December 10, 2008

Cricket analogies: Chappell as Ahmadinejad

The following entry appeared in The Interpreter, the blog of The Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia.

Being an Indian, and therefore a rabid cricket fan in utero, I was pleasantly surprised to read Michael Fullilove's Financial Times article drawing analogies between American foreign policy and cricket. He rightly argues that cricket, with its long hours of play, elaborate terminology and sophisticated tactics makes for a better sporting metaphor to American foreign policy than the standard one: baseball.

With Michael having been restricted by the FT's word limit, I thought I'd take his analogy and run with it. Without further ado, four more good lessons Obama could learn from cricket:

1. Cricket is an innately defensive sport. Unlike baseball, where deliveries are either hit or missed, batting in cricket first and foremost requires the batsman to defend his wicket from what can be hundreds of deliveries by the other team’s bowlers. Defending one’s wicket for extensive periods, in fact, is as important as hitting a few boundaries, if not more so. Obama and his national security team will be negotiating hundreds of tricky situations over the next four years, very few of them resulting in outright successes (boundaries) or catastrophes (dismissals). Day to day foreign policy is, sadly, a series of dot balls.

2. Foreign policy ought to be innovative, and cricket, despite its many rules and restrictions, has plenty of room for innovation. Bowlers have come up with new skills – the doosra, reverse swing, the carrom ball — which have literally been game-changers. Iconoclastic batsmen have negotiated difficult bowling with similar improvisation: slog sweeps, hooks, and paddle shots (and of course there's Kevin Pietersen's audacious switch hit). Foreign policy parallels might include containment during the Cold War, Nixon going to China and, while many still dispute these, the US-India civil nuclear agreement and the 'surge' in Iraq. Of course, thinking outside the box can also result in spectacular failure. I'm sure Messieurs Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz can empathize with poor Misbah ul-Haq, whose failed scoop to fine leg lost Pakistan the Twenty20 world championship.

3. As in cricket, the Obama foreign policy team is going to be dealing with a number of actors who flagrantly bend — although not necessarily break — the rules. New Zealanders are still sore about Greg Chappell asking his brother Trevor to bowl underarm on the last delivery of a One Day International in 1981, when the Kiwis needed six to tie the match. Today Iran is enriching uranium, ostensibly to meet its energy demands but really to build a nuclear weapon. In both cases, the actions are not technically illegal, but they may as well be. Australians — for their part — still bear grudges for the English touring team's Bodyline tactics in the early 1930s, meant to neutralize the formidable Aussie batting line-up led by Donald Bradman. Think of sponsors of terrorism (in Iran or Pakistan) using proxies to fight militarily more powerful adversaries (Israel, India).

4. Finally, foreign policy, like cricket, is as much psychological as physical. Effective diplomacy, which Obama will be placing emphasis on, requires not just consulting allies and exerting political capital, but rather what Steve Waugh euphemistically referred to as 'mental disintegration' (ie. sledging).

Correction: The original blog entry said Greg Chappell bowled the last ball underarm in the infamous match against New Zealand in 1981. In fact, Chappell was captaining Australia and asked his brother Trevor, bowling the last over, to deliver the last ball underarm. Greg remains the villain in the piece, though.