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The Game Of Civilization

Wherever the British went, they took cricket with them, and it has flourished, as here, in Mumbai.
Wherever the British went, they took cricket with them, and it has flourished, as here, in Mumbai.
The Taliban may be gaining strength in Afghanistan, but the national cricket team still departed last week to play in the Cricket World Cup. Islamist terrorists in Pakistan tried to massacre the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team on March 3. The team all survived, although several were injured, but five policemen died protecting them.

Cricket has become a target of terrorists across South and Central Asia, and not just Islamist ones either. In 1992, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew himself up in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, outside a hotel where the visiting New Zealand cricket team was staying. India and Pakistan, which together account for almost one fifth of the world's population, have been bitter enemies for more than 60 years, and now both are armed with nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to carry them. But their 1.2 billion people agree on one thing: Their passion for cricket.

Cricket in India is a $2 billion a year business, "Time" magazine reported last week. The Indian Premier League had its first season last year, and it was a huge success. The new season will start on April 10.The best players in the world from countries as diverse as New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and the West Indies will all be playing. The crowds may well be even bigger than last year.

For cricket is one of the most profound, successful, benign, and popular legacies of the British Empire that ruled up to a quarter of the globe until only half a century or so ago. Wherever the British went, they took cricket with them, and everywhere they left it has flourished.

Americans are passionate about basketball and the National Football League. Europeans and the countries of South America feel that way about soccer. But all across Africa and South Asia, as well as the old dominions of the British Empire like South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, cricket is the game of summer and boyhood, the annual rite of innocence and joy, the magic key into the Garden of Eden.

It's much more than that. If a Nobel Peace prize could be awarded to a game, cricket should win the first one. The fierce partisan passions of soccer have triggered riots and mob disasters in which scores of people died. On a couple of occasions, they have even helped start wars. But cricket is a game of civilized restraint, good humor, and grace. You don't get points for grace under pressure and keeping your cool, as you do in the equestrian sport of dressage. But much more important, you get revered for being a "good sport" and "playing the game."

Even iconoclastic British historian Correlli Barnett, who loathed cricket, admitted that the game "tended to impress the importance of 'good form' and 'fair play' -- of conforming to the laws and the accepted code of behavior, the accepted notions of how things should be done."

In other words, cricket teaches the very essence of tolerant, humane and civilized behavior. It is what civilization is all about. No wonder the Islamist terrorists hate it.

Wherever the Taliban or Al-Qaeda and their ilk can manage to seize control of any society, expect them to start off by banning cricket. Wherever it is free to flourish, the future can still be bright.

Martin Sieff is a defense industry editor for United Press International. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL