The fiasco at the BCCI headquarters in Mumbai which forced the cancellation of a scheduled meeting between the heads of the Pakistani and Indian cricket boards has shocked Pakistanis everywhere. While I am sure that every Pakistani cricket fan would like to see the resumption of cricketing ties between the two countries, no one would agree to the sacrifice of national pride and self respect to achieve this end. The visit and the events following have raised many issues and I am afraid none of these have been answered by the haughty and ill-mannered interview given by the PCB Chief Executive Najm Sethi to a Pakistani TV channel.
One sees no reason why the senior most Pakistani officials should have gone to India to discuss a tour that is supposed to be played in Pakistan (or Pakistan’s current home venue the UAE) in the first place. The protocol is that that officials of the touring side should visit the officials of the home side and these protocols have been put in with a purpose. In case Mr Sethi does not know it, the purpose is to ensure that everyone is given the same consideration and everyone’s sense of national honour and prestige is looked after. India and Pakistan, after all, are not the names of two cricket clubs. When national sides play all national sensibilities on both sides have to be taken into account.
Secondly, after the cancellation of the Mumbai meeting, there was absolutely no reason for the PCB chief to stay on in Delhi to meet not the head of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) but the vice president or number 2. If the BCCI chief could not find the time or the political will, or both, Mr Shahryar Khan should have returned to Pakistan after telling his Indian counterparts that they could come to meet him either at Lahore or Dubai whenever convenient. Staying on in Delhi for a meeting which was described by the BCCI vice president Rajeev Shukla as “informal”, not official talks, gives the impression that Pakistan is bending over backwards to get this series with India and no amount of financial gain justifies that. Sethi’s contention that people who point out such things are “playing politics” is childish, even nonsensical, because it is entirely and totally pointless to think that a series between India and Pakistan can be a cricketing event and no more. The huge political baggage that comes with such a series cannot be ditched overnight.
I will not go into the issue of the response of the Indian and Pakistani governments to the Mumbai incident because that lies in the realm of pure politics. But the response of the ICC to the threat against Pakistani umpire Aleem Dar has been disgraceful. Aleem Dar was not there on a holiday. He was there as an official of the ICC, appointed by the ICC and in India on the instructions of the ICC. He was threatened on political grounds and was therefore unable to fulfill his duties as an ICC official. The correct response would have been to withdraw ALL ICC officials till such time as conditions were appropriate for the appointed ICC team to continue with its duties and if that was not forthcoming, to tell the Indian board that the ICC had no alternative but to withdraw its officials and that as such this would henceforth be an unofficial cricket series between India and South Africa, played under the supervision of umpires privately appointed by the Indian and South African boards, if both boards agreed to such an arrangement. In simply replacing Aleem Dar, the ICC has shrunk away from doing the right thing and the reasons for that are quite obvious.
But the ICC has a thornier problem on its plate. Given the current situation in India, how can a Pakistani side be expected to take part in the forthcoming T20 World Cup to be held in India next year? The ICC should be telling India that if the political climate in India does not show a marked improvement, an improvement to be gauged not by the Indian board but by the ICC, the ICC will have no alternative but to withdraw the T20 World Cup from India. But of course, nothing of the sort is going to happen and as such, it will be the responsibility of the Pakistan Cricket Board to decide on a course of action. This is an issue of security and much more. I have had the honour of leading a Pakistani side in India under conditions much more conducive than the current one and I know just how much pressure is put on a Pakistani side playing in India – something that Najm Sethi would not have a clue about. The PCB has to ask itself whether it is fair to tell its players to play in an environment as hostile as the one at present and one which is unlikely to improve given the credentials of the present India government – credentials which Sethi has himself explained at length on a Pakistani TV channel a couple of days before the incident in Mumbai.
Nobody is unaware of the financial benefits that accrue from a series against India. But there is just so far that Pakistan should go to play such a series. The PCB seems to be giving too much importance on India’s “contractual obligation” to play Pakistan, an obligation given by the Indians to buy Pakistani support before India, along with Australia and England declared themselves elite cricketing nations. That contract was never worth the paper it was written on because it is the Indian government, not the BCCI that decides India’s foreign relations.
Najm Sethi and Shahryar Khan appear to have been entirely unable to read the situation in India and by going there when the situation did not call for it, they have caused grave embarrassment to Pakistan, its people and its cricket fans. And with news breaking through now that the chances of an Indian tour are somewhere between zilch and zero, there is precious little to show for it.