It was at Lord’s over biryani — what else could have India and Pakistan bonded over — where cricket’s big Asian coup was planned. A day after the 66-1 underdogs India won the 1983 World Cup, the Indian cricket board president, N K P Salve, and his Pakistan counterpart, retired Air Chief Marshal Nur Khan, met for lunch at the home of cricket. Salve was pleased but a shade sad too. He still couldn’t get over the snub he got from those veto-power wielding snooty MCC boys over his request for extra tickets for the India-West Indies final. Later, he would write in his book that it wasn’t the refusal but the rude rebuff that had hurt him.
Salve would share his pain with Khan, who, too, reserved special scorn for the ICC’s undemocratic ways. With utter disbelief and disdain, the two would contrast Lord’s alleged ungraciousness to the Subcontinent’s legendary hospitality. “Extra tickets?… that’s the least we would do for guests,” they would lament. History books say that it was Khan’s very pragmatic query to Salve that would eventually trigger cricket’s eastward shift. “Why can’t we play the next World Cup in our countries?” he had asked. Next year, in 1984, the India-Pakistan-Sri Lanka consortium would join forces to drag the World Cup out of England, and ferry it all the way to Asia.
Salve and Khan — unlikely allies from either side of the prickly fence — had done the impossible. They didn’t let their day job come in the way of their honorary pursuit to promote the game they were so passionate about. One was a life-long Congressman, an Indira Gandhi loyalist, a sitting Lok Sabha MP when India-Pakistan went to war in 1971. The other, Pakistan Air Force’s commander-in-chief during the 1965 war against India. But on that monumental June afternoon at Lord’s, the bitter neighbours decided that they would watch each other’s back at ICC meetings.
Salve and Khan crystalised cricket’s parallel power centre and called it the Asian bloc. In years to come, the two nations would jointly host two World Cups. In Jagmohan Dalmiya, a businessman from Kolkata, and Ehsan Mani, a Rawalpindi-born British-educated chartered accountant, the ICC got its most influential chiefs responsible for filling cricket’s so-far empty coffers. Mani and Dalmiya would also collaborate to teach the cricketing world the economics of TV rights.
With time, India and Pakistan would have differences. At the turn of the century, Pakistan’s dip coincided with India’s phenomenal rise. The world stopped touring Pakistan after the 2009 terror strike and the IPL franchise shunned Pak players on auction day. The BCCI would diligently follow the Indian government’s policy to avoid Pakistan in bilateral series but in private, the cricket officials would day-dream about past Indo-Pak games. The buzz before those games, those VVIPs queuing outside the cricket centre, phone calls from offices as high as the PMO for passes… Oh how much they missed those days of a windfall when cricket triggered a virtual curfew in India and Pakistan! For both emotional and economic reasons, they longed for cricket’s biggest tamasha but they were willing to wait.
A fortnight ago, in the wake of the Pulwama terror attack, the BCCI did something unprecedented. They asked the ICC to ban Pakistan. The (CoA) chairman, Vinod Rai, said Pakistan, like South Africa in the past, should face cricket apartheid. It was an ugly, ill-advised wild cross-batted heave played with closed eyes and from way outside the crease. It was a misadventure that didn’t follow any textbook. It certainly wasn’t inspired by the Olympic charter that asked administrators to remain apolitical in all circumstances. The fundamental principle of Olympism calls the practice of sport a human right. It discourages discrimination and promotes “friendship, solidarity and fair play”. If those standards were too high and idealistic, even turning the pages of Indian cricket history would take them to the chapter of solidarity that Salve and Khan had so meticulously written.
In its inscrutable urgency, in the season of war-mongering and nationalistic chest thumping, the BCCI jumped the gun. They forgot that it was Sushma Swaraj, the external affairs minister, who had the mandate to decide India’s international stance and if need be, to lobby to isolate Pakistan. For years, the BCCI would throw the ball in the government’s court when it came to playing Pakistan. Now they are bringing out their big brutal forehand and doing their own hitting.
Rai’s invocation of apartheid, too, seems misplaced. The Pakistan of now is different to South Africa then. South African sports suffered sanctions because it followed the government policy of racial segregation. Had their cricket board remained apolitical, they wouldn’t have allowed all-white teams but pressed for mixed squads. Being non-inclusive and discriminatory was never kosher on a sporting field.
With due apologies to those with delusions of grandeur, the BCCI needs to be reminded that its only objective is to administer and promote cricket in its own country. Regardless of the trending topics on Twitter, choking cricket in the neighbourhood was no surgical strike — it was a distasteful and diabolical overreach.
The BCCI’s letter to the ICC could easily go down as the most meaningless official communication ever. Did the Indian board really believe that the ICC would actually ban Pakistan? By raising the issue of terror camps in Pakistan with the international cricket body, did the BCCI fancy itself to be the MEA or did they confuse the ICC for the UN?
Cricket is a complicated sport with limited reach. With barely eight nations that can boast of any quantifiable cricketing history, would the ICC, or other non-Indian members, have ever considered cutting one of its strong limbs? Were those who signed the ICC letter blind to the contribution of Indo-Pak matches in cricket’s unquestionable mass appeal or how the game will get devalued in the absence of World Cup games against Pakistan?
It would have needed a non-cricketing heart of stone to talk about closing the door on Pakistan. It’s a country that has contributed enormously to cricket. They have enriched the game and added heft to cricket’s narrative. Visionary captains, world champion teams, frustrating enigmas, sultans of reverse swing, doosra inventing geniuses, hilarious sledgers, run machines, audacious stroke players, Wasim Akram… Pakistan has given a lot but hasn’t got back enough.
Maybe the BCCI’s decision to call for Pakistan’s ban had something to do with its present-day non-cricketing culture. The old BCCI office bearers are well and truly sidelined and the only cricketer in the Supreme Court’s ad hoc CoA, Diana Eduljee, is in a minority. Veteran bureaucrat Rai, just-included Lieutenant General Ravi Thodge and CEO Rahul Johri, are among the decision makers and representatives of Indian cricket at ICC meets. The recent corporatisation and the addition of assorted spin doctors have made the BCCI lose its sense of history. They have no connection to the era when the BCCI worked out of a 1BHK hovel, lacked resources, worked on relationships with members, lobbied to gain their support and finally toppled the Gentlemen at MCC. Those on court-appointed temporary duty aren’t worried about having long-term allies.
Rai told this newspaper that the present dispensation wasn’t a “closed cricket community, we represent the nation”. He even justified the decision by saying how it “reflected the sentiment of the nation”. It was a hint that henceforth it would be the pulse of the country that will sway cricket decisions. Here’s calling for a nation-wide referendum to decide if M S Dhoni should be India’s wicket-keeper at the World Cup or should the selectors pick Rishabh Pant.
— This article first appeared in the March 6, 2019 print edition under the title ‘BCCI’s surgical strike out’