The mood across the border is seen as "changing" with Pakistan's Sports Minister S.K. Tressler saying "Although the issue of Kashmir will top the agenda, the Chief Executive (Pervez Musharraf) will also talk about the cricket relations between the two countries." Soft talk during a summit on which perhaps hinges the future of the people of J&K. Is it then what many cynics are claiming to be an "eyewash"?
Whatever the outcome of the Vajpayee-Musharraf talks, the very announcement of the Pakistan CEO coming here to talk cricket among things has come like mannah from heaven for the under-seige BCCI back home where its relations with the Sports Ministry is fast turning into a war of words - a game of one-upmanship. It is ironic that the conflict is over an issue which appears to be as clear as daylight. The government prohibits the BCCI from playing Pakistan in bilateral contests but okays contests against that country in a multilateral event. But then wise heads have said "Common sense is rare sense." Hence this much ado about nothing. As this senseless drama unfolds, cricket fans as well as the BCCI mandarins watch with bated breath as the powers that be on Raisina Hill chalk out the future course of action.
The current drama began with BCCI chief Muthiah’s "unilateral announcement" at the Asian Cricket Council meet in Lahore, committing to play Pakistan in a Test of the Asian Test Championship (ATC) at Karachi in September. The statement dented the pride of the fiery and "nationalistic" Sports Minister Uma Bharti, who has taken it upon herself to rid Indian cricket of all its ills and to bring the truant BCCI to book.
Her statement "To play in Pakistan, the BCCI has to first give a written proposal to the Sports Ministry which in turn would forward it to the Ministry of External Affairs. The final decision rests with the MEA," might have drawn applause from the saffron circles, but cricketing pundits were quick to infer that it was another step in the direction of bringing cricket under closer official control and that the sport was being used as a tool to further her political career. Ms Bharti has had little to work in this direction. She assumed office when the match-fixing saga was still selling copies and she seems to have effortlessly taken over where her predecessor SS Dhindsa (perhaps the first Sports Minister to have received mass media coverage on such an unprecedented scale) left off.
Utterings from the likes of Mutthiah and Lele are always convenient fodder to feed off but in her eagerness to hog the headlines, the Minister seems to have tied herself up in knots. While on one hand she has been sermonising the board on not playing the enemy, rumours were rife within Sports Ministry circles as soon as Vajpayee's invite to Musharraf was announced that she was planning a special cricket series with Pakistan to complement the efforts of the PM to engage Pakistan in bilateral talks.
The series was likely to be announced before the arrival of Gen. Musharraf. In the absence of the PM, holidaying in Manali, Ms Bharti met Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra to apprise him of her plans. The Minister was even slated to meet the PM early this week. Confronted with the report, an-ever belligerent Ms Bharti shot back "When the ties through sports are to be discussed, the views of the Sports Ministry would be taken into account. Beyond this, whatever is being written in the media is a matter of pure speculation."
Her wheeling dealings have left the BCCI officials losing face."I think we are back to square one," a BCCI official said. "It's all very confusing. I am not sure when we will play against Pakistan again." The BCCI took refuge in an official directive that permitted cricket matches against Pakistan in multi-nation events. Not only did the BCCI publicly confirm that India would take part, but it also signed up to a new ACC ruling that imposes hefty fines on teams refusing to play a match.
The BCCI official, who requested anonymity because he did not want to "get into trouble," said the Sports Ministry's flip-flop was tarnishing India's image in international cricket. "One day they say we can play against Pakistan in multi-nation events, now we hear something else," the official said. "We agreed to the Asian Test Championship because we have a written directive from the Sports Ministry about multi-nation events. "The championship is not only about India and Pakistan. There are Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also to contend with."
Former ICC president Jagmohan Dalmiya stepped into the ring to prove the Sports Ministry's go-ahead for the second edition of the ATC. Releasing copies of the communication between Muthiah and the Sports Ministry, Dalmiya said the board had produced the Sports Ministry's letter at the Asian Cricket Council's meeting in Lahore. "The fixtures were drawn up after receiving clarification from the board. Chairman of the Asian Cricket Foundation, which will implement the ACC's programmes, Dalmiya said, "We were aware of the strain in cricketing ties between India and Pakistan. That is why we wanted something in writing from the Indian board. Since they had answered our queries, we went ahead with finalising the fixtures".
The Ministry's reply could not have been clearer. "Since ICC Knockout and World Cup are multilateral tournaments, it has no objection to the Indian team playing in these tournaments despite the fact that certain matches in these tournaments may be played between India and Pakistan either in India or in Pakistan."
Undoubtedly, Dalmiya had a point. Contrary to Sports Minister Uma Bharti's statement that the board had not intimated the proposals regarding playing Pakistan in the ATC, Muthiah's letter dated 25 April clearly stated that India and Pakistan would be required to play each other in the forthcoming Asia Cup and ATC, events held on a rotational basis.
The board's letter said that in the absence of clear-cut policy guidelines from the government on venues and opponents, the BCCI was unable to have a definite cricket calendar for the Indian team in the period to follow. The letter had sought policy guidelines from the government on six specific points in response to Muthiah's letter. In reply, the Ministry had clarified that "Regarding tournaments indicated in the ICC calendar, it is stated that participation in such events is covered under the general policy that India will continue to play Pakistan in multilateral tournaments at regular venues". The Ministry's letter, dated 10 May and signed by Joint Secretary B.K. Das, said there was no change in the government stand regarding bilateral series against Pakistan.
While the board is right in pointing to the government's directive, the BCCI, perhaps took too much at face value. Given the Ministry's frequent vaults vis-a-vis playing Pakistan -- be it not playing that country for abetment of terrorism in J&K or in non-regular venues like Sharjah and Toronto for fear of match-fixing -- should have made Muthiah more vigilant. More so with Ms Bharti at the helm. The Sadhvi has the knack of admitting to and then denying reports. One such incident being her admitting having "soft feelings" towards Govindacharya during an interview to a magazine. Ms Bharti did a immediate turnaround and staged a dharna outside the publication's office demanding an apology.
The BCCI-Ministry correspondence has had the Minister planning her next move and it can still turn out that all the inspired talk of India crossing the border after 12 years to play arch rivals Pakistan in September may come to naught.
The BCCI's fears found consonance in Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh words that the government was not in favour of resuming cricketing ties between India and Pakistan. "Cricket matches between the two countries were less cricket and more of a gladiatorial contest," he said during a Press conference. And then there are reports today about General Musharraf wanting to discuss cricketing ties with Vajpayee. Clearly, cricket seems to be becoming a core issue.
Apart from the fines that could be levied on the BCCI for capitulating, there could be further humiliation in store for the BCCI as the Australian Cricket Board -- the professional outfit that it is -- has already begun wooing the Dav Whatmore’s Sri Lankans to replace the Indians at the Colonial Stadium (Melbourne) and Gabba (Brisbane). Notwithstanding the nineteen-to-the-dozen talking BCCI honorary secretary JY Lele’s statement that India was ready to get on with the tour Down Under if the Aussies rescheduled the ODIs (slated for 14, 16 and 18 September), hopes that the contest would proceed appear to be scuttled. For after the 13-17 September Test against Pakistan in Karachi, the Indians play a home Test against Bangladesh from 21-25 September. The ACB cannot be blamed for its move given the stakes of modern day cricket.
India last appeared in a Test on Pakistani soil in 1989 when Krishnamachari Srikkanth's team played a four-Test series against Imran Khan's side. They returned in 1997 for a three-match one-day series to mark the Independence of Pakistan. Since 1989, Pakistan have appeared in two one-day series in India as well as a two-Test series in 1999. The same year they also contested the opening match of the inaugural ATC at Kolkata. India, after their 1989 Test tour, have cancelled four visits to Pakistan. The latest boycott was the Sharjah meet in April this year. The move angered the PCB, which said it would boycott the Indian team in future.
While insiders in the Sports Ministry and BCCI officials feel that nothing can unite India and Pakistan better than cricket, specially when the heads of the two states are going to talk peace, Ms Bharti refuses to lower her guard. "Bilateral cricketing ties have nothing to do with the souring of relations between the two countries. It was the souring of relations which resulted in the snapping of bilateral cricketing ties," is her stand. Compare her current stand to the situation in April when India's boycott of the Sharjah meet had the PCB chief Lt Gen Zia threatening to snap off cricketing ties. An ardent cricket fan, General Musharraf asked the PCB chief to tone down his anti-India stance and the latter had toned down his rhetoric.
The BCCI finds itself treading a thin line. On one hand Lt Gen Tauqir Zia has gone to town talking about the "commitment by the Indian officials on appearing in the ATC and how the match would revive relations between the two Asian powerhouses", and on the other is the rap the board has got from the Sports Ministry. Not to mention Jaswant Singh invoking gladiatorial contests in describing Indo-Pak cricket matches. A boycott of the September Test could leave India facing cricketing sanctions while friction with the government could threaten its favoured status. How Muthiah and his men steer their way out of troubled waters remains to be seen. Perhaps they would be rooting for the General from across the border to do the talking on their behalf.