By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent
NEW DELHI: Indo-Pak cricket diplomacy has been put to test again with the exclusion of Pakistani cricket players from the Indian Premier League (IPL)â€™s third season matches. Ironically, in the past, while Indo-Pak cricket has suffered because of bilateral tension, the game has also played a major role in adding a healing touch to the strained relations between the two countries. This time, even as some confusion still prevails as to who should be blamed for ignoring Pakistani players, the Indian government has spared little time in displaying its stand against this move. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram said: â€œI think it is disservice to cricket that some of these players (Pakistani) were not picked. I donâ€™t know why the IPL teams acted in the manner they acted. But certainly to suggest that there was a hint or nudge from the Government is completely untrueâ€ (January 26).
Chidambaramâ€™s stand assumes importance as it suggests that the Indian government does not want to be blamed for exclusion of Pakistani players from IPLâ€™s Twenty20. It may be recalled that last year Chidambaram had warned the IPL against holding of the cricket tournament in the electoral season. His concern was providing security. The IPL boss Lalit Modi had then decided to hold the event in South Africa. The Indian government is apparently annoyed at exclusion of Pakistani players as it amounts to IPL adding tension to the already fragile Indo-Pak ties. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is understood to be upset at exclusion of Pakistani players as, in his opinion, according to sources, this amounts to closing a â€œwindow of opportunityâ€ to normalize the tense ties. Had Chidambaram refused to comment or had even restrained from criticizing the IPL, the Indian governmentâ€™s stand would have carried little diplomatic or political significance. His statement that Indian government must not be blamed for IPLâ€™s move, which he has also criticized, apparently is meant to calm the Pakistani government and appease the cricket fans waiting for the Pakistani players. Describing the latter as â€œamong the best in Twenty20,â€ Chidambaram said: â€œThese players were coming as individuals, it was not a Pakistani team.â€
But the damage has been done. Reacting against IPLâ€™s move, the Pakistani Cricket Board (PCB) withdrew the no objection certificates they had issued earlier to their players to participate in IPL. In the IPL auction held in Mumbai on January 19, 11 Pakistani players were included. None were bought by franchises leading to subsequent allegations, criticism and blame-game. Launched by Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), on lines of United States National Basketball League (NBA), the IPL works on a franchise-system, which were put to auction for the first time on January 24, 2008.
An attempt has been made by some franchise owners to ease the tension by saying that â€œsecurityâ€ concerns prompted them to exclude Pakistani players. Angry and hurt, legendary Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan said in Karachi: â€œIf the IPL franchises had any concerns about security and other issues about signing on our players they should have been clear about this and not invited them to the auction in the first place. But to include them in the auction and then to snub them was appalling and our cricket board and government should lodge a strong protest with the Indian government over thisâ€ (January 31).
Bollywood superstar, Shahrukh Khan â€“ who is co-owner of Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR)- team said that he would have selected a Pakistani player for IPL matches if his team had a slot. â€œPakistani cricketers are champions and they should be selected for IPL. Their exclusion from IPL is an insult.â€ In the IPLâ€™s first edition, KKR had five players from Pakistan. Referring to security concerns, he said: â€œIf they were any issues, they should have been put on board earlier. Everything can happen respectfully.â€ Giving emphasis to the need for India and Pakistan to have normal relations, he said: â€œWe are great neighbors, They are good neighbors. Let us love each other.â€ â€œLet me be honest. My family is from Pakistan, my father was born there and his family is from there,â€ he said.
Shahrukhâ€™s comments have provoked protests from Shiv Sena activists. In his editorial in partyâ€™s mouthpiece, Saamna, Sena chief Bal Thackeray wrote that Shahrukh deserves Pakistanâ€™s highest civilian award â€œNishaan-e-Pakistanâ€ for supporting Pakistani cricketersâ€™ inclusion in IPL. Sena activists demonstrated outside Shahrukhâ€™s bungalow â€œMannatâ€ at Bandra. Suggesting that Shahrukh should go to Pakistan, they displayed a travel ticket for him from Mumbai to Karachi. They also tore down posters of Shahrukhâ€™s new film, â€œMy Name is Khanâ€ and wrote to theatre owners asking them not to screen this move. Security was increased outside Shahrukhâ€™s Bandra residence and a number of protestors were arrested (January 31).
Meanwhile, the Indian government is trying its best to repeatedly assert that it is against IPLâ€™s exclusion of Pakistani players. â€œNo one in the government wanted such a situation,â€ a senior government official said. Another said: â€œWe had fast-tracked the visa process and issued them multi-entry visas in December and January so that they could take part in the tournament.â€
Sports Minister M.S. Gill expressed the â€œhope that there will soon be an opportunity for these boys to play exciting cricket in India.â€ Criticizing the present fiasco, he said: â€œI trust that the IPL corporate owners have also taken a small lesson from it. Everyone must realize that sport is the bedrock of people-to-people contact, which we need to promote with our neighbors.â€ Indian government remains hopeful that Indo-Pak cricket diplomacy will be back on track soon, with the two countriesâ€™ players on one pitch!