From umpire Shakoor Rana calling Mike Gatting something unprintable, to Inzamam-ul-Haq forfeiting a Test in a fit of pique, England v Pakistan has always been a source of drama and controversy. England’s only modern triumph away from home, in 2001, was brought up in such deep twilight that the fielders needed infrared goggles.
And then you get a lemon like this week’s Test of patience in Abu Dhabi. It is hard to remember a more godforsaken match. Reports claimed that when the first ball was bowled, there were 54 spectators in the ground – so few that you wondered if the players might salute each one with a handshake.
There is little point bemoaning Pakistan’s inability to host matches on home soil, because that is just a given. So was the back spasm that robbed them of Yasir Shah, the one bowler who might have conjured sparks from this moribund pitch. But as Alastair Cook continued his remarkable feat of endurance, it was hard to see what the purpose of this match was. As entertainment, it succeeded about as well as Sex and the City 2. As a contest, the odds are stacked so far in the batsman’s favour that it requires positive ingenuity to get out.
How different from the vibrancy of the Rugby World Cup. Admittedly, we are comparing apples with oranges here. A cricket World Cup in England might well sell out; a rugby international in Abu Dhabi would attract nothing but tumbleweed. But still, the contrast felt like an illustration of the two sports’ trajectories.
Let’s leave the shenanigans at Fifa to one side and place cricket and rugby, which both aspire to be called “the world’s second-biggest sport”, in parallel. Rugby has an Olympic showcase coming up next year via the sevens format. It has a clear structure based around two resonant annual tournaments – the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship – and a well-supported club scene. Its showpiece internationals are mostly available in Britain via free-to-air television.
The Test in the UAE has had little to no excitement
Cricket can claim none of these things. The International Cricket Council, as run by the unappealing figure of N Srinivasan in association with Giles Clarke, comes across as inward-looking and obsessed with cash. Even the big success story of the past decade – the Indian Premier League – has been tarnished by insider betting scandals, as well as the sort of spot-fixing allegations that surfaced again in Chris Cairns’s perjury trial at Southwark Crown Court.
There is a sense of aimlessness to international cricket, a broader echo of the way that this Test is drifting towards an unsatisfactory conclusion.
Where is the leadership that Brett Gosper has brought to World Rugby since his appointment as chief executive in 2012? Where is the willingness to engage in debate, and the search for new territories embodied by Japan’s epic win over the Springboks?
On Thursday, England and Pakistan will begin the second Test in Dubai – hardly a cricket heartland, but nevertheless the place where the ICC has conducted its business since 2006. In its remoteness and unaccountability, this Dubaivory tower is closer to Fifa’s headquarters in Zurich than Gosper’s office in Dublin.
One rare chink of light was spotted last week, when an ICC press release announced that Clarke had made an appointment to visit the International Olympic Committee. Yet even this much might never have been achieved without the campaigning film Death of a Gentleman, which came out in June and exposed the previous policy of Olympic denial.
Credit is due to the film-makers, Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber, for prodding Clarke and co into belated action. It comes to something when rugby’s administrators – famously derided as “old farts” by Will Carling – find themselves looking innovative and go-getting by comparison.