The Thursday column February 12, 2004

To go or not to go

Safety is a matter of personal concern and players should be allowed to make the choice without the fear of recrimination

Will we see this in March?

A couple of days into the Melbourne Test, when the Indian press corps were agitating over the existence of a letter purportedly written by the Indian team to the BCCI expressing apprehensions about the tour to Pakistan, I sought out a senior player for his views. The letter had been written and signed, he said, but not posted. He then confronted me with a question. "Tell me, would you tour Pakistan?" Without blinking, I said, "Of course".

It took me only a few moments to realise why it had been so easy for me be emphatic. A tour to Pakistan presented a unique opportunity and challenge to a journalist, which, it can be argued, is even more true for a cricketer. But it is infinitely easier to be brave when little is at risk. The threat perception for a famous cricketer performing on an open field in a packed stadium is understandably different from an anonymous journalist in the press box. The only time I have feared for my life was when I found myself alone with a ferocious looking dog on an empty street. The only list I have ever worried about getting my name on was a register of troublesome employees maintained by one of the companies I worked for earlier. I have never had a security guard posted outside my house. The tour should go on, not only for the sake of cricket, but also for a wider national cause. However, the legitimate player concerns must be addressed in a manner that is satisfactory to the players.

I spoke to two senior players last night and it is apt to say that they are confused. As cricketers, they want to make the trip, for they see the tour as a stepping stone for growth, both personally and as a team. Many in the current side haven't played a Test in Pakistan and there is recognition that it is a hole in their career. As a team, the Pakistan tour is an opportunity to draw closer to establishing themselves as the number two Test side in the world. But what they find hard to accept is that there has been, at least that's how it has appeared to them, more concern about signing sponsors and finalising television deals, than security. If it is not so, obviously, no one from the cricket board has yet, despite the apprehensions being aired over a month ago, thought it worthwhile to assure the players otherwise.

Two conflicting reports have emerged this morning, doing nothing but adding to the confusion. Incredulously, they both involve sections of the Indian home ministry. The three-member inspection team of the BCCI, which includes an inspector general of the home ministry, has expressed satisfaction over the security arrangements in the two venues they have visited so far, including the contentious Peshawar, while reports emanating from Delhi suggest that the home ministry is in favour of the tour being postponed. Unattributed stories are a classical device to test waters because the establishment can later conveniently deny them, but in this case, the home ministry has an obligation to make its official stand clear.

It can be argued that no place in the world is safe anymore and safety is only a matter degrees. Indians were perplexed when Nasser Hussain, then captain of England, voiced security concerns about touring India in 2001 because a war was on in Afghanistan. In 1996, India and Pakistan sent a joint team to Colombo as an expression of solidarity after Australia and West Indies pulled out of their World Cup matches citing security reasons. And now, Wasim Akram has exhorted Indian players to tour Pakistan in the same way his team did in 1999 in the face of threats from fundamentalists.

It is apparent, however, that Indian cricketers at the moment perceive the threat in Pakistan as being slightly different from that posed by Shiv Sainks, who, while being vandals and rioters, have had no history of organised terrorism. Of course, the cricket boards in both countries might have different views, which might be closer to reality. It falls on them to provide information and answers and then leave the decision to individual players. It's simpler for us, who have little at stake, to ask for courage. Safety is a matter of personal concern and players should be allowed to make the choice without the fear of recrimination.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and Wisden Cricinfo in India.