With PCB and BCCI unable to set aside their differences, what happens to cricket?
The story goes that the chef at Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace had 40 baby lambs slaughtered the day before Pakistan’s military dictator, and arguably the most hated man in his country, was to be hosted as part of his trip to India to enjoy a game of cricket.
Paying true homage to Mughal culinary traditions Safed Maas (White meat curry) and Akbari Raan (Akbari mutton leg) were on the menu as General Ziaul Haq rubbed shoulders with the likes of Lala Amarnath and Bishan Singh Bedi. Despised as he is for his toxic Islamisation drive that destroyed Pakistan’s social fabric, in giddily accepting the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)’s invitation to watch a match between India at Pakistan at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium, Zia exercised a tactful maneuver of “cricket diplomacy”. The trip proved to be a major public relations coup for the General as he met with Rajiv Gandhi and successfully managed to defuse tensions.
Thirty years later, the hegemonic behemoth of world cricket, the BCCI is displaying what Osman Samiuddin succinctly called “playground rationalism-don’t want to play, won’t say why” in its relations with Pakistan.
The only reason Pakistan had agreed to the BCCI, England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and Cricket Australia’s hijacking of international cricket’s revenue was the fact that India has agreed to play five series with Pakistan in the coming years. What followed was a frustrating comedy of errors.
Firstly, the BCCI had reservations with Pakistan’s host broadcaster Ten Sports. Once that was resolved there were murmurings about match-fixing concerns in the UAE. The irony is palpable considering the International Cricket Council of which Shashank Manohar now finds himself Chairman, houses itself in the UAE after shifting its headquarters from its colonial womb of England.
Manohar invited Shaharyar Khan to Mumbai to resolve the issue as reports emerged that Sri Lanka was being considered as a “home” venue for Pakistan. Lo and behold the reactionary Hindu fundamentalist outfit Shiv Sena’s members attacked the BCCI headquarters at the Wankhede and Shaharyar Khan was left waiting at his hotel with no communication from Mr Manohar. It was a slap in the face of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and the Pakistani media took the chairman to task, forcing him to produce his original invitation letter to prove he wasn’t there uninvited.
Negotiations fell through and there was to be no shortened series, let alone one with a Test series as well. There is only so much the Pakistani board could have done. The BCCI is all powerful and rightfully so. The advent of cable television and India’s vast market size meant that the original Anglo-Australian dominance of the game was going to be overtaken. No one could mess with the BCCI.
Chief Executive of the Federation of International Cricketer’s Association, Tim May had to learn the hard way as he took a stand against the corrupt N Srinivasan and was forced off his position. Similarly, in a childish display of disdain Srinivasan shortened India’s series against South Africa to show his displeasure at Haroon Lograt being elected chairman of Cricket South Africa. Many in the cricketing world were confused.
Why didn’t the BCCI want to play?
Surely there was a large amount of money to be made off of any match-up with Pakistan. It was later revealed that the real reason was that the ruling right wing Bharatiya Janta Party could not afford to anatagonise its allies in an upcoming state election. It was the old “why should we play cricket if Indian soldiers are being killed in Kashmir” rhetoric.
The PCB was embarrassed; it had tried desperately to get India to agree to a series at a neutral venue. Back home at the Gaddafi Stadium, Shaharyar Khan said the Pakistan cricket had survived this long without playing with India and would continue to do so.
But why was cricket being held hostage by petty politics?
Surely the sport would help to deescalate tensions if anything.
The frustration was deafening.
Fast forward two months and PCB flexed a bit of its commercial by stepping into the lucrative world of domestic T20 leagues with the Pakistan Super League (PSL). Test cricket was on the back-burner as the Asia Cup, PSL, World T20 and Indian Premier League (IPL) all happened in quick succession and yet again, Pakistani players were excluded from the IPL. Ever since the Mumbai attacks no Pakistani players have been picked up at the auctions.
The IPL already enjoys the mediocre commentary of Ramiz Raja and Wasim Akram’s coaching expertise. One can only imagine what the maddening commercial cacophony could do with the likes of Shahid Afridi and Mohammad Amir in its ranks. They would be sure-shot superstars as Shoaib Akhtar’s stint with Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) proved in 2007.
One also wonders how a Test series between India and Pakistan would pan out today. No cricketer worth his salt would dispute the status of Test cricket as the purest form of cricket. The wily spin of Ravi Ashwin against the likes of Misbahul Haq, and Virat Kohli against the golden armed Yasir Shah and the slingy Wahab Riaz. The drastic decline in Test cricket’s relevance is crystallised in Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber’s “Death of a Gentleman” which exposes the corrupt commercial nexus that operates the International Cricket Council (ICC). The Save Cricket campaign is fighting an uphill battle for Test Cricket’s relevance as the IPL, Sri Lanka Premier League (SLPL), Big Bash League (BBL), Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), Caribbean Premier League (CPL) and PSL turn up the decibels for T20 cricket.
The pressing question is: The sport aside, why is cricket’s massive potential as a diplomatic tool between India and Pakistan not being exploited?
The PCB is visibly desperate. When will the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s political interests subside to allow normal cricketing ties to resume?
The series in the early 2000s were proof as the 2011 semi-final where Prime Ministers, Yousaf Raza Gillani and Manmohan Singh met at Mohali. It is a naturally de-escalator of tensions.
Especially Test cricket, since it exposes the players to the very bone. It bares the soul of its participants. The beauty of Test cricket is that it is not merely played to win; it is first and foremost a learning experience. News is abounding that the politician-cum-cricket administrator and notoriously uncouth Anurag Thakur is soon to assume the chairmanship of the BCCI. One hopes that Mr Thakur will heed the calls of the subcontinent’s aching cricket fan base.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.