x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

If you are keen for an England cricket win, this is your week

The English cricket side might stand a chance against their countrymen this week at Abu Dhabi's Zayed Cricket Stadium – unlike their humbling at the hands of Pakistan.

If you are an England cricket fan (and I have to confess that I list myself in that category) and you are desperate to see your side claim an international victory in this country this winter, then you'd be well-advised to take a trip to Abu Dhabi's Zayed Cricket Stadium today to watch your team play in a one-day game. Victory is assured, I can guarantee as much, if only because England - battered and bruised after three crushing test match defeats by Pakistan - will take on an England Lions development side, as the elite squad gears up for a series of one-day games.

That test series, played over three successive weeks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to generally disbelieving crowds, keenly illustrates the redemptive nature of sport.

Pakistan began this year in the state of near turmoil that its cricket team prefers to operate in: the side has not played an international on home soil for close to three years because it is not considered safe to do so, and three former internationals remain locked away in English prisons after being jailed for spot-fixing a match against England in 2010 (one of the trio, the teenage fast bowler Mohammad Azir has since been released from a young offenders' facility). All this, plus the trifling matter of playing England, the highest-ranked international team in the world in the long-form of the game.

Three weeks later and the turmoil is firmly in England's camp. Befuddled and bewildered by slow-turning wickets, the side lost their way as decisively as Pakistan found theirs.

Indeed, if you were on the ground in Abu Dhabi two weekends ago, and you watched English wickets tumble and the east mound swell with spectators, as news of a victory was first scented and then seized, did you find it as hard to suppress a smile (as I did), as the old order was shaken decisively out of its complacent slumber and a vibrant Pakistan team announced itself once more on the international stage? Long may this sort of disruption continue in the world of cricket.

Another disruption, of an altogether more sinister kind, was on graphic display at Port Said Stadium in Egypt last week when more than 70 citizens lost their lives and hundreds more were injured, after chaos engulfed a football match between Al-Masri, the home side, and Al-Ahli of Cairo.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, many commentators tied the tragedy loosely to previous high-profile stadium tragedies in Europe, which seems to me to be no more than half right.

In reality, what happened at Port Said defies definition as a sporting tragedy - the motives for the riots appear politically charged at the very least, falling almost exactly a year to the day after the infamous "camel battles" in Cairo's Tahrir Square - even if the fallout from last week has already resulted in a raft of footballing sanctions: the dismissal of the Egyptian FA, the suspension of the domestic football league and the launch of a series of national and international reviews of what happened on that dark night.

For once, Sepp Blatter, the regularly embattled head of Fifa (world football's governing body) seemed sure-footed in a crisis, describing Port Said as a "black day for [the game]" before adding that "football is a force for good and we must not allow it to be abused by those who mean evil".

In that much he is right. Football can offer a powerful "force for good" especially in post-Mubarak Egypt, where economic hardship and institutional violence persist. It offers hope, possibility and the promise of normality where otherwise there might be none. The sooner the sporting stadium is reclaimed in Egypt for the purpose for which it was intended, rather than operating as some kind of violent political forum, the better.