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Ungentlemanly Conduct

The furor over the IPL’s exclusion of Pakistani cricket players.

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They should’ve seen it coming. The Pakistani cricketers — and, in fact, the entire Pakistani cricket establishment — should have had more than an inkling of what awaited them at the auction tables of the Indian Premier League. Apparently, they aren’t conversant with Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which posits that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

 

Here is a T-20 cricket league of privately-owned franchises that shovel millions of dollars into the pockets of players from national cricket teams the world over. Apart from the players’ on-field performance, two over-arching concerns for these cricket entrepreneurs are the players’ availability and their personal security during the six-week-long IPL season.

On both counts, Pakistani cricketers in recent times have come under a dark cloud, not entirely of their own making. During the last IPL season, it wasn’t the Indian Government or the Board of Control for Cricket in India that stopped them from participating. The Pakistan Government did, in ostensible retaliation against India canceling its Test tour to Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai attacks. And with the anti-terrorist mood prevalent in India after 26/11 and a series of other similar attacks and blasts across the country, Pakistani cricketers are an obvious security headache for the IPL franchisees.

So the owners did what any shrewd and self-serving businessman does to protect his financial interests: they avoided trouble — or potential trouble, if you will — and decided collectively to refrain from bidding for such “troublesome” Pakistani cricketers, notwithstanding the fact that they are the reigning world champions of T-20 cricket. The result: At the IPL auction in Mumbai last month for its upcoming third season, there were no takers from among the eight franchises for any Pakistani player.

 
The IPL is more soap opera than cricket: Kings XI’s team owner Bollywood actress Preity Zinta consoling Sreesanth after he was slapped by Harbhajan Singh of
the Mumbai Indians.

The reaction: Hit hardest by the IPL auction snub, the hapless Pakistani cricketers for whom the boycott means a huge dent in earnings, could be excused for yelping. But a sizable portion of the reaction in Pakistan was expectedly puerile. Pakistani cricket fans burnt effigies of Lalit Modi, the yuppie IPL commissioner who has lisped his way into many a controversy before. The Pakistan Cricket Board threatened to file a complaint with the International Cricket Council against the IPL in the mistaken notion that the ICC has jurisdiction over the player-selection policies of individual IPL franchisees. Former Pakistan cricket team captain Imran Khan, who has been nursing unrequited political ambitions since he retired, protested that the snub was “punishment for 26/11.”

The Pakistani Government’s knee-jerk responses were typical of an unstable regime seeking to distract public attention from its failures by demonizing an enemy country. A parliamentary delegation was stopped from traveling to New Delhi as was the Pakistani kabaddi team. Its hockey team’s chances of playing in the World Cup to be hosted this year in India look increasingly bleak. The Pakistani Information and Broadcasting Minister promised to consider a ban on all Indian television channels, prompting another politician to demand that all sporting and diplomatic ties with the Indian Government be frozen until the country apologized.

India-bashing has long been a profitable activity across the border. But when some of the more reasonable and otherwise level-headed voices join the chorus, it is time to sit back and wonder if we are dealing with a bunch of feudal fiefdoms masquerading as a modern nation-state that is held together by the glue of anti-Indian sentiment?

For instance, Justice Hamid Ali Mirza, Pakistan’s Chief Election Commissioner, called off a trip to India to participate in the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Indian Election Commission. Does modernizing your country’s election machinery take a back seat in the face of a perceived slight to a dozen or so of your country’s sportsmen by a private business?

Even the highly respected Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jehangi complained: “How would you (Indians) feel if we did it to you?” We feel sad, Ms. Jehangir, not about anything you could or would do to us, but about the unfortunate fact that it takes so little to evaporate that warm feeling of Indo-Pak people-to-people friendship which you and others on either side of the border did so much to foster.

 

Before India and Pakistan sink deeper into this spiral of miscommunication, mistrust and misunderstanding, let us look objectively at the facts related to the latest IPL auction.

IPL is a private body, which, for reasons of security, particularly of its foreign players, has often to defer to governmental diktats. It is possible — even probable, if insider whispers can be believed — that the franchise-owners were “influenced” by the babus in New Delhi and “persuaded” by right-wing politicos in Mumbai into “going easy” on selecting Pakistani cricketers. But the ultimate decision was that of a private-sector body seeking to maximize its profits, and should not be confused with governmental policy. To use Pakistan’s own words in the context of its 26/11 denials, the IPL franchises are essentially “non-state actors.”

Private firms answer to their shareholders and not the general public for their choice of personnel. That choice arguably was determined in this case by the specific needs of individual IPL teams and their financial resources. Which is why some otherwise attractive players, such as the West Indian batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan, Australia’s wicketkeeper-batsman Brad Haddin and the English spinner Graham Swann came a cropper at the auction. Should we expect raging demonstrations in Guyana, Australia and England protesting their absence in this season’s IPL?

At the same time however, this does not absolve the franchise-owners of charges of collusion and cartelization, which are abhorrent to free markets. The amateurish cloak-and-dagger secrecy in which the plot to isolate and boycott the Pakistani cricketers was hatched and executed with bumbling ineptitude violated the basic norms of sound business practice. What prevented the owners from being upfront about their apprehensions over player availability and security prior to the auction? It would certainly have spared the league the all-round embarrassment of excluding some of the world’s star-players and also have helped spike the nagging doubt that its auctions may be “fixed” by political honchos and its matches, by extension, by bookie conglomerates.

The actions of India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, who issued holier-than-thou statements in the aftermath of the auction, are especially galling. As part-owner of the Kolkata Knight-Riders franchise, Khan lacked the guts to rebel against the collective franchises’ decision. And now that it has come to haunt the league, Khan suddenly finds it “humiliating” that none of the Pakistani players were selected and wants to play the angst-ridden hero. But only upto a safe point. He told a Mumbai newspaper that he and team captain Saurav Ganguly wanted to pick Pak all-rounder Abdul Razzaq. “But I’m not going to be the one who is opposite from what everyone else is saying,” he said, tail firmly between his legs.

Chidambaram is a different kettle of politically correct fish. Lamenting the exclusion of Pakistani players from IPL, he insisted that the Indian Government had no hand in the exclusions. A simple question for Chidambaram: Can his Home Ministry guarantee the safety of the Pakistani players during their IPL sojourn in India? Only if he can answer that affirmatively can he go around protesting the exclusion as “a disservice to cricket.”

It is easy to pontificate over keeping politics away from sports. But history shows that the separation never quite works in the real world. Ask the cricketers who bore the brunt of the world boycott of South Africa’s apartheid regime until it was dismantled two decades ago. Ask Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock who, among other cricketing geniuses from that country, had to sacrifice their Test careers in the ‘60s and the ‘70s because of the geographical accident of their birth. There is no escaping the cruel truth that together with your national colors you also wear the burden of your country’s reputation in fields unrelated to your game.

Sanity better prevail soon in the Pakistan camp, or else the petulance could extract a heavy cost for its players. IPL is primed for its July auction, which entails the induction of two new franchises and in which nearly 500 players will go under the hammer for a fresh round of bids. The league also plans a rule change allowing a hike in the overall cap on foreign players in every squad from the present 10 to 12. Continued mud-slinging from across the border will scarcely endear the Pakistani players to the franchise owners.

 

 

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February 2010 | Sports

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