Monday, August 28, 2006

A La Recherche du Temps Urdu (In Remembrance of Things Urdu)

Cricket is a mystical game. It has its own traditions, culture, and history, which cannot be explained to the layperson. As for the rules of play, they are as ancient and as numinous as the cricket Gods themselves.

How possibly could a North American begin to comprehend the hallowed willow: that unforgiving mini-beast that requires loving application of linseed, and gently knocked in, so that it will last for just twenty-two matches, of which half will be rained out? How to enlighten the non-cricketer on the importance of the knocking-mallet: that if the willow hasn’t been treated before it strikes leather, the bat will shatter; that if knocked too heavily, the instrument will lose its spring and be forever dull and useless?

I have played a lot of cricket. At any one time, I would have three bats, each knocked to different degrees, which I would use depending on the playing conditions and my attitude to the game at hand. Each bat would last three seasons. They only lasted because I rotated them, and treated them and prepared them immaculately pre-season. For a non-cricketer to pick them up, they may have seemed heavy. For me, they were a finely-balanced extension of my left arm, prepared by me. I knew exactly what style of play was necessary for each bat. Nobody else was permitted to even pick them up. For a player to even suggest that was the equivalent of a novice violinist asking Nigel Kennedy to lend him his Stradivarius for practice.

There is one exception to my batting toolkit. It is a Duncan Fearnley Magnum, oversize, which is not a finely-tuned instrument. It is not an extension of my left arm. It is the batting equivalent of a clown shoe. If my Slazenger V800 was a high precision rifle with a laser-guided scope, then my Magnum is a daisy-cutter. If any other batsman can pick it up, let alone apply the back-lift when a cricket ball is bearing down at ninety miles an hour, they are welcome to do so. I would only ever use it near the end of the innings when I have out-concentrated the bowlers, and started spraying deliveries onto the pitch. As long as I put the bat within a few light years of the ball, the latter would find itself somewhere on the pavilion roof.

Thus cricket is a fanatical game that attracts fanatical people.

Cricket journalism is also a unique art. Because cricket writers have so many hours during a test match to compose their thoughts on a game in which nothing often happens, the quality of their output reaches poetic levels unseen in the mainstream media. Consider this from Amit Varma, two years ago, on a Test match between Australia and India. Varma achieves something that few mainstream journalists manage to convey: to place you inside the thrills and spills of a game that you regret not having watched. Jeremy Clarkson could have been a cricket commentator. Lord Denning, if he hadn’t opted for that oh-so-fleeting of judicial careers, could have done likewise. What Varma shows, in what may seem especially moronic to the non-cricketer, is that the game is even more sublime because there was no result.

After my third game in post-school cricket, I was called to give evidence to a Wellington cricket disciplinary hearing brought against my fellow opener. He had scored a few runs, and played and missed a ball outside his off stump. The ball brushed his pad on the way through to the keeper, and the keeper and the slip cordon appealed for a caught behind. The batsman, as was his habit, ignored the appeal and trudged off to square leg in his psychological preparation for the next delivery. He didn’t see the bowling umpire raise his finger, and was shocked when he heard the fielding team cheer that they had taken his wicket.

It was a bad umpiring decision. The umpire later stated that he didn’t think the batsman had hit the ball, but thought he was walking, so granted the appeal. But what happened in the next few moments was crucial: in the milliseconds of release of frustration at a bad decision, the batsman gave what the umpire called an “evil” look. The player shook his head as he walked past the square-leg umpire, chanting quietly: “No, no, no, NO!” I could just make out what he said.

At the time, it wasn’t clear whether he was saying this to himself, for his own lapse in concentration in snicking the ball, or genuine frustration with the umpire. The player was stood down for six weeks for voicing dissent.

Because cricket is an intensely mental contest played over very long periods of time, cricket journalists are less well-disposed to cover rapidly-changing events over short interludes. The treatment of Darrell Hair in his decision, on the fourth day of the Fourth Test between England and Pakistan, to call off the match, has spread headlines well beyond the cricketing world, but in the process has lacked the critical analysis that makes cricket such an exquisite game.

Law 42 of the Laws of Cricket specifically covers the issue of ball-tampering. A player is allowed to clean the ball and polish it, but not change the condition of the ball. The umpire is the sole judge of whether ball-tampering has occurred, and has various sanctions he can apply. One of those sanctions is awarding five runs to the batting team and changing the ball.

