said about the world, and a fat lot of good it does.

At such times it seems fatuous to be worrying about Peter Siddle’s foot and the ailing part of Ben Hilfenhaus’s anatomy. And yet it is also reassuring. For some strange reason Hilfenhaus’s strained muscle seems more interesting now than before the shots were fired and the grenade pins were pulled.

Concerns of this sort call us back from the hurt. Siddle and Hilfenhaus are honest blokes of blue collar origin who just want to bowl for their country. It is not a lot to ask. South Africa has its counterparts, and so does every other nation. It is a young man’s game, does not belong to politicians, preachers or even philosophers. Now every player knows that but for the grace of their god. Youngsters coming into the game must wonder whether it is worth the trouble. But, then where is safety?

All that can be said regarding events in Pakistan is to commiserate with the fallen and wish the standing the best of luck. When next the game can be played on that patch of ground is hard to assess. Everyone says be brave and defeat the cold killers with inflamed minds, but that is getting harder.

Crime is the main problem in South Africa. It is difficult to find a family that has escaped its brutality, yet somehow it is manageable. Across the Limpopo those refusing to dance to the tyrant’s tune are tortured, man, woman and child. One day someone will tell the Indians that the people whose backs they pat and protect are as wicked as those let loose upon the Sri Lankans. Still it seems manageable. No one ever said it was going to be easy. None of this was directed at the game or its players. Now the rule book has been thrown away.

Cricket has been thrust foursquare into the abyss. It is a target. Was it so naive to believe that a game could help to bring together black, white and brown, poor and rich, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and atheist? Perhaps the ambition was the problem. It was not that cricket failed, but that in part it succeeded. In some respects it is the most progressive of games. A small number of nations play it to a high level, but they include some of the most troubled, tormented, challenging and vibrant nations on the planet. In many cases the participants are natural enemies yet they are unified by this ridiculous recreation.

Alas, good intentions are no match for hatred. Nevertheless cricket cannot give up. It can, though, be forgiven for seeking respite and shelter. Would you send your son or daughter, sportsmen not soldiers, into the battle against this vicious, shadowy foe?

Let’s hope Siddle, Hilfenhaus and the rest can play and that they keep playing. Otherwise life is going to be every bit as miserable as the forces of wickedness want. Evil has never known how to laugh or play sport. Odd as it might sound, and bless his cotton socks, that is why I care about Peter Siddle’s foot.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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