The third IPL auction, held in Mumbai on Tuesday, has been overshadowed by a controversy arising from the fact that not a single Pakistani player of the 11 on the auction list - including several of the World Cup-winning team - was picked up. Pakistan's players have reacted with anger and attributed the blackout to politics; the IPL has said it was the franchises' decision and the franchises have explained it on grounds of cricketing strategy or availability during the tournament.
Though the players - including proven Twenty20 performers Shahid Afridi, Sohail Tanvir and Umar Gul and emerging talent Mohammed Aamer and Umar Akmal - had been given the go-ahead from the Pakistan government, franchises were said to be wary over whether the strained relations with India would affect their ability to get visas.
However, the inclusion of Pakistani players in the IPL's final auction list, released on January 6, was on the basis of specific requests received from the franchises - every player on that list had to be officially sought by at least one franchise. It is not clear what changed in the franchises' thinking within two weeks.
The development has drawn sharp criticism in Pakistan. Aijaz Hussain Jakhrani, the federal sports minister, said he had complained to his Indian counterpart over the incident. "I have phoned the sports minister of India and recorded a protest over the unjust and discriminatory treatment meted out to the Pakistani cricketers," Jakhrani told AFP. "The Pakistani ministries of sports, interior and foreign affairs had given political and security clearance to Pakistani players in time to play. It is indeed a matter of disrespect to the champions of Twenty20 World Cup."
However, Ijaz Butt, the PCB chairman, was relatively unfazed. "It really does not bother us; what difference does it make to us if our players don't play in the IPL this season? They didn't play in the last season as well," he said.
Afridi, Pakistan's Twenty20 captain, was the first player up for sale on Tuesday but fetched no bids. He called it a snub to his country. "The way I see it, the IPL and India have made fun of us and our country," he said. "We are the Twenty20 world champions and for me the attitude of the franchises was disappointing. I feel bad for the Indian people who, I am sure, wanted to see us play in the IPL this year."
Abdul Razzaq, the allrounder, said politics and sports should be kept separate. "They have basically tried to hurt our cricket and image and this is most disappointing because I believe there should be no politics in sports," Razzaq was quoted as saying by PTI. "In the end it is the IPL which has lost out because the fact is our players have star value and are the best in T20 cricket."
The Pakistan government had not permitted its players to participate in last year's tournament due to security fears after the Mumbai attacks. The wrangling continued in the run-up to this year's auction; when the Pakistan players failed to procure the requisite NOCs, the IPL shut its doors on them for missing out on the December 7 deadline but relented when Pakistan's interior ministry cleared the players for participation in the IPL.
Tanvir, the best bowler in the inaugural IPL and an instrumental part of the Rajasthan Royals' title win, wondered why so much effort was put into getting the clearance from his country's board and government if none of the franchises wanted to buy Pakistan players.
"They mean to say none of our players are good enough to be in the IPL," Tanvir said. "I am sorry to say the franchises have taken a decision not based on cricketing sense but on political grounds which is a shame and has hurt the image of the sport."
Lalit Modi, the IPL commissioner, said the apprehension over the availability of Pakistan players was the main reason for them being unsold. "Franchises are no more ready to spend $7-8 million on someone who won't be available for the tournament," he said. "It not only exhausted their purse but also wasted slots. They want only those players who would be available for the tournament. They are spending money and they want to get the results."
Shilpa Shetty, the co-owner of Rajasthan, echoed Modi's words. "We were not convinced about their availability and that's why we did not want to take any risk," she said. "If someone is not going to be available, why bid for him." She also said that though they had watched Tanvir over the past year, they were looking for a batsman.
The co-owner of Kings XI Punjab, Ness Wadia, had a different take, pinning the non-sale of Pakistan players to the lack of open slots for the franchises - 67 players were auctioned for only 13 vacancies. "I do not think that the Pakistan players were ignored purposely," he said. "Many Australian players were too not auctioned. In fact, last year we suffered because of Australia."
Since the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, political relations between India and Pakistan have been strained, and bilateral cricketing ties have been suspended.