June 3, 2014

Isn't it time Pakistanis were in the IPL?

There were reasons for why the two countries stopped playing each other, but they aren't all that valid anymore

Azhar Mahmood has played in the IPL thanks to his dual passport © BCCI

The recently concluded IPL was capped by a final where the winning team chased down 200 runs quite comfortably. So let me begin this blog by planting my first marker right here: this wouldn't have happened had there been some Pakistani bowlers around.

I am not being entirely facetious here. The top three T20I wicket-takers of all time are active Pakistani players, and three Pakistani bowlers currently sit in the ICC's top ten for the format.

This year's tournament was the only time in five events that Pakistan's bowling failed to carry its misfiring batting to a WT20 semi-final (or better). And the only home ODI series India have lost in close to five years (and ten series; 11 if you include the last World Cup) is when Pakistan's attack came for a visit. Pakistani bowlers are some of the best in T20s, and they are some of the best when it comes to bowling in India.

It's a realisation that doesn't seem to have been completely lost on IPL teams. Both the iconic Ws of Pakistan's '90s are coaches in the IPL, with Wasim coaching the current champions and Waqar handling Dale Steyn and Co. for the Hyderabad Sunrisers. Dual-passport holder Azhar Mahmood has clocked several seasons, while the hapless Delhi side even brought in Imran Tahir for this edition, a Lahori leg-spinner who was similarly drafted in by a hapless South Africa side not too long ago.

Yet for six years now, the IPL has continued to do without Pakistani bowlers or batsmen (we don't mind them skipping on the wicketkeepers; we'd like to do the same). After an initial ban following the ghastly and tragic Mumbai attacks in 2008, Pakistani players were brought into the 2010 auction but went unsold. That frankly humiliating situation has now gone on since then.

There are two main reasons given for this exclusion, the first of which is security. This claim, which began with authentic concerns, feels largely ridiculous now. Apart from the four mentioned above, Ramiz Raja and Shoaib Akhtar have both been commentating through the IPL, and Pakistani umpires have been involved as well. Since there have been no issues with any of these people, it does sound odd to claim that similar security can't be provided to any Pakistani players playing for an IPL side. Moreover, since the attacks, a number of Pakistani actors and singers have made it to Indian screens, while a host of Pakistani writers and poets have been populating the region's many literature festivals, and yet the cricketers are still kept out.

The second reason given for the exclusion of Pakistani players is more sensitive and more wide-ranging. The ban/embargo on Pakistani players occurred as a direct consequence of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Since those attacks took place, the two states of India and Pakistan have continued to have differences on the prosecution of the perpetrators. In that context, it is understandable how the implicit ban on Pakistani cricketers could be part of a wider reality. Yet, with all due respect, even this claim rings slightly hollow now that a Pakistani side has already toured India once, and more importantly, now that the two countries' cricket boards have begun discussions on hosting no fewer than six bilateral series over the next nine years.

If anything, the presence of the Pakistani team in India held greater symbolic value than individual cricketers playing in the IPL would, and experience has shown that it went off without a hitch. Perhaps the greatest possible symbolic obstacle was overcome when India's new prime minister, whose campaign promised a tough stance with Islamabad, invited his Pakistani counterpart to be present at his swearing-in. If Indian and Pakistani politicians can make meet but the countries' cricketers can't on the field, then there is something very wrong with the world.

What truly puzzles me is that beyond the excuses, the decision makes little sporting, and consequently financial, sense.

Last week, thanks to two Indians who are supposedly Test cricket fans, I learned of Branch Rickey. The American owner of a baseball team, Rickey became famous for (amongst several other reasons) breaking Major League Baseball's colour barrier by signing the African American player Jackie Robinson. While his act carried enormous political and cultural weight, at the heart of its motivations was the simple fact that Robinson was a terrific player. In his first season, Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award as his team went all the way to the World Series finals. As a contemporary later recalled, Rickey's decision "was born out of a combination of idealism and astute business sense".

Given the IPL's teams are run by some of India's most celebrated corporates, and have the finances to hoover up talent from around the world, one wonders how long they can continue to persist with a business decision as terrible as the one to exclude Pakistani players. If they do sign some up, the significant cultural and economic common ground between the two countries means that endorsements, sponsorships and other commercial link-ups would exploit both the Pakistani and Indian markets.

The move would also likely generate the same sort of PR boost that politicians and actors, among others, have recently received due to cross-border cooperation. But most significantly, signing Pakistani players would mean more wins, more fans, more money. When it comes to the bottom line, Pakistani players are a significant asset to have on the side.

To be fair, it can be argued that the mood has been slow to change, and the notoriously fickle India-Pakistan relations continue to be unreliable. In that light, it is understandable that team owners might feel apprehensive. But I genuinely feel that the time for us to move on has arrived.

So, for what might be the only time in my life, let me sum up by paraphrasing a famous Ronald Regan quote: "Mr Srinivasan - tear down this wall!"

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

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