Darrell Hair judged, rightly or wrongly, that the Pakistani team had deliberately changed the condition of the ball, well beyond merely polishing or cleaning it. England was awarded five penalty runs. In the scope of an individual match, that sanction is far less severe than a bad decision on a dismissal.

What happened next strikes at the very heart of the game of cricket, and the bystander struggles to comprehend it without considering the unique personalities of Pakistani captain Inzamam Ul-Huq, and umpire Darrell Hair.

In nearly a hundred and thirty years of international test cricket, only ten players in history have scored more test runs than Inzy. Only nine players in history have scored more test hundreds. As important statistics are in the culture of cricket, that still gives only a poor perspective on Inzy’s greatness.

Much has been written on Inzy’s laziness at the stumps, his lack of fitness, his curious blend of brutality, and paradoxically, his subtlety and lightness of touch as a batsman. A far more telling statistic is one that cannot be measured by immense accumulations of runs and test averages. That is that of even the greatest players in the modern game, Inzy is practically unrivalled in his capacity to turn good deliveries into average ones, and average deliveries into poor ones.

Inzy, like Sachin and Adam Gilcrist, are virtually impossible to bowl to. Their creative genius is such that even the finest masters of consistent rhythm and swing will find balls on a good line, and a good length, dispatched to the boundary. They do so not through sheer fluke, but all the time. This trio has a capacity to regularly manufacture shots that should not even exist within human capability.

Some will say that they simply see the ball much earlier than their peers. Others will suggest that they have much faster reaction times. But they will all be wrong. The reason that Inzy is so great as a batsman is the same reason Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong are so phenomenal. They quite simply defy the laws of physics.

Secondly, Pakistan and the subcontinent in general, do not share the same values around the Spirit of The Game. This is a culture clash of seismic proportions in world cricket. It is why the Board of Control for Cricket in India sets the world tour programme. It is why Shoaib Akhtar is allowed to bowl with a “hyper-extensive arm”, rather than simply “chucking”. It is why Sachin Tendulkar carries demi-God status. Cricket is a religion in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh. It is because of their faith that they are prepared to cheat at all costs to win.

So when Inzy instructed the Pakistani cricket team to remain in the dressing room in protest at Darrell Hair’s ball-tampering decision, rather than resuming play, Inzy was issuing a direct challenge to the Spirit of Cricket that governs the responsibility of cricket captains, the requirement for fair play, and general player conduct. As unparalleled as Inzy is as a player, he assumed the power to undermine the most important cricket law of all: the supremacy of the umpire.

That is no small challenge on Inzy’s part. It is effectively the worst possible act that can be committed by a cricket captain. If the disgraceful underarm bowling incident 1981 sparked a re-emphasis on fair play, then Inzy’s action should not go unpunished. He was not merely pushing the boundaries of interpretation of cricket rules. He was drawing a big red line through the rule book.

There is no sanction available for Inzy’s decision not to take the field. The reason there is no sanction is because the idea is so incomprehensible to the spirit of cricket that nobody thought of creating a sanction for it.

Until, that is, Darrell Hair was faced with the prospect of inventing a new sanction that does not exist in the rules. Given the extent of Inzy’s offence, ending play and awarding the match to England was proportionate. In addition, Inzy should have been hung, drawn and quartered by the ICC.

The subsequent actions by sub-continental commentators and cricketers, to make the issue about evidence of ball-tampering, rather than Inzy’s behaviour, deliberately miss the point. In fact, they attempt to divert attention from Inzy's assault on the rules of cricket.

Darrell Hair’s decision to award five runs to England was allowed for in the rules. Even if wrong, that was his decision. It was a legitimate decision for him to make.

Yet instead of cooling down and accepting punishment for his refusal to take the field, Inzy came out all-guns blazing after the Fourth test. Pakistan threatened to boycott further one-dayers in England if Inzy was found guilty of ball-tampering. Again, the issue wasn’t whether he changed the condition of the ball: it was his refusal to accept Hair’s instruction to take the field. The following day, India sided with Pakistan, announcing they would join other sub-continent nations in refusing to play in a game that Hair officiated in.

Realistically, that slashed Hair’s potential umpiring commitments in half. He could not umpire in games involving Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or his own country of Australia. That confined Hair's umpiring commitments to test matches between New Zealand, South Africa, England and the West Indies. It was an untenable position for Hair. He had faced an impossible, unprecedented scenario in the Fourth Test, and made use of the only sanction he thought available to him, and half of world cricket was ganging up on him. There was no way he could reasonably continue as a member of cricket’s elite umpiring panel.

That confluence of events led to Hair suggesting his resignation, on condition of a private settlement with ICC taking into account Hair’s potential earnings as a professional umpire over the next few years. It was an invitation for the ICC to make him redundant, given that the sub-continent had pre-empted his redundancy. That request was no different to a senior executive resigning from a board due to circumstances that make their jobs untenable.

So what did Malcolm Speed, ICC Chief Executive do in return? He leaked Hair’s offer, putting him out to dry. In one of the most disgraceful acts in the history of cricket administration, Speed shifted focus away from Inzy’s misconduct, as an easy way of getting rid of burying the issue of sub-continental rewriting of the spirit of cricket.

Thank you, Malcolm Speed. You have answered the key question facing world cricket today. You have given us certainty. In the process, you have knifed your own country-man. Ball-tampering, chucking, threats to withdraw tours when a player doesn’t get his way, and disrespecting umpires on the field, have all been legitimized by your conduct towards Hair.

Thanks to Inzamam Ul-Haq, and Speed’s effective endorsement of his behaviour by assassinating Hair, the Spirit of Cricket no longer exists.

Friday, August 25, 2006

RIP: Peter Dunne (1954-2006)

Peter Dunne was a pragmatic and decent guy. Always a little pompous, fronting a one-man party for so many years, if you could look past the preposterous things he would do with his hair, you knew he was generally moving in the right direction. He believed in the fundamentals of an open, prosperous economy. He supported the Reserve Bank Act, the Public Finance Act, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, and the principles of open government and clean democracy.

Economically, Dunne was always pretty dry. He left the Labour Party in 1994 because it become a little too dominated by pinkos and liberals, and was constantly apologizing for any of the works of Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble. When Dunne left Labour, it looked as if Labour would even rescind the key tenets of orthodox economics. Dunne couldn’t quite bring himself to join the National Party, but by 1996, for all intents and purposes, he was one of us.

Hence in 1996, National made him a Cabinet Minister, and chose not to stand a candidate against him in Ohariu-Belmont. Dunne won the seat in a landslide, and National pulled its second highest party vote in the country in that seat. This confirmed, he was one of us.

Peter Dunne being Peter Dunne, he spat the dummy in 1996 when Winston beat him to the chase for a ministerial seat. Dunne seethed and writhed and got very cranky. For many of us in the National Party who didn’t like Winston, we kinda agreed with him. He was still one of us.

Even in 1999, when Peter Dunne supported the Labour Government, many of us saw his point. Labour hadn’t changed back the clock of history between 1999-2002; it had acted reasonably competently, wasn’t by that stage accumulating massive surpluses or wasting too much money, and didn’t seem to be doing too much harm. Labour didn’t need Dunne’s support in 1999; if he could get a few baubles flung his way, then good on him. He was still almost one of us.

Peter Dunne was always somebody with principle and integrity. He strove to do what he thought was best. He was never lily-white, but as politicians go, he was a nice enough bloke. Sensible was his mantra. It was never a particularly sexy idea, but in a vacuum of political ideas, it won the worm in 2002. Fuming and blustering like a spoilt child when he didn’t get his way, he could be. But most of the time, reasonable.

In the annals of New Zealand political history, Peter Dunne’s chapter will not be very prominent. He was never a flash-in-the-pan; more of a slowly-simmering custard about to curdle if placed under too much heat. Worked well with something more substantial. Dependable, if cooked under the right conditions.

So it is, after twenty-two years of almost-distinguished parliamentary life, that we can stop and give thanks to the political career of Peter Dunne. Peter, wherever you are, buddy, you didn’t achieve much, but you meant well.

Because, dear reader, now that Peter Dunne has become just another lame apologist for Helen Clark’s corrupt and outlandish junta, he has gone full circle. He has tattooed himself to Helen Clark’s breast, always to be associated with her sleaze and contempt for the taxpayer. For a Labour Minister of Revenue, that would be dishonourable. To be propping up a disgraced Prime Minister who will do anything to retain power--even buy an election, and an ailing Finance Minister, is the ultimate act of self-immolation. In Peter Dunne, the one man who has staked his political career on his independence and ability to walk when things get a little too shabby, that is unforgiveable.

Rest in Peace, Peter Dunne. Your political career is over.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Why Labour Won't Pay It Back

The Auditor-General’s report into unlawful spending of parliamentary services funding is not restricted to Labour’s use of the pledge card. The A-G identified widespread use by Labour and other members of parliamentary services funding for electioneering purposes—the bill for Labour alone is well over a million dollars. The Greens, Act, United Future, and NZFirst are all in the hole as well. National got off relatively lightly—ten grand was very, very small by comparison.

