How long before the next India-Pakistan series?
There was some expectation of concrete developments towards the resumption of bilateral cricketing ties between India and Pakistan when the chiefs of the respective boards met at the ICC annual conference in Kuala Lumpur. Though a major decision is still due, there has been some movement on both sides to restore ties, beginning with the 2011 World Cup semi-final in Mohali, followed by the decision to include a Pakistan team, Sialkot Stallions, in the upcoming Champions League. On this fortnight's Time Out, Harsha Bhogle spoke to ESPNcricinfo senior editor Sharda Ugra and Osman Samiuddin of the National about where the talks stand and whether a bilateral series is possible in the near future.
Extracts from the discussion below. The numbers in brackets are the duration of each segment.
Is the inclusion of a Pakistan team in the Champions League a starting point for a resumption of ties or a one-off? (2.00 - 7.23)
Osman Samiuddin: Sialkot Stallions have been on this run, winning seven out of nine domestic tournaments. People in Pakistan have always wanted to know how good Sialkot actually are on a world club stage. I don't know if they've actively followed the Champions League as much as the IPL, but they've wanted to see a Pakistan side in there. Nearly every country in the world has had a club side in there and Pakistanis feel rightly angry that they haven't been allowed a team in there. I think there will be interest this year and if it moves on to maybe having Pakistani players in the IPL next year that will be another big step as far as India-Pakistan generally are concerned.
Sharda Ugra: My instinct is telling me that it is a standalone at the moment. I don't expect corporates to be pretty courageous when it comes to something like this. They've shown that they didn't want to be courageous when it came to actually making a decision.
Harsha Bhogle: For all practical purposes, Azhar Mahmood is Pakistani. I know he carries a passport of a different colour, and that allowed him to come to India and play the IPL. He played for a franchise that made him feel more at home. There were young kids going up and chatting with him, using his experience and it didn't seem to rub anyone the wrong way. To me that was one of the highlights of this year's IPL.
OS: The experience that a lot of Pakistanis had in the first year of the IPL - they spoke pretty highly of it. They spoke as other players speak of it, that it's a great place to break down barriers and learn stuff from other players. They'll certainly benefit from it. More than anything, it's very important that Pakistani players should feel part of this cricketing fraternity of players from around the world. One of the biggest losses that you felt covering Pakistan over the last few years is that they have kind of felt a little disenfranchised from the rest of the world through no fault of their own. They felt a little away from the other players around the world who've had this great gathering point at the IPL. Even Indians and Australians are friends these days. The biggest advantage now is that at least Pakistan will be coming back into this international community of players.
What about the bigger issue - bilateral series? Also, how much is cricket subordinate to political relations between the countries? (7.25 - 12.26)
HB: People are making the right noises but the right noises are not translating into the right amount of cricket. I know there's no slot in the calendar for the next 12 months, certainly from an Indian point of view. But these slots can materialise if the need exists.
SU: It could work on two fronts. Primarily, they're going to check if the governments are okay with it and so far the governments seem like they're okay. That can change very quickly. Secondly, what benefit will be there for the Indian and Pakistani boards to be friends with each other - mostly to the Indian board? Do you want the chairman to be with your country when you need votes, then yes, you do need the Pakistanis to be your friends. And then you say, "Okay, let's have some bilateral cricket." If it benefits the Indian board to be able to host the Pakistanis, they will do so.
OS: In Pakistan and India, at least in these matters, it is impossible to take this kind of politics out of sport. In Pakistan and India, bilateral series always come about as a result of some political or diplomatic initiative. All that's been happening recently - there are talks happening between the two sides, there seems to be a relative thaw after the cold days just after the Mumbai attacks. Cricket has always been one of the first beneficiaries of this kind of thaw - it happened during Musharraf's time, Zia's time, throughout the history of the two countries.
I don't think it's a bad thing that it's going a bit slowly. Rather than rush into these things and play, as Sharda well knows, some seven series in three years as they did last time, it's okay it's going slowly. These are two boards and two sides that are not entirely comfortable with each other. We need to take one step at a time, sit back, think, and try and be a bit more mature about how these matters play out.
HB: Much as you want to wish it away, it has to be a political decision. Sharda, was it a political decision to not allow Pakistan players in the IPL? Franchises were quite happy to tell the real story. Was it cricketing or governmental?
SU: It was governmental in that there was grumbling from the government. It was translated and followed on by the people of the IPL. They may not have needed to precisely do so. If you get a handful of Pakistanis to come and play, I don't see there being a big problem. It was governmental grumbling that was turned into a political decision eventually.
How much is Pakistan's desire to play India driven by commercial considerations? (12.27 - 14.06)
OS: I think any country that is keen to play India is very aware of the financial benefits it brings. The one thing that has happened with Pakistan over the last couple of years - very slowly, they've somehow managed to find a way to exist and be financially… not profitable but sustainable without playing India regularly. England, for example, has been a series that has always been a profitable one for Pakistan anywhere. The importance of that has come home to Pakistan - that you can maybe make a living outside of this because it is your reality.
What difference has the new PCB chief, Zaka Ashraf, made, and can the PCB completely democratise as the ICC wants some boards to? (14.07 - 16.18)
OS: I'm not sure what kind of an administrator he is. There is enough said about him at the political level because he is close to Zardari [the Pakistan president]. One good thing that seems to have emerged about Ashraf is that he listens to his lieutenants carefully; he doesn't interfere.
[Democratisation] is going to be impossible. If you speak to senior officials in the board, for them it's a matter of trying to push and push the ICC and keep this governance clause away. Ultimately, no president of any country wants to reduce his sphere of influence willingly.
The road ahead for India-Pakistan cricket (17.35 - 20.49)
HB: My feeling is that when it comes to India-Pakistan relations, whether it is music or cricket, which are the two things that seem to bring countries together, I see a lot of polite talk, party talk, social talk, but I don't see movement.
OS: There is a bit of a thaw but you have local compulsions. You have elections coming up soonish in India and elections coming up probably next year in Pakistan as well. That will factor into anything that happens here. The talks are there, so the carrot is dangling permanently that Pakistan-India will happen. I dare say that it will happen; maybe in the next two years we might see a full series, maybe even next year given how these things work. It's going slowly, but I think that's okay. Have measures on the side, have Pakistanis play in the IPL and Champions League, instead of rushing headlong into it.
SU: I will hope the IPL and Champions League open their doors a little bit more to have the Pakistanis in. We keep forgetting that this is a sport played at the top level by only ten countries. So you can't make it nine and say you're doing the right thing. Let's at least keep it at ten to start with. It's a great contest and it'll give you enough money in the bank.
HB: My own gut feeling is that it's not the politicians that will eventually play a role but the businessmen. As trade opens and everyone realises the need to be together to improve trade on both sides, maybe cricket, which in the eyes of some is bending towards trade, might actually be the clinching factor.