Monday, July 25, 2005

Keep Politicians out of sport, ban Howard at Lord's

Keep politicians out of sport, ban Howard at Lord's

Marina Hyde on Australia's rent-a-quote PM

Monday July 18, 2005


One of the many drawbacks to politics is that it's just not cricket. But that's hardly cricket's fault, and in this context nothing sinks the heart about the forthcoming Lord's Test quite like the news that the Australian PM John Howard will be gracing it with his presence. That Mr Howard has caused a diplomatic row (of which more later) to attend this first Ashes Test is a matter for him; what is a matter for us is that his appearance in some commentary box or other this week is now teeth-grindingly inevitable. Similarly, it is his look-out if he wants to whip up jingoistic fever in his own land to win elections but, in the name of sanity, why is he so often permitted to ruin a perfectly good day's cricket?

If ever there were a case for the separation of powers between sport and politics, Mr Howard is it. A serial infiltrator of the commentary box, he sees nothing untoward in punctuating wildly unenlightening ruminations on play with the announcement of a foreign policy initiative or a riff on the war on terror.

Not even these pages are safe - in fact, given he penned a column on the eve of the 2003 Rugby World Cup final, it may be technically accurate to describe the Aussie premier as my sometime colleague. In the course of his opus he revealed he had watched the England-Wales quarter-final in Tony Blair's Downing Street kitchen - a faintly unsettling detail at the time and even more so with hindsight when one wonders whether the two men might have forgone this pleasure and devoted the time to, say, focusing on the aftermath of that whole war thing in which they were engaged.

Heaven knows what day this creature is to pitch up at Lord's but you can bet your last brass razoo that he'll be itching to give those fabled analytical skills a run-out. Mr Howard may be a big fan and he may be under the impression that nattering about sport on the airwaves makes up for his deficiencies elsewhere, but in most instances there are blind wombats with a better feel for what's happening on the field.

In 2000 Mark Waugh was palpably in the wind-down period of his career when he hit a surprise six at the SCG. Like a moth to a flame, Howard leant in to the microphone. "I think we're starting to see the old Mark Waugh again," he noted, a comment which if nothing else rendered Waugh's being bowled next ball utterly predictable.

Why producers indulge him in this irksome habit is a mystery. It's hardly a broadcasting coup, given the needy frequency with which he feels moved to do it, and it's not as if anyone feels bound to solicit, say, Shane Warne's opinion when formulating the Australian government's response to the refugee ship that was stranded off the country's coast a few years ago. (A pity, really, as even Warne's reaction was likely to have been more emotionally sophisticated than Mr Howard's, which appeared to be "Unless any kids actually look like they're going to cark it on the deck in view of the TV helicopter news cameras, keep the buggers out.")

Grasping this concept of discrete specialist subjects was not beyond the former Australia captain Mark Taylor. "I get asked by a lot of people whether we should become a republic," he once explained, "and the answer is: I don't know." We can only dream of a world where John Howard might say "I get asked by a lot of people whether England were wise to delay this series but I don't trot out some trite reply because, frankly, no one gives a stuff what I think."

Alas, Mr Howard's pathological inability to demur is such that he has actually managed to affect what the rest of us get to watch on the pitch. Last summer Muttiah Muralitharan refused to join Sri Lanka's Australian tour because - and it's irrelevant whether or not one privately agrees - the PM had accused him of being a chucker. This week he has contrived to go one step further and cause an actual diplomatic incident: Chilean officials are furious that their president's long planned visit to Australia has been truncated to 30 hours and may be cancelled altogether.

The reason? Mr Howard has an appointment to loiter looking hopeful outside the Lord's media centre. Producers are advised to follow his own guidelines on admitting aliens and keep the bugger out.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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