The scenes from Chester-le-Street yesterday were just the kind the English game didn’t need, especially in what has become its flagship event. Fans being turned away at the gate, told that they’d be seeing no cricket today (in fact, told nothing at all until around five of the clock); players milling about the ground with nothing much to do, bemused and somewhat confused; television coverage of a quarter-final all of a sudden sans live entertainment apart from the unique comedy stylings of Colville and Co. Surely the last thing the game needs to be doing is alienating its Twenty20 fan-base. It was, let’s face it, another of cricket’s great farces.
The complex ramifications the affair could have for the future of this year’s tournament have been analysed and discussed. The madness of thousands of fans being inexcusably robbed of their time and entertainment by an administrative error and overzealous application of regulations has been exposed. But spare a thought for the central figure in this little drama, seventeen year-old Azeem Rafiq.
To me at least it seems somewhat ridiculous that a young man who, along with his family, has decided to make England home is deemed ineligible to be considered an England qualified cricketer whilst at the same time professional cricketers from around the world can become non-overseas players in English domestic sides at ten minutes notice. Over forty South Africans are free to play wherever and whenever they like in England and yet Yorkshire would have had to de-register their overseas player Rana Naved in order to be able to play Rafiq? The situation is manifestly absurd. For that matter, as Rafiq has apparently been residing in the country for seven years, one would have thought that he has easily fulfilled the minimal residential qualifications criteria of five years. Were this simply a case of clerical error it would be understandable if not excusable. But the questions surrounding nationality and such make it much more disturbing. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but so what if Rafiq doesn’t have an English passport? One would have thought that now would be the perfect time to furnish him with one. The guy has captained England for god’s sake and now there is speculation that he might be deported?
The ECB’s attempts to pinpoint the blame for this farce solely upon Yorkshire must ring somewhat hollow when one recalls that Rafiq did in fact captain England at under-15 level. Surely it would have been incumbent upon them as the game’s governing body to ensure that the young man was eligible to play for, let alone captain, the national side? Furthermore the organisation’s handling of the current issue has also come under scrutiny. Yorkshire’s coach Martyn Moxon has claimed that the ECB knew of the problem surrounding Rafiq’s registration shortly after his debut against Nottinghamshire and neglected or forgot to do anything about it until the morning of the quarter-final. David Collier on the other hand asserted that this was the first the ECB knew of it. The whole thing reeks of mismanagement and must bring into question the competency of the board. As pointed out over at Reverse Swing Manifesto, the game should have been played regardless of the administrative black-hole and the issue resolved could be resolved afterwards, thus not dissapointing 6000 paying spectators. In any case the postponement of the game was shockingly ill-thought-out and makes one wonder about the ability of the ECB to effectively handle crises. For all Giles Clarke’s positive talk of restructuring the game and taking it to the next level, one gets the feeling that crisis management skills are going to be in seriously high demand in cricket administration circles in the coming months.
The most important question now must be what happens to Rafiq rather than what happens to the twenty20 championship. What must have looked like being the biggest day of his life turned all too suddenly into a nightmare. One can only hope that rumours of his status in the country coming under question are greatly exaggerated. Let’s hope that common sense ultimately prevails and that this doesn’t materially affect the future of this young man in the sport. If it does, it is a poor reflection on how the game of cricket treats its most important commodity, the players themselves. It is they, not high-flying administrators, not billionaire businessmen, not gimmicky franchises, that keep cricket alive and well.