Indo-Pakistan Cricket Spat

Everyone can recall the torture of being picked last for teams at school. The stock response is to blush profusely, shuffle along in the wake of the captain that doesn’t want you and never turn up to gym class again.

In the relentless tit-for-tat relationship between India and Pakistan, team selection takes on a different order of magnitude.

For the three years now, the playboy owners of India’s 20Twenty cricket teams have got together to bid for their squads for the upcoming season. On offer are 66 players from 11 countries. Each team must have a minimum of seven Indian players. That leaves up to four non-Indians to choose from. Unlike the school playground, selection is by cheque book. The better the player, the more zeros on the end.

The usual selection of star Australian, New Zealand and British players went under the hammer. But not one Pakistani player made the grade. Hence the hoohah.

Rather than slink off shamefaced, Pakistan’s governing cricket board has called foul. Its chairman Ejaz Butt has pointed the finger at the highest echelons of the Indian government. He accuses it of effectively blacklisting Pakistani players by not offering via guarantees.

India claimed no such via restrictions applied. The decision on who to choose and who not to choose, it say, is up to the owners themselves. The Indian Premier League is all about “big business and big sport”, as the NYT puts it. The TV-friendly format has worked, popularizing the game among a global audience. So all the more galling for Pakistan’s top players to be left out.

In a fit of pique, the Pakistani cricket board has refused any of their players to take part in India’s lucrative Premier League.

In practical terms, it’s an empty gesture. Even if their players wanted to play, they’ve not been invited. But it could effect Pakistan’s involvement in future seasons. Diplomatically, too, it signifies a rachetting up of the row to a new, more serious level. Pakistan’s interior minister went as far as to say that it showed that India was “not serious” about the peace process between the two bickering nations.

Pakistanis are understandably stunned and hurt that none of their own made the final cut. Indian owners have offered less than convincing arguments as to why Pakistani players weren’t picked. It certainly seems odd. Pakistan is the current world champion of Twenty20 cricket. In players like batsman Rana Naved-ul Hasan and Umar Gul it boasts some of the star performers of the abbreviated version of the game.

Most commentators see a political snub behind the affair. The involvement of Pakistani militants in the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai still grates. But it’s unlikely that an edict came down from government central office. More likely, India’s cricket owners worried about the hassle factor: Hindu nationalists screaming from the terraces, terror threats at games and general bad blood among fans (and advertisers?).

Easier just to go with the golden boys from Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Same talent, same flair, but a safe choice. The loss is India’s. Just as it was John Forrester’s loss when he left me out of his Under-11 soccer team.