Signs are emerging that Pakistan is pushing to normalise cricketing relations with India, after the meeting last week between PCB chairman Ijaz Butt and officials within the BCCI in India and, in the absence of any likely bilateral series, it appears the IPL's third season could be the icebreaker. Pakistan's board has cleared its players for the tournament, reversing a decision it took for the second season, and has received inquiries from the IPL on the status of its players.
Pakistani players were not allowed to take part in this year's edition of the IPL after their own government refused to give them permission to travel to India. The decision was based primarily on security concerns and whether or not Pakistan's players would be safe in India in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks a year ago. The tournament was eventually shifted to South Africa for security reasons but Pakistan's players were still not allowed to take part.
However, the board is hoping the situation may be different this time round, indicating that permission has been granted to the players by the board and higher authorities. "The PCB has given permission to players to take part in the IPL," Butt told Cricinfo. "Abdul Razzaq recently approached me and he has been given permission as well as others. Lalit Modi emailed to ask what the status of our players regarding IPL was and, when I met him in India, I told him the players were available and the relevant authorities had given permission."
Whether they get the opportunity to take part this time, however, is not in the hands of the PCB or the Pakistan government for clearance will have to come from the Indian government. The first push for a thaw in cricketing relations from the Indian side has come from its IPL franchises, not bound by political and geographical considerations, seeking simply the best players to take the field.
Most IPL franchises were quick to seek the return of Pakistan players to the 2010 edition of the lucrative Twenty20 league after Pakistan won the ICC World Twenty20 in June. Modi, the IPL commissioner and BCCI vice-president, subsequently clarified that the IPL had no problems in letting Pakistani players participate, subject to government clearance from both sides; even if Pakistan has given them permission, ultimately the decision will be made by the Indian government.
Eleven Pakistani players - including Shahid Afridi and Umar Gul, the stars of Pakistan's World Twenty20 campaign - were recruited by the Kolkata, Rajasthan, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore franchises before the inaugural IPL. However, the franchises opted to retain the contracts of only four of them - Akmal and Tanvir (Rajasthan), Misbah-ul-Haq (Bangalore) and Gul (Kolkata) - after it became clear that they would not be able to play in the second season of the league following the Mumbai attacks. But players such as Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Aamer, Razzaq and Umar Akmal are likely to attract interest this time round, as is a revitalised Afridi who was dumped by the Deccan Chargers after a poor first season with them.
That is as far as the door between the two boards will be nudged open for now. Hectic schedules for both teams means that it is unlikely there will be a bilateral series between them till at least 2011, Butt said, confirming what the BCCI said last week. "Right now it is too premature to give a time frame for a return to bilateral ties. Schedules are tight for both of us till 2011 and an appropriate window has to be found for the series. It will come out over the passage of time," he said.
Though it is still over a year away, the 2011 World Cup on the subcontinent could play a critical role in deciding which way the relationship goes thereafter. Concerns have been raised over whether or not Pakistan will play any of its matches in India; currently they are scheduled to play most of their games in Sri Lanka, but if they go far, then playing in India will be unavoidable. Butt said no discussions on the topic had taken place yet and was unwilling to comment on the possibility of Pakistan playing in India then, but it is likely to become a significant issue over the next year.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo