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Sambit Bal

Why India must tour Pakistan

Cancelling the upcoming series for the easy points that will score will only be counter-productive


Cricketers may be high-profile targets, but equally, they receive more protection than most others © PA Photos
India's impending war on terror is threatening to claim a soft target. The country burns with anger and indignation over the state's failure to protect its citizens. Preliminary evidence suggests that the terrorists who carried out last week's attacks in Mumbai were trained and controlled by groups based in Pakistan, which is, of course, not the same as the state of Pakistan - itself a victim of terror at the moment; in recent months, terrorists have claimed the life of Benazir Bhutto, and carried out a horrific attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad - but in these charged and emotional times, lines have blurred.
Activist television channels have taken to packaging anger. With fiery anchors fanning the flames, encouraging audiences to seek hot pursuits of terrorists and the destruction of terror camps across the border, the government finds itself besieged. It's a time when it must not only act tough, but as the opposition parties get shriller about its impotence (the general elections are only months away), must put up an appearance of being tough.
Sending troops across the border is, of course, not an option, but the popular mood demands a demonstration of action, and it will be tempting to use cricket as a tool of appeasement. It will amount to little in tangible terms if India's tour of Pakistan is called off, but it will be heavy on symbolism: a strong diplomatic measure against a nation accused of, if nothing else, prolonged inaction against terrorists originating within its borders who wreak havoc in the neighbouring country. It's another matter that the Indian government itself stands similarly accused.
But to call off the tour will be folly. The Indian team should only not go to Pakistan if the situation is deemed to be too volatile and dangerous for cricket. Reports have emerged that some players don't want to go. They have the same fears about personal safety as England's players do. While these fears ought not to be disregarded, the truth is, and has been for several years, that security concerns have become a professional hazard for sportspeople across the world. At what point the risk crosses the acceptable level is a thin, fuzzy, subjective line.
The Indian board would like the decision to be taken out of its hands. It faces a peculiar dilemma in addressing the concerns of its own players while trying to persuade others to tour its shores.
The state of Pakistan cricket is perilous and India's refusal to tour will almost doom it in the short term. And then there are the big questions about the future of global events, chief among them the already postponed Champions Trophy, and the 2011 World Cup, to be jointly hosted by four nations in the subcontinent.
But beyond all this lies the role of cricket as a bridge builder. It is staggering to think now that India's tour to Pakistan in 2003-04 almost didn't take place. Like now, the players didn't want to go then. An attempt had been made on the life of the Pakistan president a few days previously, and an air of fear and uncertainty prevailed.
But the right decision was made it in the end, and the series turned out to be epochal. That the cricket was sensational was only incidental: the tour generated a wave of goodwill and bonhomie not seen or felt since 1978-79, the occasion for another cricket tour, which it is said created the biggest exodus from India to Pakistan since Partition.
Every Indian - I was there too - who made the trip came back touched and overwhelmed by the warmth and the affection given to them unconditionally. It confirmed a suspicion that many of us had harboured, but had never had the opportunity to test: that the problems between India and Pakistan, two countries that share languages, food and a culture, have never involved the people. In fact, it is to the contrary: most problems have arisen and festered because people have been kept apart by politics.
The Indian board would like the decision to be taken out of its hands. It faces a peculiar dilemma in addressing the concerns of its own players while trying to persuade others to tour its shores
Back in the present, the double standards are beginning to grate. If you leave the players out of it, a consensus has begun to emerge in the cricket world that England must return to India to finish their tour. If there is a rider, it is "if the safety of the players is guaranteed". As if such guarantees can be provided. Pakistan offered to Australia's cricketer a level of security granted to heads of state, but it wasn't enough to convince them to tour. The attack on the Marriott worsened the case further, but the horrors of Mumbai have easily exceeded those of Islamabad, and unlike in the past, in this instance Western tourists were singled out and targeted. So the Pakistan Cricket Board would be justified in demanding the same kind of consideration extended to India.
Of course, a lot is down to perceptions. India, a vast and vibrant democracy founded on Western liberalism, and an emerging economic giant, presents a picture of stability and strength despite its problems. Whereas Pakistan, which has lurched between dysfunctional democracy and army-backed dictatorship, and has acquired a reputation as a hotbed of militancy, has always felt more dangerous to Westerners.
Also, India underpins the global cricket economy. The cancellation of the Twenty20 Champions League directly affects the finances of many cricket boards, and the IPL has shown the players the kind of instant wealth that would have been beyond their dreams a year ago. Just like the American economy, the Indian cricket economy involves all cricket nations. The global recession spread from the subprime crisis in America. Everyone wants to be spared the chill; the anxiety to keep Indian cricket in good health is born, at least partly, of the natural instinct for self-preservation. It is unpalatable but understandable.
The bottom line is this: Cricket and cricketers face some tough choices. There are no absolute guarantees. The risk is part of the job now, just as it is for businessmen, journalists, politicians or aid workers. For the argument that cricketers are high profile and more susceptible, there is the counter argument that they receive a much higher degree of protection than most others. The rewards of being an international cricketer are enormous. Players must be prepared to accept the baggage that comes with it.
Allowances must be made for extraordinary situations. The horrific tragedy in Mumbai was one of those. Playing cricket this week wouldn't have felt right. But as life regains its course, as it must, so will cricket. At this point it is merely a question of timing.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo