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England's withdrawal is a slap to Pakistan's face

The Pakistan side has toured the world more than any other since the pandemic began, hoping for reciprocity - which has not materialised

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Here is a list. It is of cricketers who have played the most international games away from home in the time of the pandemic.
Eight of the top ten are Pakistan players. Pakistan might not be the biggest draw in cricket, though they are enough of one in England to have been invited for bilateral contests in five of the last six years, and enough of one for games with India to regularly feature in ICC press releases about being the most-watched ever.
Two of the top three in that list - and arguably all three of Babar Azam, Shaheen Shah Afridi and Mohammad Rizwan - would walk into any national side's squad. Into any T20 league too, including, if it was allowed, the IPL. Babar and Afridi, especially, are bona fide superstars. They are players you'd pay to watch.
In the 18 months or so since Covid hit in a big way, these three have toured England twice, played a full tour in New Zealand, played a white-ball series in South Africa, Tests and T20Is in Zimbabwe, and then Tests and T20Is in the West Indies. If the world had corners, they would have been to all of them.
At a time when, for much of the world, air travel has represented a serious health threat, they have flown on commercial planes, on chartered planes, through large, busy airports. They have then lived through some of the strictest periods of isolation; for ten days in England last year; for 14 days in New Zealand, when the only time they could open their hotel-room doors was to pick up a tray of food; for ten days in England again this summer.
The intensity of those periods of isolation has since eased. In each of South Africa, Zimbabwe and the West Indies, for instance, they had to undergo three days of isolation before they could get out. But it adds up quickly, and New Zealand apart - where there were no restrictions once isolation was over - they have had to live in biosecure bubbles of varying stringency over six tours. On some of these tours they have not even been allowed out of their hotels.
They have gone through it in silence. Part of it is because Pakistani players don't talk about mental health, and so, though we know it must have had an impact, we have no idea of the extent of it. Shan Masood did talk a little but he's an exception. Pakistan's players have also gone through it all out of compulsion because there is no players' body to articulate and represent their views, and more importantly, to protect their right to air those views. The PCB agrees to a tour, the players have little choice but to agree, because, to its enduring shame, Pakistan cricket remains an insecure place of employment for a player. Speaking out about bubble fatigue, or voicing concerns about well-being and acting on those concerns means risking a place in the side.
Quite a few of them have contracted Covid in this time, yet they have continued, selling their labour here, there and everywhere. They are never paid especially well for it, yet off the back of that very labour other boards have also profited.
These players helped save a summer last year in England. They not only did not ditch South Africa when their original tour, in September-October 2020, was postponed because of the pandemic, they made sure to return to fulfil that obligation in six months. And they tacked on an extra T20I, recognising that CSA had been hit by England's abrupt departure earlier that season.
They played Zimbabwe, one of the three most neglected Full Members, in not one but two series. They would have played the other two - Ireland and Afghanistan - as well, had it not been impossible for the ECB to find space in their calendar to allow use of their grounds, or had the Taliban not taken over Afghanistan.
In this time, Pakistan have been the most frequent contributors to ensuring that cricket continues around the world. They didn't do it solely out of the goodness of their hearts, or out of a sense of wider responsibility to the game. They expected reciprocity. They expected that their sacrifices would pave the way for the final step of the return to international cricket to Pakistan: the visit of teams such as England, New Zealand and Australia.
Instead, what they have got from the ECB and its players is not just a withdrawal from a tour and an apology, but the middle finger. The fans and the PCB, of course, but most of all, a finger to those at the very front end of this: Babar, Afridi and the players, because it is their mental and physical health that has been at most risk in all those days of travel and competition.
For all the days spent in isolation, away from their families, from their homes, for all the admonishment in New Zealand, for all the accommodation made in England this year in the wake of the Covid outbreak within the England camp, a middle finger, right back at them.
What they have got is a reminder that the Big Three's real mistake in 2014 was to put out a position paper and attempt to formalise the new order. All they needed to do was simply start playing as if the new order existed.
For example, let's be generous and give Cricket Australia's cancellation of their Test against Afghanistan its moment. But the pandemic has hit their scheduling with a - help me out here - pattern? They have toured England, and not hosted the T20 World Cup but hosted India. They pulled out of a tour to South Africa because they were worried about the health of their players during what was the second wave of the pandemic there, but the day after that decision, were happy to issue NOCs for players to go to the IPL in India (where a second wave was beginning) based on the biosecurity protocols of the previous IPL, held in a different country, during a different phase of the pandemic.
England have pulled out of tours to Bangladesh and Pakistan but have squeezed in eight Tests against India this year and are smarting from not playing one more; and are willing to field an under-strength side and risk a player boycott to get to a country that has shut its borders harder than any other save New Zealand for three more Tests this year.
Officially, the Big Three was disbanded back in February 2017. Since then, nearly half of all Australia's international matches have been against England and India; a third of England's have been against the other two; and 35% of India's have been against the other two.
What Pakistan have got is the irony of a Big Three board cancelling a bilateral series, while still being a Big Three board that wants more bilateral cricket in the next calendar at the expense of an extra ICC event (with the support of the ICC chair, by the way). An extra ICC event that offers a majority of Full Members a more reliable guarantee of revenue than the currently empty promises of bilateral cricket the Big Three make to those teams, because what the Big Three really mean by more bilateral cricket is bilateral cricket among themselves.
What Babar, Afridi and Pakistan cricket have got, above all else, is a reminder of how broken international cricket already was before the pandemic broke it further. This is the epiphany that struck Ramiz Raja, the PCB chairman, on Tuesday, when he responded to a question about what the PCB could do next: "Withdrawal doesn't have an answer, frankly speaking."
Pakistan has no real recourse to recouping the losses incurred by these two withdrawals other than to bear it. They cannot go to the ICC because, hello, there is no such thing really as the ICC, not beyond, as senior Australian journalist Gideon Haigh has often put it, an event-management company. Instead the real governors of the game are the very same ones whose middle finger Pakistan, along with the rest of cricket, are staring at.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo