x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Pakistan are a nation in waiting as India deflects cricketing ties

Pakistan are doing all the running to get a lucrative series at home against their great rivals, but BCCI are seemingly dragging their heels.

Most of India-Pakistan matches have been volatile and the arch-rivals have only whetted the appetite of the fans.
Most of India-Pakistan matches have been volatile and the arch-rivals have only whetted the appetite of the fans.

The movement to restart cricket ties between India and Pakistan began the moment Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, invited Yousuf Raza Gillani, his Pakistan counterpart, to watch the World Cup semi-final between the two countries with him in Mohali, India.

That game was only the third between the two in nearly three years, relations a victim of the Mumbai attacks in November 2008.

The five years preceding that attack had seen a heady gluttony, with as many as 45 internationals between the two; the alternating periods of plunder and drought wholly typical of the rivalry.

Singh's gesture was also typical, a proactive political gambit to reboot everything and cricket. And so the wheels of the India-Pakistan industry began to creak. In the build-up to the game, players were asked about a resumption.

Some said, of course, some hedged and left it to boards, others to government.

In informal talks between the two prime ministers during the match, noises were made for cricket to restart. Days later India's then foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, expressed similar sentiments; they were swiftly misunderstood to mean implicit state consent. Speculation quickly got out of hand so that days later Rao had to clarify that "no such decision" had actually been taken.

Since then much has happened but effectively nothing has happened. The Future Tours Programme (FTP) which forms the schedule of international cricket has Pakistan touring India in March 2012, but it remains for now a phantom commitment.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has done the running since then, through a series of direct and indirect communications at board and state level.

Soon after the semi-final, over May and June, they sent former board chairman and diplomat Shaharyar Khan on two hushed trips to India to speak to Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) officials and politicians. The meetings, said an official familiar with them, went well but bore nothing concrete.

Senior PCB officials have subsequently had several one-on-one interactions with BCCI counterparts around ICC meetings in Hong Kong in July and London in September. There has been telephonic contact in between.

In August, Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's foreign minister, went to Delhi for ongoing talks to normalise relations. With any number of pressing matters between the two yet to be resolved, she managed to shoehorn cricket on to the agenda, aided by Shahid Malik, the Pakistan High Commissioner in Delhi.

The net result of all these interactions is nothing. "We're awaiting the BCCI's response to the resumption of bilateral ties," said Subhan Ahmad, the PCB's chief operating officer.

"I have spoken to N Srinivasan [the BCCI president] personally about this. We are keen to resume bilateral ties with them, there is a tour scheduled for next March but, right now, we don't know its status."

And as the PCB waits, the BCCI deflects. Asked about the prospect of India-Pakistan matches, Ratnakar Shetty, the BCCI's chief administrative officer, said: "There is nothing yet and when there is something on the table only then will we say anything about it."

Asked about the interactions, the status of the March series and the reasons for the inaction, Shetty refused to comment.

Most frustratingly, PCB officials say, there is no clear idea of what exactly the BCCI position is. In some cases Indian politicians have told the PCB the issue is with the BCCI, only for the BCCI to say the Indian government is the problem.

It has been so exasperating that in a recent one-on-one meeting, a PCB official asked outright whether the BCCI had "personal issues" with the PCB. He was told, emphatically, that was not the case.

Officials and observers familiar with the negotiations, however, do acknowledge specific clogs. One appears to be the unpopularity of Ijaz Butt, the PCB chairman. A message was passed to the PCB indirectly earlier this year that the BCCI did not want to deal with Butt (so Shaharyar Khan went as emissary).

The knottiest tangle is the March series, and not just because it represents a potential schedule clash with the Indian Premier League.

On the basis of reciprocity, it is a home series for India but the PCB wants to resolve the matter of the January 2009 tour India was to make of Pakistan but which was postponed after the Mumbai attacks.

"One of the main sticking points is the status of that tour. The PCB wants to sort compensation issues from that series first," said one official.

The BCCI, it is believed, is not keen on playing any such series outside India; Pakistan, for security reasons, is out of the question as a venue and India is unwilling to play in the UAE.

Anywhere else could lead to broadcast revenue being shared, which the BCCI is not keen to do.

Broadcast revenue, of course, is the central reason the PCB is pushing so hard. The board signed a US$140 million (Dh514m), five-year deal with Ten Sports in 2008 (effectively US$120m after production costs).

A large portion of it was, however, valued on the prospect of two home series against India.

"For a subcontinent broadcaster, an India series would be worth 70 per cent of any deal and an India-Pakistan series 80 per cent," said a broadcast official involved.

In the case of this deal, however, the PCB convinced the broadcaster to undervalue the two India series - and overvalue other less lucrative ones - as a buffer against a potential India cancellation, as eventually happened. Still, the PCB estimates it has lost out on US$40-45m each on two home series. The broadcaster pays per series so from a five-year deal the PCB actually gets only US$30-40m.

For a board coping with no home matches, increased costs and lower revenues of "hosting" a series at neutral venues, the crunch hits hard. In July, the ICC's task force on Pakistan (PTT), which was created to look at ways to help Pakistan's cricket, released a report calling for the rivalry to resume.

Many boards, it said, had helped the PCB, except one. "The absence of the traditional bilateral series between Pakistan and India ... is denying millions of cricket-loving fans across the world from enjoying an iconic series," it said.

"It is also hurting the sport, particularly in Pakistan and the PTT sees no reason why this great sporting rivalry should not be restored as soon as possible, even if on neutral soil ... The PTT ... urges the ICC Executive Board and all related parties including both Governments to seek a swift resolution to enable this great iconic series to resume ..."

Privately, the ICC and architects of the report are more alarmist. The sustainability of Pakistan cricket, they insist, depends almost entirely on series against India.

The PCB is already concerned that their next television rights deal will take a hit. Yet, technically the ICC cannot force countries to play against another.

The backdrop against which this is occurring dims the prospects of a series further. A number of officials at ICC meetings this year are worried about the BCCI not being concerned about other boards, the ICC and the world game.

The PCB, for example, is not the only board to be told future bilateral commitments depend on whether they support the BCCI's stance on the Decision Review System.

At the last ICC meeting in London, the BCCI's representative Sunder Raman was not even an office holder, and at least three officials present in the meetings described his demeanour as "arrogant".

The BCCI's financial clout means other members are more likely to stand back than stand up, but it may not last. "If they lose another couple of series, their clout may diminish," says an official who has worked for a member board.

"They make money from four opponents: Australia, South Africa, England and Pakistan. The BCCI has to understand that India cannot play against India."

osamiuddin@thenational.ae


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