To play Pakistan or not to play?

Big game
Indian and Pakistani fans ahead of the 2011 World Cup semifinal between the two countries at Mohali. File photo: AFP

Sports history is built on stories of legendary rivalries on the field, which lend spice and charm to the encounters. Such hard-fought contests can take place not only in individual events such as athletics, tennis etc but also in team games like cricket, football, etc as well. Hence matches between two sides who have a record of bitterly fought battles in the playing arena generate more excitement, attracting larger numbers of spectators. And when such encounters take place on the biggest stage that the sport can offer, the effect is electrifying, bringing out the best in the competitors.

In cricket, the most ancient rivalry is the one between England and Australia. Many reasons have been put forward to explain the reasons for the intensity with which battles for the “Ashes” urn are fought, ranging from the infamous “Bodyline” bowling adopted by England in 1930s to the aggression displayed by the Aussies since 1970s. However, the discerning would observe that the root cause is that England hates to lose to a country to where they used to deport the less desirables in their society, while for the Australians, nothing would give them greater happiness than whipping the players from the land of their ancestors and prove their superiority. The comment made by Ian Botham on the eve of 1992 World Cup “It would be nice to win the Cup in front of 100,000 ex-convicts,” sums up the reason for ferocity involved in matches between the two sides, in a succinct, albeit inelegant, manner.

Intense rivalry

In present day cricket the most riveting contest is the one between India and Pakistan. It would be no exaggeration to state that the most eagerly watched match during the ICC World Cup, scheduled to commence in England in May, is the one between these two nations to be held at Manchester on June 16. It has been reported that till date more than 400,000 applicants have registered for tickets for this match, which is to be played at Old Trafford ground, capable of seating only 25,000 spectators! In contrast, till date only 270,000 persons have sought tickets for the final to played on July 14!

A win to cherish
Indian players Ajay Jadeja and Javagal Srinath take off after their win over Pakistan in a Super Six game of the 1999 World Cup at Old Trafford. File photo: AFP

Reports have started appearing in various sections of media, that India should desist from playing against Pakistan in the wake of the dastardly attack on the CRPF platoon on February 14 at Pulwama which resulted in the death of at least 40 jawans. Many prominent persons, including former skipper Saurav Ganguly and ex-national player Harbhajan Singh, have come out in the open seeking that India should severe all sporting ties with Pakistan, including the match in World Cup. There have also been demands that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) should pressurise the International Cricket Council (ICC) to suspend Pakistan from playing the World Cup. Neither the BCCI nor the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has made any official statement in this regard. Meanwhile, Sunil Gavaskar opined that India would be better off beating Pakistan in the World Cup match rather than conceding two points. Gavaskar's views have been supported by Sachin Tendulkar as well. The situation is still volatile and the wounds caused by the attack are raw and hurting; hence the possibility of a balanced approach eluding decision makers is on the higher side at present.

India's perfect record

Every lover of the game knows that India have defeated Pakistan every time the two sides played against each other in a World Cup match. By a strange stroke of irony, the two neighbours did not get an opportunity to test their mettle against each other during the first four editions of the World Cup, despite hosting one of them jointly. It was only during the 1992 World Cup, which Pakistan under Imran Khan, their present Prime Minister, won ultimately, that the two sides met for the first time. It was a low-scoring match and India did well to emerge winners by a margin of 43 runs. Incidentally, this was Sachin Tendulkar’s first exposure to the tournament and he bagged the man of the match award in this game with a brilliant all-round performance.

After this encounter, India and Pakistan have played against each other on five occasions in ICC World Cup. These matches were held twice in India (1996 at Bangalore and 2011 at Mohali) and once each in England, South Africa and Australia and each of these five games had resulted in fierce contests.

Epic knock
Sachin Tendulkar was in his element in a Super Six game of the 2003 World Cup against Pakistan at Centurion. File photo: AFP

However, one cricketer towers over the rest when stories of the matches between India and Pakistan are told. He is none other than Tendulkar, who cast a firm imprint on these ties by superlative personal performances that saw him being adjudged as the man of the match on three of the five occasions when he took the field. It was this uncanny ability to raise his performance levels on the big stage, when the stress levels would be sky high, that has earned Tendulkar a permanent place in the pantheon of the all time greats of the game.

Hence, from the spectators point of view, absence of India- Pakistan clash would take the sheen away from the World Cup. Similarly from the side of cricketers too it would be a severe let down as this would amount to denying them an opportunity to display their wares before the largest audience that the game can fetch at present. Hence, there is bound to be tremendous disappointment if a decision is taken by the BCCI that India would not play their match against Pakistan.

Any move to stay away from clash on June 16 will trigger the most obvious question as to what would India do if both sides qualify to play against each other in the knockout stage? It would not make any sense whatsoever to withdraw from the championship at that stage citing that they had decided not to play against their opponents. Further, when one enters a tournament, one is bound by its rules and regulations and no side can claim any right to pick and choose who they would play or not play against.

Another option that the BCCI could mull over is to bring pressure on the ICC and other member countries to prevent Pakistan from taking part in all international matches. A ban of this nature on a member country was imposed once by the ICC- against South Africa in 1970 - on account of that nation following the practice of “apartheid” which prevented its cricket team from playing against sides comprising non-white players. The suspension was not against individual players and hence South African cricketers could play county cricket even though their national side could not play Test matches or take part in other international matches.

Sweet success
Sachin Tendulkar, left, and Indian captain M S Dhoni celebrate their win over Pakistan in the 2011 World Cup semifinal at Mohali. File photo: AFP

However, there is one vital difference between the two situations. In the case of South Africa, what other cricket playing nations took objection was the policy of the government of that nation. In the present instance Pakistan has not owned up responsibility for acts of terror committed nor do the government there publicly support terrorists. In fact it has been the constant stand of that country that such heinous acts are committed by “stateless actors”. Hence it would take all of BCCI’s bargaining power and financial muscle to coax other members of the ICC to support a proposal for suspending Pakistan from playing international cricket. Even if such a move succeeds, it would severely dent the image and popularity of the BCCI with its counterparts in the ICC. Further, decisions of this nature are not left to the discretion of sports bodies and would necessarily involve getting approval from the concerned governments as well. Hence, any move from the BCCI in this regard should be undertaken in consultation and with full blessings of the Ministry of External Affairs.

However, the larger issue pertains to the objective that such a boycott seeks to achieve. The question that merit being asked in this regard would be

1. What are the fair chances that the BCCI would be able to convince cricket administrations and governments of other member countries of the ICC to support a motion for banning Pakistan from international cricket?

2. Would such a step by the BCCI contribute to bringing down instances of terrorism or make Pakistan establishment and the cricket lovers of the country more antagonistic towards India?

3. Should cricket be considered as a soft power for promoting peace and making India more popular across the world or is it to be used as a deterrent?

4. Would any initiative taken by the BCCI to ban Pakistan lead to bringing cricket matches and players in India also within the radar of terror organisations?

Unless they think all these aspects through and formulate clear and cogent answers to these questions, the BCCI should desist from initiating any move for banning Pakistan from international cricket. I personally endorse the views of Gavaskar and Tendulkar that it would be better to give Virat Kohli and his boys an opportunity to hand over a whipping to the cricketers from that country on the playing field rather than attempting to keep them away from it.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

Read more from Vantage Point