The India-Pakistan cricket fiasco
The row between India and Pakistan over the failure to include Pakistani players in the upcoming edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world's richest privately-run Twenty20 cricket tournament, has to be the most intriguing one in the history of the game in the troubled subcontinent.
Eleven Pakistani players - the team, by the way, won the World Twenty20 championship six months ago - are on the list of players to be auctioned for this year's IPL. One of them was the best bowler in the inaugural edition of the tournament, a heady razzmatazz of instant cricket and carnival. Their papers are in order and their visas ready. But when the auction takes place, none of these players finds any takers. All the eight teams shun them.
Not surprisingly, there is outrage in Pakistan. Slighted players talk about a "conspiracy" against them, and about politics despoiling sports. The government says the non-inclusion of players is a snub. It stops a parliamentary delegation from visiting India and makes noises about boycotting the upcoming World Cup hockey tournament and the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Effigies of the IPL commissioner Lalit Modi are burnt on the streets. The Indian government washes its hands off the affair saying that the IPL is a privately-run tournament, and it has nothing to do with it.
The cricket teams, owned by business houses, private entrepreneurs and Bollywood stars, initially say they were not convinced about the availability of the players. Then, they make some unconvincing noises about security risks involved in protecting Pakistani players. They end up saying they owe no explanation to Pakistan for why their players were not picked.
Was the auction just a charade? If security of the players was the deciding issue, why were they not told in advance that they would not be picked? Why invite the guests in the first place, and then shut them out from the party?
Many cricket fans want an explanation from the IPL. The tournament is a purely private business. As in any business, the market is the king. To shut out the Pakistani players defies the laws of the market. It surely could not have been an economic decision: some of the players on the list are among the best in the world in this format of the game.
So what did happen? Was there pressure by the Indian government on the IPL authorities? If so, why had the government cleared their visas? Most commentators have offered lame explanations. "The IPL will be poorer for the absence of some extraordinarily gifted cricketers, but this is just another victory for those that infect us with hatred," wrote Harsha Bhogle. "To believe there is a conspiracy against cricketers from Pakistan is wrong. It is the times we live in."
Pakistani players, however, believe that the tense political climate took its toll. Many believe that IPL authorities took a last minute decision to tell the teams to leave the Pakistani players out. Relations between the IPL authorities and the Indian government have been strained since last year's fiasco when the latter forced the tournament out of the country to South Africa because of security concerns at home. Were the IPL authorities now trying to ingratiate themselves with the Indian government by asking the teams not to pick up any Pakistani players?
Whatever the reason, this episode suggests the IPL can never run as a purely independent business operation in the subcontinent given the stormy relationship between India and Pakistan. Sports and politics are intertwined in this part of the world; and that it why the subcontinent's sporting reputation is feeble. This fiasco will leave the tournament under a cloud and short changes the fans who pay to watch the world's best players in action.