Georgia: the aftermath

As Russian forces begin to withdraw, we are learning more about the events of the short but brutal w

The air inside Tskhinvali General Hospital is damp and stale. The worn floors are empty. There is hardly a sound at all in-side the building where, a week ago, wounded civilians and bloody surgical gloves lay in heaps about the corridors.

Tinati Zakhorova, an exhausted doctor with kind eyes and a tangle of curly grey hair, is sitting alone in a small office, tallying up the dead and wounded in a faded old book. She knows what happened here in this tiny mountainous republic, she says, and who is responsible for it.

"This is the fourth genocide against the Ossetian people by the Georgians. How can we ever go back to living under them?" she asks, adding: "And may heaven open up and God strike the head of Condoleezza Rice."

It will be weeks, or even months, before any culpability can be assigned for this big war over a little country. We may never know the extent to which the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, informed his benefactors in Washington of his plans to retake the breakaway republic, or whether the Russians ordered South Ossetian militias to open fire on Georgian peacekeepers to goad them into a trap.

But amid the chaos of the war's aftermath, residents on both sides of the battlefield have already made up their minds. Zalina Ikoeva, 52, is lying in traction at a hospital in Vladikav kaz. Her leg was shattered by an explosion as she hid in her basement during the initial Georgian attack.

"I was lying there in the basement and I called my sister on my mobile," she said. "I asked her: 'Where are the Russians? They're going to kill us all.'"

On the shattered streets of Tskhinvali, where there is strong evidence that the Georgian military fired both tanks and artillery into civilian buildings, the Russians are viewed as liberators. Russian support over the past two decades is the only thing that has kept this isolated and resource-poor statelet from disappearing altogether.

It is Russian bottled water you see being handed out by the truckload and a brand new gas pipeline from Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia to Tskhinvali that you can see on the drive in. The Russian government has pledged $400m to rebuild the city, and the Moscow city government has promised another $100m. The Russian hearts-and-minds campaign trumps anything Georgia is putting out. The tactic is working.

As we roll through the city in a Russian armoured personnel carrier during one of the Kremlin's highly scripted tours, dozens of local residents, mostly elderly, flock to the soldiers to show their support. An elderly man stands and makes the sign of the cross as we drive by. Women blow kisses and shout their thanks as the Russians look down with benevolence.

The mood was summed up by a Kremlin official. "We are dealing with a psychotic dictator, an inadequate person whose actions cannot be foreseen whatsoever," he said. "It will take as many troops as possible for as long as possible to protect the citizens of South Ossetia."

Twenty kilometres across what used to be the southern border of South Ossetia, inside Georgia proper, the story changes. In the northern areas of Georgia now under the control of the Russian military, within the sights of Russian rockets aimed from the hills around Tskhinvali, the majority of the population believe that they are under occupation.

When the Russian aerial bombardment of Gori began, 80-year-old Sasha Berdize ran down to the river and hid along its banks. Walking back from a Russian-run food depot in the city centre, he stops to ask me where I'm from. I'm an American, I say. "Thank God you're here," he replies, his eyes filling with tears.

Gori, where Joseph Stalin was born, is now a ghost town. In the city centre, where block after block of High Stalinist architecture and a towering statue of the former leader dominate the skyline, there is hardly anyone on the street. It is likely, several residents said, that less than 1 per cent of the population is left here.

But Berdize thinks that these things happen. "Misha made a mistake," he says, using a popular diminutive form of Saakashvili's name. "People are allowed to make mistakes in this life." Many Georgians seem willing to cut their president a great deal of slack, even though his dangerous miscalculation and reckless personality have just cost them territory in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another disputed rebel enclave on the Black Sea.

Sitting around a picnic table behind an apartment building in the city centre, six friends pass around a plastic jug of home-made wine and a bag of halva. Although they don't understand why this whole mess started, they know how it will end.

"Everything was great with the Russians," says Soso Rusashvili, 57, "but now they've decided they want our land. What can we do about it? We're such a tiny country."

Rusashvili doesn't blame Saakashvili or George W Bush for his problems, but neither does he want to stay in a land under occupation. He makes me write his name in both Russian and English. Can I send him a letter of invitation so that he can move to America, he wants to know. He would work in construction or drive a taxi, he says - anything to get out of here.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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The darkening skies of the summer game

Cricket was once the English national sport – but, for many people today, it has become invisible.

In 1975 Roy Harper wrote an elegiac song called “When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease”. With its wistful recollection of “those fabled men” from the game’s golden age and its images of “a dusty pitch and two pound six of willow wood in the sun”, deepened by the melancholy cornets of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, it evoked ancestral memories of distant summers.

