India in Pakistan, 2003-04 February 14, 2004

Postponement could have grave repercussions

You would be forgiven for thinking that the biggest series in international cricket in recent memory had already been postponed

Shoaib Akhtar a security threat?

You would be forgiven for thinking that the biggest series in international cricket in recent memory had already been postponed. The avalanche of rumour, reportage and contradictory statements in the Indian media suggest that the tour has been postponed; in principle, at least, if not in spirit.

And yet, the respective cricketing boards of the two neighbours, whose words should, under normal circumstances, be the last ones, are adamant that the tour, as it stands, should go ahead. Granted that India-Pakistan are rarely defined by normalcy, but in Pakistan, at least, there is no confusion or uncertainty. No rumours, no contingencies, and no talk of postponements.

"The tour is very much on. We are not making any statement based on what are clearly rumours and unsubstantiated reports. If there is an official statement from the BCCI about this, then we will say something, but we are working towards the tour now," said PCB's media manager Sami-ul-Hasan, who is currently accompanying the Indian security delegation on the last leg of their assessment tour of possible venues - a tour which has, ostensibly at least, been a satisfactory one.

Much of the confusion is confined to the Indian media, and has arisen from the lack of clarity regarding the reasons for a postponement. Is there a credible security threat to players, or is it because of impending general elections? Some Pakistanis cynically suggest the Indians, softened up at Perth, see Shoaib Akhtar as a security threat.

The widespread belief here is that the series will go ahead, if only, perhaps, because the repercussions of postponement are graver than anyone can imagine. Shaharyar Khan, who has been trying to get in touch with Jagmohan Dalmiya, acknowledged this when he warned that Pakistan will go to the ICC to seek compensation should the tour be postponed. Close to $4 million, in title sponsorship alone, is a considerable sum of money to lose in any situation, but given the PCB's perilous financial one - due to a spate of cancelled tours - the sting will be much sharper this time. The total loss incurred could climb as high as $20 million.

But the wider implications of any such decision would be potentially catastrophic. For starters, a postponement now could very well equate to a cancellation. Given the heat during the summer months and an increasingly busy international playing schedule thereafter, one can safely assume the series will not occur for another 18 months to two years at best. At worst, and given the tit-for-tat nature of the relationship this is likely, it could be much longer.

There is also the question of how the ICC and the ACC will react. Under an agreement between the members of the ACC, if one country refuses to tour another, then other members can also refuse to tour or entertain the reluctant member. Even if such an agreement is unlikely to be acted upon, the internal relationships of the strongest bloc in international cricket will undoubtedly suffer, perhaps irreparably.

The ICC, already under increasing pressure to deal with a similar situation concerning Zimbabwe, will want to avoid a headache of this magnitude. Ehsan Mani, prior to becoming President of the ICC last year, ruled out financial compensation for various cancelled tours, including those affecting Pakistan. While the PCB has acquiesced in the past, preferring instead to reschedule tours where possible, a repeat scenario, given the opponent, and the lucrative nature of their involvement, is improbable.

Above all, the impact a cancellation will have on wider relations between the two countries is difficult to fathom. Matches between the two countries are about more than just cricket; of that we can be certain. Similarly, cancelled matches between the two countries, less than a month before the series is due to begin, will affect more than just cricketing relations. With peace talks due to begin next week, cricket and its cancellation may well turn up, like an uninvited guest, to spoil the party. The backlash from the people in Pakistan, and there will be one, will also play heavily on the minds of the negotiating politicians.

Until the Indian security delegate reports on their tour in a couple of days' time, and indications are that they, at least, are satisfied with the security arrangements, the uncertainty will remain. The PCB, rightly, are working on the assumption that the series is going ahead, for there has been no communication otherwise from the BCCI. The Indian government has also officially not said anything.

Until an official statement is made by either body, predictions of whether the series will go ahead remain futile and not more an elaborate form of journalistic Chinese whispers. The ramifications of any such decision, however, are easier to foresee and of this we can be certain - the aftershocks will be felt far and beyond the cricketing epicentre of the subcontinent.