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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Passages from India

The Weekend Australian has reprinted two interesting pieces from The Times, one by Mike Atherton, another by Simon Barnes


The most tempting thing in the aftermath of terrorism is to exaggerate the danger and the effects on daily life. After all, if you want to drive into Lord's the day before a Test match, you have to let the sniffer dogs do their bit there as well. As it happened, I didn't have my pass on the day I arrived here, but I managed to walk through the gates of the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium and out to the middle without anybody asking to see it. The chief sports writer from the Daily Mirror (and you know it's a big story when the “chiefs” arrive) got in by showing his FA Cup pass.

Madras is 825 miles (1,329km) from Mumbai, more than 12 hours by rail and God knows how long by bus. Language and cultural differences are vast enough to make Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen seem like blood brothers by comparison. Might as well be another country.

There is no sense that Madras is in mourning. People here have a very matter-of-fact view of life and they are going about their business: earning a crust, cooking meals, playing sport, looking after the kids and generally getting on. Most Indians haven't got time to dwell and ponder.

Sheila, the bookseller in the Taj, reckons that business is a little slow for the time of year, but Haribabu, who has worked here for 18 years and now mans the patisserie stall, reports a fine trade in chocolate truffles and black forest gateaux.

Outside, on the Nangambakkam road, the sellers of fruit and dhosa (crêpes) are doing good business, girls from the Sacred Heart High School are hurrying to their lessons, people are chatting and spitting underneath the “do not spit” signs, the drivers of the death-on-three-wheels (tuk-tuks) are winding their way through gaps you don't think exist, and families ride, helmetless, three or four to a bike. 'Elf and safety wouldn't like it.

Down at the Marina beach, which runs the length of the city, all manner of activities are taking place. Joggers are braving the afternoon heat and the air quality, which the World Health Organisation reckons is seven times the recommended levels of pollution. Children are flying kites and there are dozens of cricket matches going on. More than 200 people lost their lives during the tsunami at this beach in Madras, many of them children playing cricket, so they know a bit about getting on with things here. After the tsunami, the beach was washed away, but it is back now, wide and sandy, all 12 kilometres of it.

At the ground, K. Parsatharathy, the groundsman of 35 years, sits on his roller looking unconcerned that a Test is about to start. He'd have liked to have a bit more time to work on the pitch, but he shrugs and says it will be pretty much like all the others he has prepared here: some pace and bounce early on, with plenty of spin later. His staff, women in bright-coloured saris, sit close by, chatting and waiting for instructions.

Cricketers are practising in the nets, but over in the pavilion there is a bit of a commotion because Kevin Pietersen and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are about to unveil the series trophy. Before they do, the big cheese from the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), the sponsor, wants to say a few words and she blathers on about RBS's wealth-management service (as if anybody has got any money left these days), its global portfolio and the important role RBS plays in local communities. You feel like saying, “Come on, love, forget the cricket and just lower your mortgage rates.”

Then she's done and she asks Pietersen and Dhoni to unveil the trophy. All of a sudden there is an almighty scrum as dozens of cameramen, photographers and journalists surge towards the captains. Reg Dickason, the England security adviser, has seconded his son into action on this trip (and that tells you all you need to know about how the security business is doing very nicely out of this show), and it is his responsibility to guard the England captain. Dickason Jr has a look of sheer panic as he finds himself on the wrong side and he tries to fight his way through the scrum. James Avery, the ECB's laconic media officer, leans against the wall, smiling. This is India, after all, and chaos is a given.

All this was happening yesterday in Madras, much like any other day there when Test cricket is on. Cricketers practising, bankers bull*****ing, columnists writing, locals getting from home to work and back again in a variety of ways, children playing cricket on the beach and chaos unfolding.

That is what happens after the terror. And today, the Test begins.


Sport and terrorism are two of the main growth industries of the past 40-odd years and it is inevitable that they have from time to time come together. More often than not, sport has responded by carrying on. Some will argue that this is mostly about not wanting to lose money; others will argue that it's all about politics; no one will argue that such points are not a factor in the decision to carry on.

But all the same, carrying on feels right. Defiance feels right. The restoration of normal life feels right: not crassly and coarsely and insensitively, not in any pretence that the sport is more important than matters of life and death, but because the return to sport after a period of terror is both a blow against terrorism and the sort of comforting normality we need after times of trouble.


The sport continued after the pipe bomb exploded at the Atlanta Olympic Games of 1996, which killed two and injured 111. Rather more questionably, the Olympic Games of 1972 carried on without interruption during the killings, the prolonged siege and then eventual airport shoot-out in Munich, a time in which it appeared that the allocation of gold medals was more important to the International Olympic Committee than the murder of athletes.

But in most cases, the decision of sport to carry on in the aftermath of terror feels right, and is right. It is seldom that sport has been the specific target of terrorism: Munich and the bogus bombs of the Grand National are about as close as it gets. If sport ever became a regular and specific target of terror, we would have to rethink everything.

But it is not. All the same, sport cannot take place without the security industry dominating most leading events, and we accept this as a matter of routine. We are aware that the price of fighting terrorism is eternal vigilance; we are in the process of learning about the price of eternal vigilance.

Sport is a weapon against terror; a weapon on the side of the ordinary, the amusing, the trivial. That is not to deny, still less to trivialise the devastation caused by the terrorists, rather, it is to put them in perspective. There are wicked people in the world, but there are also people prepared to graft out 123 runs in a day's cricket. Sport can't defeat terrorism unaided, but it can certainly celebrate the truth that terrorism doesn't create anything but terror. So three cheers for the England cricket team, and three more for the India team; I hope they both win. But then they already have.

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