x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pakistan cricket caught in a political game

There are two sides to every story, and the saga of Pakistan and cricket is no different.

In his sobering book, The Soccer War, Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote, in a telling passage: "In Latin America, the border between soccer and politics is vague. There is a long list of governments that have fallen or been overthrown after the defeat of the national team. Players on the losing team are denounced in the press as traitors.

"When Brazil won the World Cup in Mexico, an exiled Brazilian colleague of mine was heartbroken. 'The military right wing,' he said, 'can be assured of at least five more years of peaceful rule.'"

The idea of keeping sport in a bubble unaffected by political events is so naive as to be laughable.

South Africa under the National Party tried to maintain sporting relations with the rest of the world but were eventually isolated thanks to pressure from anti-apartheid campaigners such as Sam Ramsamy, who came up with the catchphrase: "No normal sport in an abnormal society."

The cricketing relationship between India and Pakistan has been a slave to politics ever since both countries came into being.

India toured Pakistan in 1978, but for the 17 years previous they had no cricketing ties; the countries fought wars in 1965 and 1971. In Sunny Days, Sunil Gavaskar wrote of being huddled around a radio with Intikhab Alam and Zaheer Abbas, his Rest of the World teammates, when they played Australia, listening to news of the 1971 war.

After 1978, the nations' cricket sides played each other regularly for more than a decade. During the 1987 series in India, the Pakistani military leader Gen Zia ul Haq even travelled to Jaipur to watch a day's play.

But with the escalation of violence in Kashmir in the late 1980s, the idea of cricket diplomacy lost its charm.

It would be nearly a decade before India and Pakistan played again, in 1999.

In a period when Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were one of the most overpowering bowling combinations going and Sachin Tendulkar was establishing himself as an all-time great, the two countries never played a Test.

By the time India finally made it back across the border, in 2004, both Wasim and Waqar were long gone.

That tour helped put the cricketing relationship back on track and things were on even keel until the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

Pakistanis played in the first season of the Indian Premier League (IPL), with Sohail Tanvir, a relative unknown, finishing as the leading wicket-taker.

Since then, however, with diplomatic ties strained, no signs have been shown that the cricket rivalry will be revived. Pakistani players missed the IPL in both 2009 and 2010, and not one of them has made the 416-man list for the auction that will be held in Bangalore on January 8 and 9.

Each side blames the other.

"The procedure has always been, since the start of the IPL, that the Indians write to us and ask us to nominate names for the players auction and last year they even told us to get clearance first from the ministry of sports for our players to play in the IPL," an unidentified Pakistani board official told The Indian Express. "The PCB cannot forward names of any players by itself since the IPL is a venture of the Indian board and they have to decide players from which countries should take part in the auction."

The Express Tribune in Pakistan presents a different picture.

"A Pakistani player is a special case and has a separate procedure to follow in order to play in the IPL," it quoted one player as saying.

"We sought the IPL Governing Council to take a decision on our inclusion in the auction but things were unclear.

"The PCB have not contacted us, nor are they willing to take another risk especially because they're in the middle of the fixing crisis."

With Mohammad Asif, who played for Delhi Daredevils in the IPL's first season, Salman Butt and Mohammad Aamer appearing before a tribunal on spot-fixing charges next month, there is a fair chance that the Indian authorities were keen to steer clear of any possible scandal, especially since they have had their hands full with the mess that Lalit Modi, the former IPL chief, left behind.

The irony of it is that Pakistani access to the IPL and its huge salaries would probably be an antidote to fixing.

Without it, the gap between the haves and the have-nots becomes a chasm, leaving fixers and other shadowy figures to do their dirty work.