We haven’t yet seen the A-G’s report. It’s the report that the Prime Minister doesn’t want the public to see. Why? Because it discloses that Labour’s misuse of taxpayer funds during the last campaign is more than twice the cost of the pledge card.

It’s a separate legal point as to whether the Auditor-General is even required to publish its report. Scrutiny of Parliamentary Services is not covered by the Official Information Act. Labour and other Parties could block to stall the release of the report as long as possible, if at all.

It does give a lie to Labour’s current spin that nobody knew the rules. Every party knew the rules around applying parliamentary services funding for electioneering purposes. In the final three weeks of the campaign, Labour was desperate. It was trailing in the polls, and prepared to play dirty for the sake of buying office. It had no money left of its own that it could legally spend. So its answer? To bring in the unions to spend up large on Labour’s behalf. Its second solution? To bully Parliamentary Services to allow it to use parliamentary services funding for electioneering, in the clear expectation that nobody would notice it after the fact.

No party is lily-white in the application of parliamentary services funding for electioneering. National slipped up to the tune of ten grand. In the mayhem and chaos of an election campaign, it is perhaps conceivable that in the last ninety days, individual MPs of a political party might send communication to voters which constitutes electioneering during their normal duties. It is conceivable that the value of that communication might be $20,000. In the Nat's case, their misspend was $10,000, which they have repaid.

If the rules (which the Labour Party set after the previous election) were so unclear, how is it that one party in particular mis-used its funding to such a preposterous degree, and National did not?

The short answer is that Labour expected to spend its funding for parliamentary services, entirely for electioneering purposes, with impunity.

The longer answer is that Labour spent more than half a million dollars more on electioneering, using parliamentary services funding, over and above the cost of the pledge card. That constitutes a cynical and deliberate attempt to rort the taxpayer to pay for its own campaign. The Labour Party’s premise was that if it was going to lose the last election, it might as well go out with a bang. No reasonable, objective opinion—and the opinions of the Auditor-General, the Solicitor-General, the Chief Electoral Officer, and the Secretary of Justice are generally pretty reasonable and objective—could see it otherwise. Labour abused its parliamentary services funding, in a concerted effort to win the campaign. That, dear reader, is the very definition of corruption.

Why are smaller parties so keen to protect Labour over this? Partly because they will support Labour at any cost. They don't want an election. They don't have the campaigning funds to fight another one, and they know they're dog-tucker even if they had the funding. Partly also because they don’t have funds of their own to repay what they misspent during the campaign. Partly because Labour has dangled the carrot of public funding of their parties for them. That’s a red-herring in terms of Labour’s culpability in the last election, but a critical bribe for smaller parties, for whom lack of fundraising is one of their major organisational problems. Smaller parties are even less able to reimburse Parliamentary Services for its misallocation than Labour is for its mammoth $1 million sham.

There are moments in a government's lifetime that signal its irreversible decline. I can well recall some of the unfortunate activities and decisions of some National ministers in the last two years of Government that suggested that power had gone to their heads. They pissed voters off. That arrogance directly contributed to the voter-shock that the Nats experienced in 1999 and 2002.

But for all its failings in its dying years, the Bolger-Shipley transition from 1996-1999 was not corrupt or venal. They did not feather their own nests. They actually believed that they were making a positive contribution. They made mistakes driven by arrogance.

If Helen Clark was more focussed on staying in touch with her voters, and Cullen not unwell at present, then neither of them would have allowed this tragic situation to exist. Labour have set a new standard for third-term governments, with unrivalled arrogance, hypocrisy, sleaze, filth, self-serving corruption, and absolute contempt for taxpayer and voter alike.

Voters have become used to the Judith Tizard factor in politics: somebody so loony, so contemptuous of the voters who elect her, so distant from reality that she will spout of any old nonsense as a justification for her government's actions. For such acts of inadvertent self-ridicule, Helen Clark rewards her with all the baubles of Ministry. In isolation, she is easy to ignore. Yet what the misuse of parliamentary services funding has shown is that the entire Labour Party has remodelled themselves in Judith Tizard's image. Collectively, by not repaying the money back, by attempting to "validate" their unlawful actions, by buying smaller party support and spinning the discussion into "democracy funding", we now have a Labour caucus full of Judith Tizards. It is a Government that has set itself up for inadvertent self-ridicule every day that it continues to exist in defiance of normal standards of political behaviour.

Voters no longer believe in Helen Clark or the Labour Party. And they've brought it all upon themselves.