Monday, October 12, 2009

One Man's Provident Vision

Datuk Dr Harjit Singh presenting a memento to HRH Raja Muda Johor who officially opened the 40th Saudara Cup on Friday and was present again on Sunday to give away the prizes to the teams.

Reports of cricket’s twilight in Malaysia are greatly exaggerated once you have been to JCC Oval and met the man who made it possible

By Terence Netto

“Without vision men perish,” said the French philosopher Pascal. That thought recurred to me as I surveyed the Johor Cricket Council Academy Oval, a sprawling 14.5- acre spread, located at Mutiara Rini in the central Johor Bahru district, on the first day of the annual Saudara Cup match on October 9.

What an unexpected sight it was! I never thought such a place possible as I mulled the game’s future at the onset of the 1990s when the spread of computerized games and the internet made the intricacies of a game of cricket an indulgence preferred by people who may find watching grass grow diverting.

For years I have heard about the work done by the JCC, led by the indefatigable Datuk Dr. Harjit Singh but was not able to assess for myself. That fact in itself was an acknowledgement that cricket was losing its pull on me. In an era of dizzying technological change and its adverse effects on the quieter delights of cricket, I found it improbable that there could be an individual in the south of the country beavering away at the daunting task of not only resuscitating a waning sport, but also laying the groundwork for its development. Amazing, I thought! But not to such an extent that I felt I had to check it out.

At his invitation, I was present on the opening day of the match. This year the Saudara Cup series was headed for unsung internment. The Malaysian Cricket Association felt there was no point continuing with the annual series. There were enough face-offs between Malaysia and Singapore in the yearly calendar not to want to keep a three-day match increasingly perceived as a relic of a bygone era. No need continuing with a series inaugurated in 1970 when such matches were not plentiful and therefore necessary.

Perhaps, the MCA momentarily forgot that the game of cricket thrives on tradition. A series sustained over 39 editions must continue to be staged in an age where the plethora of one-day matches tended to make the longer version redundant.

Hearing of the series’ impending demise, JCC president Harjit decided to transpose his profession’s Hippocratic oath [which can be summarized as ‘above all, do no harm’] to the series itself: he got the JCC to host the match to keep the series alive. Not only that, he cajoled, persuaded, and convinced a coterie of veterans of the series to come to Johor Bahru to witness the match, taking care of expenses. Unheard of in the annals of local cricket!

I could see why he went to such trouble the moment I arrived at the JCC Academy Oval on the Friday morning of the match. It was a huge ground with nine wickets in the centre, with enough distance to a Test-length boundary beyond the confines of the first and ninth strips ; three buildings of a basic functional nature on raised ground fronting a sizeable car parking area, including one with a high roof that could hold several badminton courts, and another that could easily hold a reception for guests of up to 200 in number; an adequate number of changing rooms that would also be used as dormitories to house 72 trainees whenever centralized stints are held; adequate space at the back of the long-off boundary for sitting terraces to be built up quickly should they be needed in the future for big matches.

Surveying the place, I was staggered, taking it all in. Truly, I came, I saw, I was bowled! I told myself that I had long heard about Harjit’s singular determination to reverse the decline of cricket in Malaysia and remained incredulous. In the recesses of my mind, I felt that -- ah, well, there are always individuals who don’t know when they are beaten. But when I saw the Oval and grasped the reality of it, I chided my lack of understanding of a lesson I had absorbed from the game: of the things that must endure, never write an obituary, for it will turn out to be premature.

Listening to a briefing by Harjit at the end of the first day’s play, I had to remind myself of a definition of faith that I had often turned over in my mind – that it is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. How true this was I knew the minute he told me that the JCC Oval can be the venue for Pakistan now that “in the next 10 years that country cannot be hosting Test matches.” The violent attack by terrorists on the visiting Sri Lankan team earlier this year had ruled out Pakistan as a venue for international matches.

“They’d want a neutral venue,” said Harjit, leaving no doubts in his listener that the Oval could be that neutral venue.

In another time and place, I would have thought that he was joking. But given exigent international developments, the results of the man’s determination and vision have placed the JCC in a favorable position to take advantage of the evolving situation. In a flash the truth of Pascal’s insight lay abundantly clear to me: I saw that causes that burn in the hearts of people with vision never really die.

I had an early sense of the worth of transformative leaders from my father who told me in 1962 what Indian statesman Jawaharlal Nehru said about a cabinet minister of his who was obliged to resign because of the woeful state of the country’s defenses that were exposed following an external attack on its disputed northern frontiers: “If I had ten persons like him I would be able to transform the country.”

If Malaysian cricket had more striving visionaries like Datuk Dr. Harjit Singh, it would be a Test-playing country pretty soon.


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