A match that became a pawn in a political game
The India-Pakistan match in Dharamsala - according to the original schedule - was acquired through politics, and was taken away politically. While the fans, the media, the teams, who would have enjoyed low-profile matches in this scenic setting, and the town itself, lose out, Justice Lodha, whom the BCCI is ridiculing for asking for politicians to be kept out of cricket administration, stands vindicated. But it's just as well because Dharamsala doesn't have the infrastructure to handle a match of this magnitude; as the sequence of events shows, it was ultimately a pawn in the conflicting ambitions of political rivals.
September 26, 2015
Virbhadra Singh, the Himachal Pradesh chief minister and a leader of the Congress party, is about to leave for his daughter's wedding. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), controlled by the federal BJP government in New Delhi, raids his house. The raid goes on for 10 hours, during and past the wedding. A daughter's wedding is a matter of prestige in India. Anything that goes wrong at a daughter's wedding is a matter of humiliation for the rest of the father's life. It is big. As big as an India-Pakistan match.
For the past 23 years the chief minister's post has alternated between Singh of the Congress and his bitter rival, Prem Kumar Dhumal of the BJP. Dhumal's son is Anurag Thakur, a BJP member of the national parliament and, for the past year, secretary of the BCCI. The India-Pakistan match has come here because of him, as have several internationals and IPL matches in the past. But it could be said that this match has also gone away because of him.
Thakur, it is being said, has been hoist with his own petard. Last year, when there was talk of an India-Pakistan series, Thakur echoed one strand of public sentiment, which was hostile to any cricket with Pakistan. He tweeted: "Dawood [Ibrahim, India's most wanted criminal] in Karachi. NSA wants to meet separatists here. Are you really serious about peace and you expect we'll play cricket with you?"
In the past fortnight chief minister Singh has expressed concerns at his state hosting the Pakistan team; Himachal Pradesh is home to, and for, a large number of Indian troops and Singh hints that public sentiment would be against Pakistan playing in their state. As charges and accusations fly back and forth the damage is done; Pakistan dig in their heels against playing in Dharamsala and the match is moved out.
Thakur's tweet after the decision is taken shows his frustration and anger: "Owing to the petty politics played misusing the emotions of martyrs' families, HP CM ensured that PCB demanded utmost assurance before confirming participation." One view, though, is that he has been paid back in his own coin.
Tuesday, March 8, 2016 (a day before the first World T20 match in Dharamsala)
Chaos reigns. A deputy superintendent of police (DSP) almost gets suspended for allowing accredited and working media inside the stadium to cover the training sessions of four Associate teams. These teams get this chance once every four years, they want the world to see how they train, they want to give interviews, except, hey, the three-man Pakistani inspection team is expected today.
The media's travails don't really affect the fan but are an indicator of the chaos around the organising of big cricket matches in Dharamsala. Whether this is genuine inefficiency or whether the Pakistan match is the only priority of people here is hard to tell.
Every day the media is locked out or locked in; often spending hours outside the ground, once in the middle of a hailstorm, because the host state association has failed to inform the police that the media is allowed in.
Worse is the fate of the few spectators that have turned up. A group of 18 Bangladeshis, the Bangladesh Cricket Fans Association, has travelled from Dhaka. By road from Dhaka to Kolkata, then a long train journey from Kolkata to Delhi, then on a bus to Dharamsala. A minimum of three days to get here. The town has only a few good hotels; four cricket teams, the production crew, the commentators, the ICC crew, and finally the journalists have booked them all out. Already taxis in Dharamsala are charging upwards of Rs 30 per kilometre, three times what it costs in the big cities. A fan who came to the last match needed a bottle of milk for his baby soon after the match, and he paid Rs 300 for it.
They make do with what is left, try to bring some enthusiasm to Bangladesh's first game, but the police doesn't let them run to the front of the empty stand.
When the security team arrives, though, ESPNcricinfo has learnt, the district collector is not at hand to meet them, the police has no idea what to tell them, the BCCI and the ICC has no idea what to tell them. No presentation is made. The seriousness of this situation has not yet dawned on anybody. They are all expecting the Pakistan team to ask questions, and not assure themselves proactively. This is not a Reddit ask-me-anything; they have come from Pakistan, they don't know the potential risks, they need to be assured of how any potential risk will be squashed.
The allocations of venues, the time of the ticketing, the distribution of the already bought tickets, have all been a nightmare. At the time of writing this, the ICC, whose name prefixes the event, is busy taping names of brands of every product in the press box box: the faucets in the toilet, the printer, the fire extinguisher, to avoid ambush marketing. The image to remember this World T20 by.
March 9, 2016
Hours after the announcement made by the ICC, a team comprising Indian and Pakistani men, mostly middle-aged, come together and beat an experienced and fancied Ireland side. Oman win the match and win hearts. The irony is lost on the police and the local organisers.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo