Pakistan’s isolation would deprive cricket of its joie de vivre
Pakistan feels betrayed and its anger is legitimate. As the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman Ramiz Raja said, they were “used” and then “binned”.
Over the last 10 days, Pakistan cricket went through an upheaval. They set the stage, invited their guests, only to be snubbed at the eleventh hour. First, New Zealand pulled the plug on a limited-overs tour just hours before the first ODI at Rawalpindi. Two days later, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) cancelled their proposed T20I double-headers in Pakistan in October. Raja, smarting over the twin cancellations, hit out at the “Western bloc”. But that barely healed the scars.
Last year during peak Covid, Pakistan players travelled to England for three Tests and as many T20Is. At the time, the Covid infection rates in the UK were among the highest in the world. The players stayed in strict bio-bubbles and they didn’t have the opportunity to be accompanied by their family members. The gesture had saved the ECB millions in the broadcast rights deal. A short limited-overs series in Pakistan was what the PCB wanted in return. “A little bit of hand-holding, a little bit of caring was needed after New Zealand’s pull-out and we didn’t get that from England which is so frustrating. It’s the feeling of being used and then binned.” Raja told reporters.
At least New Zealand cited a security alert as the reason for cancellation, although they didn’t share it with their hosts. The ECB’s press release didn’t mention any such thing. “The mental and physical well-being of our players and support staff remains our highest priority and this is even more critical given the times we are currently living in. We know there are increasing concerns about travelling to the region and believe that going ahead will add further pressure to a playing group who have already coped with a long period of operating in restricted Covid environments,” the ECB statement said.
The British government readily distanced itself from the ECB’s decision, through a video message on Twitter from its High Commissioner to Pakistan, Christian Turner. So why did ECB abandon the tour despite its firm commitment to the PCB last year that they would reciprocate the favour? Grapevine has it that England players were reluctant to tour and the cricket hierarchy gave in to player power.
More importantly though, what next for Pakistan? Australia are scheduled to tour the country next year but Raja has already cast doubt on that. The PCB chief has vowed to take on the “Western bloc” at the International Cricket Council (ICC), while asserting that Pakistan would no longer play their home series at a neutral venue again. Will this lead to a division in the cricket world?
Expectedly some people on social media revelled in the schadenfreude of Pakistan’s emotional and financial loss. From a saner perspective, cricket is seriously played in only about 10 countries and it cannot afford to isolate one of them; a country where passions run high for the game. Pakistan’s rich cricket history and their very talented current squad that has a world-class batsman like Babar Azam, attest their contributions as regards to the growth and popularity of the game. Pakistan’s isolation would deprive cricket of its joie de vivre.
Problem is that, without India’s help Pakistan’s options to take on the “Western bloc” and become commercially lucrative are limited and at the moment any help from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is ruled out.
Once upon a time the BCCI and the PCB were bosom friends, political relations between the two countries notwithstanding. After the 1983 World Cup, the two cricket boards joined hands to break England and Australia’s hegemony at the ICC and remove their veto power. At the 1996 World Cup, when Australia and West Indies had declined to go to Sri Lanka, citing LTTE threats, former BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya had sent a joint India-Pakistan team to the Island nation before the start of the tournament to convince the cricket world that the country was safe. That was then; a thriving Asian bloc led by India holding sway.
The power structure at the ICC has changed now. India is at the top of the pyramid by dint of its commercial might, with England and Australia in company. They are the unofficial Big Three in cricket, having a close rapport with New Zealand Cricket (NZC). At a personal level, the BCCI officials are still on good terms with their PCB counterparts, but the relationship has soured between the two boards, through the cancellation of bilateral series and the PCB taking the BCCI to arbitration over the cancelled tours. In the present political situation, an India-Pakistan alliance at the ICC appears unthinkable, which weakens the PCB in their proposed fight against the “Western bloc”. The BCCI, on the other hand, enjoys strong relationships with the ECB, Cricket Australia and NZC at the moment.
The onus is now on Raja to reach out personally to the BCCI officials. He is on good terms with some of them through his cricket-playing background and commentary stints. His primary task should be to convince his Prime Minister, Imran Khan, who also happens to be his former captain, in this regard. Khan of late has made a habit of contradicting himself and in his apparent effort to please the Establishment and keep China on his side, he now presents himself as a big India-hater. Both Khan and Raja should look back to move forward.
A day after India won the 1983 World Cup, then BCCI president, NKP Salve, and his Pakistani counterpart, retired Air Chief Marshal Nur Khan, met for lunch at Lord’s. It started the Indo-Pak cricket bonhomie that would eventually knock their erstwhile colonial masters off their perch. Mind, Salve was a sitting Union minister then, while Khan commanded Pakistan Air Force in the war with India in 1965. For cricketing progress, both decided to keep politics at arm’s length.
In the present political situation, resumption of India-Pakistan bilateral cricket is out of the question. But Raja’s challenge would be to build bridges with the BCCI so that Pakistan’s voice is heard at the ICC.