January 23, 2010

A case of misplaced outrage

It's not easy to assign blame for the fiasco over the exclusion of Pakistani players from the third season of the IPL

Once again an issue involving India and Pakistan has blown up into a storm, thanks to some misunderstanding and some bad handling, with the repercussions still unclear. The immediate, regrettable fallout of Tuesday's IPL auction is that there will be no Pakistani players in the coming season, but it is quite conceivable that things will spill over beyond that.

Pakistan is outraged; sportsmen, politicians, the common man have all had their say. There is talk of the Pakistan team boycotting next month's hockey World Cup in India, and perhaps a boycott of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi later this year. There have also been calls for Pakistani cable operators to black out coverage of the IPL. The PCB chief says he will take up the issue with the ICC. The outrage is understandable, for the cricketers are national heroes - six months ago they were crowned world champions in this very format of the game. It may be scant consolation to those in Pakistan but their outrage is shared to some extent across the border - not least by Indian fans looking forward to seeing some of the most exciting cricketers in live action.

Yet all that outrage is slightly misplaced, because this is not a decision of the Indian government, nor even of the BCCI; this is not a matter of national importance, it isn't even about a bilateral tour. This is a decision concerning 11 cricketers, taken by the IPL franchises, eight separate and distinct entities. The ICC has no locus standi on this issue and the threats - calling off a tour, boycotting a tournament, resorting to censorship - are political tools that assign the issue far more importance than it deserves. India's foreign ministry put it succinctly: "The participation or absence of Pakistani cricketers in a commercial event of the nature of the IPL is a matter not within the purview of the government."

It's the cricketers who have every right to feel short-changed. For the past two months, they have been put through an emotional wringer, forced to deal with legal complexities and faced with shifting goalposts. Below, to refresh memory, at the risk of repetition, is the sequence of events:

November 16: The IPL sets a deadline of November 20 for Pakistani players to get no-objection certificates from their board and clearance from their government.

November 25: Apparently realising the impossibility of the deadline, the IPL extends it to December 7

December 7: Lalit Modi, the IPL commissioner, says Pakistani players are out of the IPL since they have failed to meet the deadline, amid claims from the Pakistan side that they had done their share of the paperwork. "The players have applied for visas but the clearance hasn't come from the Indian side. The ball is not in our court," Ijaz Butt, the PCB chairman, says.

December 10: Modi extends the deadline for Pakistani players to December 31 but bowls a googly - the four players already on the franchises' books will not be eligible for the auction.

December 30: Cricinfo reports that 12 Pakistani players have applied for the auction.

January 2: The IPL's official longlist for the auction shows that 26 Pakistanis have registered.

The shortlist - those players specifically requested by the franchises - released on January 6, had seven Pakistani names. Another list, released on January 16, had 11.

So whom does one shout at? Whose effigy to burn? Whom to blame? It's not as easy as it once was, when decisions were taken by a single, identifiable entity; the game has changed, market forces are at play

There is, from the outside, no evidence to suggest that anything happened on the political front between January 6, when these players were officially sought by the franchises, and the auction on January 19, when they were rejected. If you were a Pakistani player - and those up for auction were among the world's best - you had every right to believe, on the morning of January 19, that you would be signed up by a franchise. Short-changed? Mugged is a better word for it.

Their plight evokes much sympathy. The danger is that it will cloud an objective look at the situation. Ultimately, this was an economic decision aimed at the bottom line - a situation admittedly poorly handled and probably not thought through, but a decision free of bias.

One can fix the blame on any or all of the principals involved, depending on one's perception. The cricketers, it can be argued, set themselves up for such a humiliation the moment they agreed to be auctioned. Humiliation is merely the flip side of the million-dollar contract. You can't have the dough and the dignity.

By that act, they crossed some line and ceded their right to be treated with the dignity one would expect. The Indian government did not send a clear message either way that would give a direction to the process. The IPL could have handled the situation far better, taking the lead where no one else was willing to.

The final call, though, rested with the franchises and they exercised their choice. They, too, could have handled it better - the call they took on January 19 could conceivably have been taken weeks before, when the situation was the same, thereby nipping this controversy in the bud. But the decision they eventually took was a simple matter of reconciling squad sheets and balance sheets. The mantra at this year's auction was availability; franchises sought those players with a guaranteed presence through the tournament. For most players, this meant being free of other commitments; for Pakistanis, it meant not being hostage to the mercurial relations between the two countries. Ultimately, that was a risk too big for the franchises to take.

So whom does one shout at? Whose effigy to burn? Whom to blame? It's not as easy as it once was, when decisions were taken by a single, identifiable entity. The game has changed, market forces are at play. The government is as much a bystander as are the ICC and the BCCI. Instead of burning effigies, the outraged in Pakistan can follow the old maxim: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India