By chance I was in Abu Dhabi as England’s first Test against Pakistan was getting under way just up the road in the sepulchral wastes of the Dubai Cricket Stadium. What could be nicer, I thought, as I sat in my hotel room, than watch a bit of cricket, and it’s local too. But in 24 sports channels, not a sausage. I could find camel racing, horse racing, snooker, meaningless Premier League games from days before, Australia’s T20 Big Bash, and some pointless veterans’ golf. But Test cricket, zilch, zero, nada. The new destination for global sport doesn’t really seem to give one.
The best joke came from the BBC’s Gary Richardson, who after pointing out that there were about 1,200 people in a stadium built for 26,000, said, ‘Who’d want to be a ticket tout there? “Anyone want 23,000 together?” ’ The cricket was fabulous to watch, though. It feels like England haven’t been given a good hiding for a while, and in the plethora of pre- and post-match excuses it was hard to work out how you can be playing too much cricket and ‘undercooked’ at the same time. The game is always the better for Pakistan’s vibrant presence. Volatile, edgy, truculent and arrogant they may be at times, but wonderful cricketers too who have given us reverse swing as well as models of high-handedness like Imran Khan or ferocious chippiness like Javed Miandad, and in Inzamam ul-Haq a role model for any of us club cricketers who aren’t as keen on the quick single as we used to be.
The real hero is Pakistan’s inspirational skipper, the amazing Misbah ul-Haq. At 37, having been on the verge of retirement two years ago, he has pulled off an extraordinary turnaround through calm, erudite, noble leadership. In 2010 he considered burning his kit after being dropped from Pakistan’s 35-man squad. Instead, after the match-fixing scandal, he was given his chance. You only have to look at Pakistan’s ebullient team spirit to see how much he has melded a tricky group of individuals: the Pakistan dressing room, don’t forget, has traditionally been a place where the Borgias could have plied their trade.
A career trajectory in the opposite direction is being written up at Northampton rugby’s Franklin’s Gardens HQ. A year ago you couldn’t get away from Chris Ashton. He was England’s emblematic try-scorer. His club side, Northampton, won all their Heineken Cup pool games, beat Ulster and Perpignan in the knock-outs before losing the final. They also reached the Premiership play-offs. All we worried about was whether he was going to drop the ball doing his swallow dive. He was top try-scorer in the World Cup (two against Georgia, three against Romania, one against Scotland) but then it started to unravel: he was involved in the Annabel Newton harassment scandal and the whole sorry saga of England in New Zealand started to spread the poison wide.
Now Northampton are out of the Heineken Cup, Ashton can hardly score a try or catch a ball, and he was dropped (from the squad) for Northampton’s big game against Munster. Now, in a parting that makes Kramer vs Kramer look like Noel’s House Party, he’s off to Saracens this summer, and he won’t get a chance to play for England until 25 February against Wales. From swallow dive to nose dive…
Finally, what are the three words most likely to cause a bust-up in the world of sport this week? How about ‘off the course’? As in this comment from Rory McIlroy: ‘I don’t want to sound soppy, but the best thing that’s happened to me off the course this year is meeting Caroline.’ Not sure Ms Wozniacki will like that qualification. Anyway, what would most people choose: getting your hands on one of the world’s most highly sought-after trophies, or winning the US Open?
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.