Why England's decision to tour Bangladesh is right
In normal circumstances Alastair Cook might have contemplated skipping England's Test tour of Bangladesh next month. His wife, Alice, is expecting their second child.
Just as he first led England when Andrew Strauss rested out the tour seven years ago, it might have been an opportunity for Cook to take a short break and concentrate on impending fatherhood while England blooded Joe Root in the role.
But these are no ordinary times. The participation of England players in the Bangladesh tour cannot yet be guaranteed because of safety concerns.
Strauss, now MD of England cricket, will have gratefully received a guarantee from Cook that he will tour. The England captaincy can come with professional obligations and Cook has pushed aside personal considerations to fulfil them. England will hope that others follow his lead.
That Bangladesh is facing a critical moment in its history - certainly its cricketing history - is apparent. Pakistan have not played a Test at home since the attack on the Sri Lanka team bus in 2009.
Bangladesh could easily follow, thanks merely to enough signs of general unrest. And that unrest was evident when 20 people died in an attack on a Dhaka restaurant popular with Westerners in July.
At least seven militants armed with bombs, guns and knives stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery. TripAdvisor reviews spoke of a "secret garden", a treasured escape offering good food and coffee. No longer.
The ECB's decision to press ahead with the tour is based on professional analysis. Nobody can fairly suggest the good of the game has been put ahead of the well-being of the players. A security delegation led by the ECB's security advisor Reg Dickason has visited Bangladesh, Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice has been received, the risk assessment has been studied, and from that a recommendation has been made. Not only have the players been briefed, but the media, and wives and girlfriends too.
Now it is down to the chats between England's players and those close to them. Do not underplay what will be taking place in sitting rooms across the country and in telephone calls from England hotels.
There will be occasions when staunch shows of support will mingle with a few tears and admissions of concern; when the desire to make a logical decision, to find perspective, to show the low-level courage expected, will have to combat the nagging sense of guilt about the hurt that would be left behind if, against all odds, something went wrong.
According to Mal Loye, a former England batsman, and until recently Bangladesh's high-performance head coach, England's cricketers should definitely "go for it" and fulfil the tour. The only drawback has been Loye's lurid tale of how Islamic State terrorists had plotted to murder the Australian cricket squad. According to Loye, the plans were thwarted when Australia cancelled the tour. Not so, Cricket Australia has responded: the threat against Westerners was general, not specific. But most England players will have read it. And mud sticks.
"I'm sure when the England boys get there, things will be sorted," Loye said. "I was a Westerner on my own but the way the guys will be looked after, they should definitely go for it." But England's players will be aware that Loye left his Bangladesh post because of fears about his safety. It is hardly the most comforting story as they muse upon ECB advice that the tour can go ahead without unduly compromising their safety.
Dickason, supported by Foreign Office advice, is the person best placed to answer that. As England's security advisor, he has been a recognisable figure on England's tours for many years. He takes his responsibilities seriously and knows the players as friends and colleagues. His input is worthy of utmost respect.
It is in everybody's interests that England's players are protected, but as much as the ECB - and the Professional Cricketers' Association - are convinced that the right decision has been made, some disquiet is inevitable.
Risk aversion is a natural human response, but we think differently when our own country is involved. In such cases we routinely adopt a fatalistic manner.
When the IRA was bombing the British mainland in the 1980s, bringing fear to Birmingham and Brighton, England would have been appalled if a visiting cricket team had cancelled a tour.
After the London terrorist bombings in 2005, Australia decided to fulfil the Ashes tour: England blithely assumed they would, and had they not, it would have been seen not just as betrayal but as nonsensical.
A fortnight later, Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting, was so concerned by another terror alert that he wanted to halt the Lord's Test to check on the well-being of wives and girlfriends out shopping in central London. The MCC refused, but promised to ensure their safety. In England we were just enjoying the cricket.
The European football championship took place in France earlier this year against a backdrop of terrorist attacks. France's determinedly secular state has made it a favoured target of IS. But nobody suggested that England's football team should not travel.
Fans informed that they were potential targets travelled in their thousands.
It was common knowledge that the Stade de France had been evacuated the previous November after a terror attack was foiled during a friendly international between France and Germany. But fans travelled and a minority of them engaged in drunken displays of hooliganism, silly charges towards potential trouble and nationalistic chants as if nothing had changed.
All over the world troubles seem to be flaring. Liam Plunkett, the England fast bowler, observed as much this week as he wrestled with his own conscience. Terrorism in Bangladesh, though, is more likely to be interpreted from afar as being emblematic of social collapse, or at least the danger of it.
One killing by a terrorist in Bangladesh is more likely to cause a collapse of trust in England than ten such killings in France, or 100 on our own shores.
In this world, young England cricketers, taken out of their comfort zone, must make their decisions.
It is all too easy on such occasions to be consumed by exaggerated fears. In the UK, by and large we have it comparatively easy, and the millennium generation is possessed more than ever by a colossal sense of entitlement. Risk is not something many feel they should ever have to contend with, except when they choose to. No-win-no-pay lawyers swarm around accidental injuries.
For the average Brit, even crossing the road in India is regarded as an unfair imposition. I freely admit that I once took a trishaw in Nagpur merely to get from one side of the road to the other.
But perspective is everything. Among the most unnerving moments in my life have been the two occasions when my wife and I allowed our children to leave the house independently for the first time. In the minutes that followed, dangers lurked about sexual predators, speeding motorists, or even rotting trees. Millions do. Or you could recognise that their independence was precious, that the dangers were overstated, that the odds were heavily stacked in their favour, and that the journey had to be taken: life had to be lived.
The point is that no parent can guarantee the support of their offspring, and no sporting governing body can guarantee the safety of the players under their supervision.
All they can do is show a clear duty of care, assess the risks and promote freedom where they can. Such support was largely shown by cricket to Sri Lanka for 20 years and more of civil war, and thanks to the maintenance of faith, the international game survived in that country.
England’s tour of Bangladesh seems to be a similar life choice. The tragic death of Phillip Hughes two years ago was a terrible reminder of the risks that cricketers routinely face without complaint. But cricketers who can face a cricket ball propelled at 90mph with relish can be spooked when real life intervenes.
Most know life primarily as a game, where the laws are laid down, structures are set in place and the process can be taken for granted. Individuality flourishes but within a set framework. Philosophically assessing whether a tour of Bangladesh should be undertaken is not something they have been trained for.
It is likely that England will travel, and do so surrounded by stifling security. Two Tests, straight in, straight out. Obligation fulfilled. They will be confined to hotels and cricket grounds and will travel quickly with sirens blaring, although frankly, on England's last Test tour to Bangladesh they pretty much confined themselves anyway.
Traffic gridlock in both Dhaka and Chittagong tends to discourage talk of a night out, especially when there is a Test to win.
Nothing can entirely be taken for granted especially as England's view of its place in the world has shifted - and cricket should be concerned about that rather than glory in the fact. Just as the ECB has a duty of care to the players, so the players have a duty of care to the game, but social changes suggest such recognition might no longer be so powerful.
Control of the world game has long been ceded to India. These days England thinks largely about itself.
The United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union was a complex affair but it possessed at least a smattering of xenophobia. Social media has become a powerful echo chamber in which the gaining of knowledge often comes second to the heightening of prejudices.
Whether refugees from war-torn Syria deserve compassion is a source of passionate debate, and acceptance of more than a token number of refugees, however deserving, is seen as political suicide. Suggestions that the UK's foreign-aid budget be cut from 1% to 0.7% have been floated without much protest. There is an underlying feel of a drawbridge being raised, of looking after your own, of adopting a defensive posture against growing volatility, of reducing a sense duty to the world. Such shifts are bound to permeate the consciousness of at least some England players.
It is fortunate for cricket therefore that, in Strauss, the English game possesses a figurehead capable of taking a broader perspective. Strauss was in India in 2008 - training with England's performance squad ahead of the Test series - when the tour was suspended after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in which over 160 people were killed and more than 600 injured. England left the country to allow India to mourn its dead, before returning a week later with presidential levels of security.
Strauss' words in his autobiography, Driving Ambition, remain just as apt today. "If our security expert reckoned it was all right to go, then I really couldn't think of a compelling reason not to… We had to trust him and get back to doing our jobs. In any case, it increasingly felt like the right thing to do. The world had to get back to normal and the show had to go on, otherwise in some small way the terrorists would have won."
There has been too much talk that England's players should decide "as a group" whether to tour Bangladesh. But even though Cook, as captain, had led the way, this is not a time to insist categorically on all for one and one for all.
Any player who decides not to tour, whether because of personal circumstance or individual assessment, has the right to have that decision respected. For certain, a decision taken because of fear of personal safety is a more honourable decision than the one made by every England player who joined rebel tours to South Africa a generation ago, and many involved in those soiled enterprises were accepted back into the fold.
But if no England player should suffer directly for their choice, it is a fact that decisions can have consequences. Robert Croft, a spinner unsure of his place, pulled out of the 2001 India tour and was replaced by Ashley Giles, whose own worth was often questioned. But it was Giles who played in the 2005 Ashes and experienced one of England's greatest summers of all time.
In conclusion, the decision that England should tour is a convincing one, and it is to be hoped that the players accept its logic, but the future remains uncertain. The war against extremism is a real one. The real battle is being fought by others. Cricket will be left to accept the consequences.