Yet, with its nod towards “Geoff” (Boycott) and “John” (Snow), two dominant figures of the here and now, it wasn’t merely nostalgic. The song threw a hoop around a century of English cricket, whether seen or imagined, and pulled off the rare trick of sounding both old and new.

If you were seeking a pivotal year in postwar cricket, 1975 would do nicely. Colin Cowdrey, later Baron Cowdrey of Tonbridge, an amateur in spirit, played the last of his 114 Test matches in a career that had begun 21 years earlier. Graham Gooch, every inch a pro, won the first of his 118 Test caps, spread over the next two decades. Cowdrey, it might be said, with a bit of licence, was Guy Crouchback to Gooch’s Hooper.

In February that year, Sir Neville Cardus, whose romantic, not always factual writing in the old Manchester Guardian had shaped the way cricket-lovers thought about the game, died at the age of 86. Four months later, Clive Lloyd, then the captain of West Indies, scored a century of a brilliance that Cardus would have recognised against Australia’s fearsome fast bowlers as his team won the first and most enjoyable World Cup.

Something else happened that year. David Steele, a bespectacled, 33-year-old batsman (who looked ten years older), was plucked from the obscurity of Northamptonshire’s middle order to take on the mighty Australians at Lord’s. He made 50 dogged runs and added three more half-centuries, although the tourists won the series. Come December, this resolutely unfashionable plodder from the Potteries was voted Sports Personality of the Year by BBC viewers. Such was cricket’s power to capture the national mood, even in defeat.

Last year, when England actually beat the Australians, Joe Root of Yorkshire contributed two glowing centuries. No plodder, he. The cherubic Sheffielder was a member of the team that swiftly went on to win another series in South Africa. But when the BBC presented voters with a list of candidates for the award that Steele had won without any prompting, Root’s name was absent. Cricket simply didn’t figure.

It was an appalling slight on a cricketer who is already established in the annals of English batsmanship. Others also stand tall. The current team is led by Alastair Cook of Essex, who has made more runs in Test cricket than any other Englishman, while James Anderson, the Lancashire fast bowler, holds the English record for Test wickets. These are men of high talent and character, whose names will resonate through our game’s history. Yet, for many people, cricket has become invisible.

When England play Pakistan at Lord’s on Thursday, in the first match of a new series, the ground will be full. In the Coronation Garden behind the Victorian pavilion, there will be talk of “Kipper” Cowdrey, good old Goochie and maybe even the valiant Steele. Beyond the Grace Gate, named after the most celebrated of those fabled men whom Harper sang about, there will be ­indifference. The summer game, squeezed out of view this year by football’s European Championship, as well as the rituals of Wimbledon and the Open, is drifting towards insignificance.

How often do you now see children playing it in parks, or families improvising games on the beach? As for street cricket, with stumps chalked on walls, it has not been spotted in years. Public schools, which have wonderful playing fields and teachers who are prepared to devote to cricket the long hours that it demands, continue to do the game proud. The England team is full of public school boys, led by Cook, who attended Bedford. In state schools, alas, cricket is merely a rumour that many teachers don’t want their pupils to hear in case it gives them ideas.

At a recreational level, too, the story is changing. In “The Whitsun Weddings”, Philip Larkin described seeing from a train carriage the Odeon, a cooling tower and “someone running up to bowl”. Yet fewer people play the game these days – between 2013 and 2014, for instance, there was a 7 per cent fall in the number of players aged between 14 and 65 across England and Wales. As a result, there are fewer cricketers of Test standard. It can’t be ignored that, increasingly, England have to promote players from the swelling ranks of those born overseas. This month, for instance, England replaced Nick Compton (born in Durban, South Africa) with Gary Ballance (born in Harare, Zimbabwe). Both men went to Harrow.

As football becomes ever more newsworthy, even at the height of summer, cricket is banished to the margins of newspapers, including those that, until a few summers ago, served the game so loyally. Once there were dozens of broadsheet reporters, well known and much loved: Alan Gibson of the Times, who was forever changing trains at Didcot; David Foot, who wrote lyrical capsule essays for the Guardian; and Dicky Rutnagur of the Telegraph, who – uniquely – saw both Garry Sobers and Ravi Shastri hit six sixes in an over.

Now, unless there is hard news, or some celebrity dust to sprinkle, sports desks are not interested in cricket. One experienced reporter, who left his post at the paper where Cardus invented sportswriting, says, “I was fed up with having to answer the same question every morning: ‘What’s the Pietersen story today?’ That’s what it had come down to.”

The greatest loss by far has been the absence of Test cricket on terrestrial television. Since Channel 4 took over coverage from the BBC in 1999 and then passed the baton on to Sky after the Ashes series of 2005, a generation of young people has grown up without attachment to a game that their parents and grandparents took for granted. In Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain, two former captains of England, Sky has outstanding performers, but their talents are not as widely known as they should be. The game may be millions of pounds richer for Sky’s bounty but cricket has suffered an immeasurable loss.

