The announcement was not unexpected. Still, when it came it did cause more than a few eyebrows to be raised. For, the Indian government did not only refuse permission to the Indian cricket team to play in the ensuing Sharjah tri series, but also ruled that "the team should not participate in cricket tournaments at non regular tour venues such as Sharjah, Singapore, Toronto etc for at least three years."
The linking of other venues with Sharjah was bound to ruffle a few feathers in certain circles and the time period of three years was certainly a big surprise. Sharjah certainly cannot be linked with other cricketing venues like Singapore, Toronto and so on for the simple reason it has a cricketing tradition that goes back 20 years. It must not be forgotten that Sharjah has hosted the most number of one day matches - 167. Virtually every Test team has played there and the idea, mooted years ago by the Cricketers Benefit Fund Series of having a purse for both past and present players, did a lot to aid impecunious cricketers.
True, there was this feeling about a decade ago that India was getting a raw deal at Sharjah and it was alleged that conditions and the rules favoured Pakistan. That dented Sharjah's reputation a bit but after a couple of years, India did resume playing at the desert venue. Then of course last year all hell broke loose with the match fixing charges coming out in the open and Sharjah was spoken of as one of the venues were matches were fixed. Interestingly enough, India last played in Sharjah just a week before the lid blew open on the match fixing scandal. And as more and more skeletons kept tumbling out of the match fixing cupboard, a question mark emerged over Sharjah too.
Even as recently as two days ago, the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India AC Muthiah touched upon this subject at a function in Chennai. Asked whether the government would grant permission for the Indian team to take part in the Sharjah tri series, Muthiah said "the government is not against India playing Pakistan but seems to be against playing in Sharjah."
The reactions to the Indian government's decision were quick, hard hitting and along predictable lines. Terming the decision as discriminatory, the CBFS adopted a diplomatic stance by hoping that the country would reverse its stance in the near future. In a statement, the CBFS said "We regret that the government of India has made this decision. The CBFS would like to thank the BCCI for their support and understand their impediment due to this unusual breach of contract forced upon them. We are confident that this discriminatory and unwarranted treatment to the Emirates Cricket Board will not be allowed to continue and the Government of India will reverse their decision in the very near future."
CBFS chief co-ordinator Asif Iqbal was more sharp in his comments. He was of the view that if the reason for the pull-out had something to do with the rumours of underworld and match-fixing, then there should not be any cricket in India. "If no reasons are given and it has something to do with the rumours of the underworld, then there should not be any cricket in India. The allegations regarding matchfixing along with players' suspensions (that of Hansie Cronje or Md Azharuddin) are all linked to Indian bookmakers," Asif told The Gulf News on phone from London.
Predictably, Asif, a former Pakistan captain, disagreed that Sharjah was a non-regular venue. "Sharjah is a different venue from Singapore and Toronto," he said and added that it was established as the regular off-shore centre. "I think now the onus is on the BCCI. They should inform the Indian government what the CBFS has done for the cricketers, not only current but also those of the past".
If Asif Iqbal's reaction was a stinging one, CBFS chief executive Zahid Noorani, according to reports, has gone one step further. He has spoken of consulting lawyers to find out what sort of penalties, if any, can be imposed on India for breach of contract. "We will consult our lawyers and concerned people to know how we can proceed after this breach of contract by India" he is quoted to have said. According to reports, next week's tournament was the last engagement India was committed to playing in Sharjah.
Noorani was of the view that there would be no great impact on CBFS' long term strategy as organisers of international cricket at the venue. "We will continue to play cricket in Sharjah with or without India," he said. "Our contracts and international commitments are not affected," he added.
Equally predictable has been the reaction of the BCCI. "We will accept and abide by the government's decision," said Muthiah in Chennai. He however drove home the point that former Test cricketers would be the losers since "we have been nominating a few cricketers every year for receiving some benefits from the CBFS." He added that in view of the government's decision, the BCCI would make alternative arrangements to help the cricketers.
The Pakistan Cricket Board has already made its stand clear. Even as there was talk that India would withdraw from Sharjah, the PCB chief Tauqir Zia said that Pakistan would not play India anywhere in any event in the future." Even though India's stance has now seemingly changed from not wanting to play against Pakistan to not wanting to play in Sharjah, it is difficult for the PCB to see things from this viewpoint.
CBFS vice chairman and the man behind bringing cricket to Sharjah Abdul Rehman Bukhatir said he was disappointed by the decision. Bukhatir, who flew to New Delhi last week to ascertain the reasons for India's withdrawal, was of the view that it was not fair to accuse the CBFS of match fixing or hobnobbing with bookies. "If investigations show that some games have been fixed in certain parts of the world, the organisers cannot be blamed. The bookies or the players who are the culprits should be caught. Let India make a complaint to the UAE government about this and I am confident the concerned authorities will take suitable action."
Stung by reports that Sharjah was the hotbed of cricket corruption, the CBFS last year launched its own investigation to find out if matches at the venue were fixed. A three member probe committee, that includes former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd is expected to submit its report later this year.
Whether or not the contents of the report will satisfy Indian authorities, the government has already gone out on a limb by saying that it would not participate in Sharjah for three years. However strong the reaction has been from the affected parties, it is certain that the matter will not end there. There is bound to be some pressure put on the International Cricket Council to take firm action on the issue. This despite ICC President Malcolm Gray saying that "Sharjah is a tournament that falls outside of the ICC's International Tours Programme. Countries are invited to compete by the organisers and as a private agreement it is a matter for them, rather than the ICC, to deal with this particular issue." Gray also confirmed last week that the ICC would not impose any penalty or sanction against a member country for not participating in Sharjah. "We would not take disciplinary action against any member in cases of force majeure," he said. It is certain however that the last has not been heard on the contentious and sensitive subject.