By Partab Ramchand
There was never much chance of Ijaz Butt’s visit to India being a success. The Pakistan Cricket Board chief came over in a bid to try and resume bilateral contests between the two countries. One point to him for making the attempt but realistically speaking the response to the idea was bound to be lukewarm given the current state of ties between India and Pakistan.
Rajiv Shukla, the BCCI president summed up the situation aptly when he said that at the moment the Indian calendar was crammed but he hoped that talks with the PCB on holding bilateral contests would resume ``six of seven months later.’’ The unenthusiastic reaction came after Butt had held talks with BCCI chief Shashank Manohar who apparently told him that the Indian players were not available for the next few months because of their international commitments. Few can deny that the Indian players have a crammed schedule. Right now they are playing Australia, then Sri Lanka flies across for a visit and almost immediately that there is the Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies. "There is simply no space for a bilateral series" Shukla said bluntly. And then came the crunching blow with Shukla adding that the BCCI would also have to ensure the Indian government’s viewpoint. "The diplomatic relations between the two countries also need to be conducive for the talks to resume," he said.
Bilateral ties between the neighbours were snapped a year ago after the Indian team refused to tour Pakistan amid heightened tension over the Mumbai terror attacks in November. As a result the International Cricket Council had to re-draft the Future Tours Programme (FTP) after the PCB complained of being marginalized in the post-2012 schedule, having no series with India. The FTP, introduced in 2006, aims to provide a structured schedule of cricket for the ten member countries and according to Butt the new FTP has Tests, ODIs and Twenty20 matches with India. It is also well known that the cash-strapped PCB looks to India – Pakistan match to boost its coffers.
A couple of months after India cancelled their tour of Pakistan, international cricket suffered a crippling blow when the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked in Lahore. The attack in March which killed eight people and wounded seven Sri Lankan players and an official, ended any hopes of Pakistan staging top level cricket in the foreseeable future. The ICC as a result stripped Pakistan of its share of 2011 World Cup matches.
It is well known that even before the direct attack on the Sri Lankan team foreign teams had refused to tour Pakistan because of security concerns. In the last 12 months, Pakistan had played ODIs against the West Indies and Australia in the United Arab Emirates. Currently too Pakistan are playing New Zealand in a limited over series in the UAE. Pakistan were forced to move their home Test series to New Zealand later this month and will play two Tests against Australia in England next year. Given this scenario early resumption of India – Pakistan contests can be ruled out, a decision few would disagree with.
The only little window it would appear is to hold such contests in a neutral venue – an idea that has already been mooted by Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor. But even this has apparently been brushed aside by the BCCI. Asked about the possibility of having a bilateral series at neutral venues Shukla dismissively said that right now the team is too busy for playing and it was premature to discuss the proposal.
Indeed Tharoor, a keen cricket fan pitched for the USA as a perfect neutral venue for India – Pakistan matches. Speaking recently on the occasion of the release of his latest book co-authored with former PCB chief Shaharyar Khan, "Shadows Across the Playing Fields” - Sixty Years of India-Pakistan Cricket,” Tharoor admitted that while a bilateral series between the two countries was not possible in India or Pakistan given the current situation he noted that there is a large patriotic population of both Indians and Pakistanis in the USA. Besides there are more than a handful of cricket enthusiasts and that would be a very good way to organize cricket in third countries when terror strikes have stopped cricket between the two countries. "It will be terrific to see a baseball stadium in the USA crowded for a cricket match, though the stadium will be small by cricket standards," he said.
Tharoor's idea of bringing Indo-Pak cricket to USA is a positive way to get Americans interested in the game while also reigniting cricket diplomacy. The USA could well turn out to be a perfect venue for cricket between the two countries and such a contest will result in tremendous media attention besides igniting interest in the game in the country. Such grandiose plans are fine but the BCCI’s attitude towards all this is again unenthusiastic, even blunt. Asked whether India could indeed play Pakistan at a neutral venue, Shukla refused to speculate. "We will cross the bridge when it comes. First let us resume our talks." Even the most cautious gambler can safely bet on no early resumption of India – Pakistan bilateral contests.