In 1996, when the Indian subcontinent co-hosted the World Cup, it marked a change in the power of cricket that saw its centre shift from England to South Asia. Over the ‘90s and leading into the 2000s, India and Pakistan in particular led the way in wresting power away from the old guard.
Yet today in 2017, Pakistan stands alone as an international pariah. One journalist asked whether its international isolation was now comparable to the one faced by apartheid-era South Africa. Now the politics of the two situations are quite different, but in a sporting sense it’s an analogy that does hold slightly true.
For almost a decade now, Pakistan has been a no-go area for every team save Zimbabwe who have toured only once, and its players have been excluded from the IPL, which has become a finishing ground for white-ball cricketers. During that time, its standing as a team in white ball cricket has been in free-fall, and is now one of the worst limited overs teams in the world. The reason for this isolation has been terrorism.
“Pakistan has been a no-go area for every team save Zimbabwe who have toured only once, and its players have been excluded from the IPL, which has become a finishing ground for white-ball cricketers.”
Now this article isn’t looking to contest what the cause of terrorism is. On one end there are those who believe it is all being caused by foreign powers looking to destroy Pakistan, while on the other end it is claimed that the terrorists were supported as proxies that went rogue and that the state still holds a sweet spot for some of them. Whichever view you prescribe to, the impact of terrorists on our immediate cricketing neighborhood - from the Mumbai attack to the one on the Sri Lankan team - has directly contributed to this cricketing nadir.
In essence, Pakistan’s foreign relations have led to its cricketing disaster.
This past week, the PCB suffered its latest embarrassment when hours after agreeing to a series with Afghanistan, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) announced its cancellation. To compound matters, the PCB then claimed to cancel the tour itself, even though everyone knew who had ended it first. In a pointed statement, the ACB mentioned that the cancellation was a response to the horrific bomb attack in Kabul, and seemed to imply that Pakistan was to blame for it.
Last week's blast was the most deadly in Kabul since 2001
You can’t help but feel a bit for the PCB here. Over the past decade and more, the board has done a lot of work to help out its neighbors, ranging from providing matches to its teams, resources and coaches to its board and opportunities for its players in the local setup. But all its hard work is contingent upon the troubled relationship between the two countries.
Shiv Sina workers confronting BCCI President Shashank Manohar on meeting with Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chief Shahryar Khan
Regardless of your political stance, it is clear that many in Afghanistan blame Pakistan for fomenting violence in their country and supporting terrorists. That may or may not be true, but it’s the perception that the two boards have to deal with and thus through no fault of its own, the PCB finds itself being played by an associate nation’s board.
The latest setback comes only weeks after the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) refused the PCB’s invite to tour Pakistan. Pakistan has toured Bangladesh twice since the Tigers’ last visit in 2008, and was scheduled to do so again this year. When the BCB declined to tour for two T20s, the PCB responded by cancelling its own tour. To be fair to the BCB, they referenced the fact that both their own and an ICC fact-finding mission sent to the recent PSL final in Lahore came back with the view that the situation wasn’t safe enough to send their side.
Now Pakistan’s relations with Bangladesh at a state level have never been as warm as they generally have been in the cricketing field. Given that Bangladesh seceded after a gruesome civil war and decades of oppression, this is to be expected. That historical baggage sometimes leads the BCB to behave heavy-handedly. But mostly, the concerns over safety are neither new nor exclusive to them.
Those concerns have persisted since the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan Cricket team in Lahore, and have been the main reason that all international teams (save Zimbabwe) have refused to tour Pakistan. Indeed, the only team that has been ready to at least play Pakistan regularly has been Sri Lanka, the one side that almost lost their lives in the attack. Since then, Pakistan has played all its ‘home’ cricket in the UAE.
Under former captain Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s test side at least changed this disadvantage into an advantage as his side mastered the UAE en route a run to world no.1 in Tests. But the white-ball teams went into free-fall, and one reason for that can be traced to a terrorism incident that arguably had a bigger impact on Pakistan cricket than the 2009 one.
Following the Mumbai attacks in 2008, Indo-Pak cricketing relations immediately went from four years of glut to an absolute end. Since then, the two teams have met for one bilateral, limited overs series and a handful of matches at international tournaments. More importantly, Pakistani players have been first banned and then afterwards generally ostracised from the IPL.
During that time, the tournament has become the world’s premier finishing school for new players and proving ground for its stars. It has become a crucible for limited overs tactics and styles, and has been one of the driving forces in how white-ball cricket has completely changed over the past decade. One look at Pakistan’s current side makes clear the impact of missing out on the IPL experience. The team lacks power-hitters, remains petrified of chasing and remains a 250 team in a 320 world.
This comes in addition to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) repeatedly backing out from scheduled bilateral series. Each time, the process leads to protracted negotiations that end up nowhere, with the BCCI blaming its government of not allowing permission. But unlike the ‘90s where cricket was often used as a symbol for peace, in the current scenario it remains the perfect symbol for belligerence. While the Indian government hasn’t ended trade with Pakistan and has even made overtures in diplomatic terms, the cricket ban satisfies a perception that it is taking a tough stance on Pakistan.
“But unlike the ‘90s where cricket was often used as a symbol for peace, in the current scenario it remains the perfect symbol for belligerence”
Ironically, this stance hasn’t led to much loss to the Pakistani establishment or state, but has had a huge impact on its cricket. Given that the BCCI has become the head of a unipolar cricket world, the PCB has found itself shoved to the periphery of the world both as a team and a board.
Indeed, what becomes obvious is that with almost each of these teams it hasn’t been just the 2009 incident, but broader politics too that have made life difficult for the PCB. Not the soundest of boards at the best of times, the past decade has been exceptionally difficult for it. But even if it did the absolute best it could, it won’t be enough to compensate for the fallout of Pakistan’s foreign policy and relations. And until those change, it is condemned to be struggling at the margins.
Everything is Becoming, Nothing Is – Plato