Sunday, January 24, 2010

An unfortunate exclusion

Pakistan’s interior minister made a statement that “India was not serious about the peace process” by the manner in which the cricketers were excluded. Such a conclusion is unwarranted as it does not understand the way the league functions

The decision by franchise owning businessmen to not to pick any of the Pakistani players available in the Indian Premier League (IPL) auction for its third season was unfortunate. The IPL franchisee owners clearly did not think much of the feelings of the cricketers who entered the auction process through a circuitous route, after having invited them to the auction and then refusing to choose any of them through the bidding process. It must be heartbreaking for the Pakistani cricketers who are reigning World Twenty20 cricket champions because their humiliating non-inclusion was clearly not because of cricketing reasons. So too, for Pakistani cricket lovers who wanted to partake in the passionate entertainment that the business franchise-based Twenty20 cricket was and which made the IPL so popular across the world and especially in South Asia.

Having said that, one cannot be surprised by the pusillanimous decision by the franchise owners who were worried about visa prospects for the Pakistani cricketers and disruption in the event of a similar incident such as the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. The businesspeople running the IPL franchises are bound by the rationality of profit making, asset maximisation and cost reduction and the prospect of not having players whom they pay for, in the event of any disruptive incident, was daunting for them. If the formal rationality of profit making did not guide their decision, the inclusion of Pakistani cricketers would have made sense. It would have sent a signal to disruptive forces that their actions would not affect cricketing or sporting ties and that the IPL was a celebration of cricketing talent rather than anything else.

This writer had written before that the IPL suffered from the same limitations as would any project within a market driven system. To expect anything more from a commercial enterprise is folly — and therefore to expect the IPL franchise owners to think about the potentiality of a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan by the inclusion of Pakistani cricketers within the IPL fray is unwarranted. At the same time, the reaction by Indian owners of the IPL franchises should not be read as a case of “hyper-patriotism” worked up on the standard India-Pakistan rivalry. If the owners were indeed even a little patriotic and acted according to the needs of the day in India, they would not have responded so grudgingly when the Indian home minister requested them not to hold the IPL season during parliamentary election time in the country last year, after which the IPL commissioner had to take the competition to South Africa.

And that takes us to the larger issue — when Pakistani players were first incorporated into IPL franchises, there was much hailing going on about the IPL and its “revolutionary” potential to transcend national boundaries and of course, its reliance on player talent (both off and on the field) as the sole adjudicator for his value. But as the recent incidents show, the IPL is very much bound by consideration of politics just as much as the stock market rises and falls based on political trends.

There is the insinuation that there is a conspiracy — to prevent Pakistani cricketers from showing their mettle in the IPL — enacted at the levels of government. That is absolutely not true. Since liberalisation, government has only facilitated market based structures in India and has very rarely hindered them with extraneous considerations (even if much needed). Ultimately the IPL franchise owners had a will of their own and which they exercised.

But what of public opinion in either side of the border. While it is legitimate for Pakistani cricket fans — and that would mean a substantial chunk of the population to feel disappointed, nay even angry, at what has come about their cricketers, it is clear that the reaction from the representatives of Pakistan’s government was over-the-top. Pakistan’s interior minister made a statement that “India was not serious about the peace process” by the manner in which the cricketers were excluded. Such a conclusion is unwarranted as it does not understand the way the league functions.

Such is the heightened consciousness for cricket (both playing and spectatorship) in both countries, that the non-inclusion can be seen as a sign of bias and therefore enmity. This is precisely what both the governments, who would will for a normalisation of relations, would want to avoid. The unprecedented support given by fans from both Pakistan and India in 2004 during the bilateral Test series was there for all to see. What the governments can do is to facilitate cricketing competition between these countries in some manner. The government and the sports ministry can definitely weigh in with friendly advice to the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) to hold a bilateral series with a set of One Day, Test and Twenty20 games in the near future in India to assuage the feelings of the cricket lovers and to foster better ties between societies in the countries.

After all, the BCCI is not necessarily a corporate entity concerned only about its bottom-line.

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