Shahid Afridi’s bizarre predilection for chomping on cricket balls during the course of a cricket match could not have been easy on his digestive system, but it is Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Ejaz Butt who will be complaining of bellyache. This was the last thing he needed in a grim battle for the credibility and sustainability of Pakistan cricket.
Indeed, Afridi’s stupidity will not only have caused Butt indigestion, but also have his knickers in a twist. He has not only probably lost a captain, but may have diluted his case against Indian cricket further. The mercurial all-rounder, arguably the world’s best Twenty20 player, was in many ways the metaphor for Butt’s hectoring after the Indian Premier League (IPL) auction.
In a fit of pique, Butt had even proclaimed that he would deny Pakistan players no-objection certificates (NOCs) to play in the IPL. This was abstruse logic considering that no Pakistan player had been chosen in the first place, but perhaps more importantly, he vacated the moral high ground that he held. Few people in India were happy at the way Pakistan players were shunned during the IPL auction; for him to butt (pun intended) in at this juncture was foolishly playing a zero-sum game.
It need hardly be emphasized that feelings in India still run high over the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Moreover, there are complex issues of security and politics, etc., which cannot be resolved so easily. In many ways, this was being done internally in India through the strength of its democracy, as the controversy between Kolkata Knight Riders owner Shah Rukh Khan and the Shiv Sena has shown.
No ball: Shahid Afridi. Getty Images
Interestingly, no such controversy envelops the hockey World Cup tournament, which begins this Sunday and where Pakistan is one of the participating teams. After some harsh words following the IPL auction, the Pakistan hockey administration (with perhaps some prodding from the International Hockey Federation, or FIH) did not make a song and dance about playing in India.
Of course, cricket and hockey are like chalk and cheese in the context of the subcontinent. Cricket raises the temperature as well as the decibel level like nothing else. Yet, hockey affords an idea of where and how sport in the subcontinent is headed, and why the Pakistan cricket administration would do well to heed these winds of change.
Looked at every which way, Pakistan cricket is in dire straits. No team has been keen to tour there over the last decade, and after the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankans last year, nobody is likely to for a while. For cricket to be sustained in Pakistan, for the players to earn decent livelihood, they still need to play regularly. While tours to New Zealand, Australia, etc., are important, the real fillip can only come if Indo-Pak cricket is revived—even if offshore. Failing that, through the IPL which, in a way, despite all the arguments about it being a “private enterprise”, is essentially an extension of Indian cricket.
In the last decade, Indian cricket has zoomed ahead because of the country’s rapid economic growth and internal stability, while Pakistan’s has languished because of its acute law and order problems and a struggling economy. India has become the El Dorado for cricket, Pakistan the boondocks.
The bald truth is that today Pakistan cricket needs Indian cricket, but not the other way around. Pragmatism would dictate then that Pakistan cricket piggyback on India for survival rather than open up confrontations. So, even while making known his displeasure, Butt should have strived to strengthen the nexus with Indian cricket, because therein lies salvation for Pakistan cricket.
From India’s point of view, being in the vanguard position now entails several responsibilities, old and new. Cricket and diplomacy have always been intertwined for the past 60 years where the subcontinent is concerned, but India must address these issues now in consonance with its current leadership position. Political differences, especially in the subcontinent, will crop up every now and then, but need not have a deleterious impact in perpetuity if handled sensibly.
One of the imperatives for this would be ensuring that the neighbour does not get treated as happened—even if inadvertently—during the IPL auction.
This dovetails into the pure cricketing imperative of showcasing the world’s best cricketers in this country. It becomes even more pertinent where the IPL (which one must reiterate is an extension of the Board of Control for Cricket in India) is concerned to be a truly global league. All through human history, sport has often been the balm to soothe frayed nerves and reduce tension between two countries in conflict. Idealistic as it may seem, this might still be a good—if not the best—vehicle for restoring sensible negotiations between India and Pakistan. Perhaps this can begin again with hockey.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org