A MONG the more famous quotes about the game of football is one from a top English team manager who once said: “ Football is not just a matter of life and death. It is much more important than that”. What he said about the beautiful game could be a metaphor for cricketing ties between India and Pakistan. Long before the uneasy neighbours began to play each other, cricket had stopped being referred to as the “ gentleman’s game” and though the Ashes series involving England and Australia is the most celebrated rivalry in the game, nothing can match the passions that an Indo- Pak encounter arouses. Yet, as we have seen so often, after the last ball is bowled or the last wicket taken, and one side celebrates and the other agonises, fans have lined up to applaud the truly great performers— on both sides.
That’s why millions of cricket lovers around the world are appalled at the IPL’s decision to keep out Pakistani players from its third edition beginning in March. Foreign players have enriched the tournament in its first two editions and there were 77 foreigners registered for 12 slots available for them in IPL3. Of them, 11 were from Pakistan who incidentally are the current World T- 20 champions. Which team owner in his cricketing senses wouldn’t want to have a world beater in his team?
The issue predictably has triggered a cross border crisis with the Pakistan government accusing India of humiliating its players and threatening to snap all sporting and cultural ties. The owners of the eight teams have responded saying they merely acted “ under pressure from above”. This is rubbish. I have reason to believe that it was a decision jointly taken by all teams, prompted by the business calculations of their owners who paid crores to acquire the franchises. I am reliably told that at an informal meeting of team owners shortly before bidding began, one of them questioned the wisdom of investing money on Pakistani players in the absence of guarantees that the players would be given visas or allowed to play. Such fears weren’t baseless considering the current cross border tensions.
Later, when bidding began, one team owner quoted from the morning papers a statement attributed to Robert Gates, the visiting United States Defence Secretary, that “ India will not tolerate another 26/ 11 attack on its soil”. After that, all it took was less than a minute for the eight owners or their representatives— including Vijay Mallya ( Bangalore ), Nikhjil Meswani, ( Mumbai) R Srinivasan ( Chennai) Shilpa Shetty ( Jaipur) and others to make up their minds.
Alarmed, the ICC representative at the meeting suggested a com- Shah Rukh Khan promise whereby Pakistan players could be kept out of matches in Mumbai— where the Shiv Sena had issued the mandatory pitch digging threats. But the owners were not ready to stick their necks out. Their obstinacy was enough to make even Saurav Ganguly and Anil Kumble, former captains who are in charge of coaching of the Kolkata and Bangalore teams and who know the real worth of the Pakistani players, fall in line.
Now that all hell has broken loose, all sides are involved in finger pointing. Team owners still insist there was pressure from “ above”. Some have come to the conclusion that the “ mysterious being above” is Lalit Modi, the IPL Commissioner. I cannot see the shrewd businessman ever coming up with such a business unfriendly strategy. Others lay the blame on the Home Ministry.
But Home Minister P Chidambaram, a self confessed cricket fan, has said that the government had no role in their exclusion. Proof of that lies in the fact that 17 Pakistani players have already been issued visas by the government of India.
So who is being economical with the truth? We will never know, but statements in the last few days from team owners indicate they are either confused or belatedly realise their mistakes.
Actor Shah Rukh Khan must have kept in mind the fact that his latest film, My Name is Khan is due for release soon and the Sena could turn a potential hit into a dud, at least in Mumbai.
Later, in a public statement he lamented the exclusion of Pakistani players. If he really wanted Pakistanis in his team, did his representatives fail to read his mind? Now that the Sena has dared him to pick one, it remains to be seen whether he will put his money where his mouth is. Others too have reacted similarly and we will have to wait and see. For the moment though, the message that has percolated down is: Damn the players, damn the spectators, the owners are there because of a lust for the fast buck.