Meanwhile, on the wireless, where John Arlott and Christopher Martin-Jenkins made their reputations as supreme broadcasters, the BBC’s Test Match Special is mired in tittering mediocrity. It still has its moments – when Jonathan Agnew is in the box, or when Boycott is not talking about himself – but the show, hogged by adolescent show-offs, has lost its dignity.

Arlott, begging Rimbaud’s pardon, held the key to this savage parade, because he represented so long and so faithfully the spirit of English cricket. A Hampshire countryman who trod the beat as a Southampton copper before becoming a poetry producer at the BBC, he gave voice to all those “cricketers of the heart”, as he liked to call them, in honour of those people who followed the game. Summer in England meant, among other things, Arlott’s voice describing cricketers on the green.

Together with Cardus, an observer of a very different kind, he reinforced the idea of cricket as an essential feature of the English imagination. Neither created this mythology, which goes back to shepherds loafing on the Weald of Kent and emerged full-fledged in the glory of W G Grace and Ranjitsinhji. Yet these remarkable men certainly confirmed it in the eyes and ears of their readers and listeners.

Cardus, a distinguished music critic, belonged to the spirit world. Arlott, who had a shelf of first editions by Thomas Hardy (“the greatest of English novelists”), was a man of the soil. Neither was remotely interested in psychology but both knew quite a lot about human character. As Arlott reminded us, “A cricketer is showing you his character all the time.”

***

Cricket, they understood, was the most English of sports because it yoked together the rural and urban, north and south, young and old, men and women. The blacksmith, for an afternoon, stood on the same ground as the squire. L P Hartley caught something of this in The Go-Between and Harold Pinter, a great cricket lover, took delight in making the cricket match in that book a crucial part of his screenplay for Joseph Losey’s 1971 film adaptation, starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie.

By tradition, England teams have relied on cavaliers from the south and west for their runs: Frank Woolley, Wally Hammond, Denis Compton, Peter May, Tom Graveney, Ted Dexter. The north has usually supplied the fast bowlers: Harold Larwood of Nottinghamshire, Fred Trueman of Yorkshire, Brian Statham of Lancashire and another Lancastrian, Frank Tyson, who played for Northamptonshire. It is a cultural distinction that has no parallel in any other sport played in this country.

In terms of geography and temperament, cricket has always been the national game. Football may be more popular, but cricket tells us so much more about what kind of people we are. From Grace the bearded Victorian through Wilfred Rhodes the Yorkshire all-rounder and Douglas Jardine, the Old Wykehamist who created the ­“bodyline” strategy to defeat Don Bradman and Australia, to Trueman, Boycott, Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and now the ­imperturbable Cook, cricketers have revealed England to us.

Perhaps, given the sport’s capacity for renewal, we shouldn’t be too disheartened. There was a lot of boring cricket half a century ago before the one-day game, in the form of the Gillette Cup, arrived in 1963. The problem is, Twenty20, the bastard grandchild of the old Gillette, now holds the old-fashioned game at gunpoint. It titillates the easily bored, so it is “good” television, and has made millionaires of the leading players. It also makes many long-time cricket watchers wonder whether they understand the game any longer.

With Twenty20 has come a different sort of spectator, one that is new to cricket. These people are not cricket lovers in the old sense but “fans” who demonstrate tribal loyalties. As a consequence, the culture of a game that has never tolerated tribalism has been subverted by rowdy and sometimes intimidating behaviour.

Outside Lord’s, which retains a sense of fair play, it is clear that many people who attend Test matches know little about the men they are watching. The author Colin Shindler attended the Edgbaston Test in Birmingham against Australia last summer and observed that the spectators around him in the Eric Hollies stand “had no idea which counties the England players belonged to. All they wanted to do was drink, shout and draw attention to themselves. They couldn’t sit still even for an over.”

The Kulturkampf is complete and we are living in the ruins. The game’s rulers may not miss the old-fashioned spectators as they leave, never to return, because they want to connect with younger spectators, whatever the price – but cricket will. Who will pass on its lore, as Cardus, Arlott and CMJ did?

Last month it was reported that Yorkshire, the proudest tree in the forest of English cricket and county champions in the past two seasons, were preparing to sell their museum to help trim debts of almost £22m. This, from the club that gave us Rhodes and George Hirst; Herbert Sutcliffe and Leonard Hutton; Maurice Leyland and Hedley Verity; Trueman and Boycott; Brian Close and Raymond Illingworth; Michael Vaughan and young Root. Fabled men, indeed.

The English summer, wrote Cardus, ever the romantic, is inconceivable without cricket. He was right, but the skies are darkening and the air is full of those melancholy cornets.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM