That question again! Should we or should we not play Pakistan? Should sporting ties be used as a vehicle for peace in an atmosphere of hatred and much bitterness between two countries?
As a strong votary of keeping politics and the negative baggage of history, present and past, away from sports, the question is not whether to play or not, but where to play. In the heat and dust of the deserts of UAE, in the torrid humidity of Sri Lanka, or is home the best place to cross swords with Pakistan on the cricket field?
The obvious answer would be nothing like home, either ours or theirs.
If peace be the mission of the series, then nothing can be more exciting and heartening than to watch Pakistan get a warm welcome and applause from an Indian crowd on the playing field. Whenever Pakistan has played in India in the past, they have been greeted with genuine warmth by the majority, despite the hostility of a few, who of late may have grown in numbers. The Indian experience of being in Pakistan is well documented, leaving all those who have been there overwhelmed with their expansive hospitality.
Since it is Pakistan’s turn to host India, it should be Pakistan, but given the security concerns and genuine threat perceptions in a world battling with terrorism, this is ruled out. So it seems is India, for the same reasons. If India can’t let Pakistan players play in their IPL, there is no point risking an entire team playing in a hostile environment and any mishap, even a minor one, will leave India embarrassed.
That leaves Pakistan’s adopted cricket home, the UAE, as the logical choice for the series to be played. If proper security can be assured, why should India say no? Given the fact that the Emirates are the most secure region in the world today and the security there is almost foolproof, with all cricket playing nations, be it England or Australia, playing there, India have no reason to say no.
To raise extraneous issues like players would be susceptible to the lure of fixing, is a lame excuse in today’s world. Whether you play in Sharjah or London or Delhi, an approach to tempt players does not need physical proximity any more. In any case, geographical boundaries are no longer a deterrent to a crime, that too a crime which is committed through exchange of money and not by killing or abducting people. If the Indian Board feels so strongly about UAE being a hub of cricket corruption, then the first thing they should do is to force the ICC to shift its headquarters from Dubai.
Having put forth the argument in favour of UAE for hosting the series does not mean I am in favour of India and Pakistan playing there. In fact, I do not have happy memories of India-Pakistan encounters when Sharjah was the neutral venue for the two countries in the late eighties and early nineties.
If building peace and lessening tension between the two neighbours was the prime reason for the two teams to play then, it had failed spectacularly in that mission. The Orwellian lines, “war minus the shooting” could have well been said in the context of Sharjah crowds, a mix of Indian and Pakistani expatriates. It was a frightening experience to be in the midst of thousands of people, not just divided in their loyalties, but bitter and hostile to each other and screaming slogans, like “Jiwe, jiwe Pakistan” and “India zindabad”.
The crowd would be at each other’s throats, the gestures so menacing that one feared a full blown riot any time. That nothing of this sort happened was more to do with the fear and wrath of the police as any breach of law would have meant immediate deportation. More damage was done by the images of these hostile verbal spats being watched live at home, both in India and Pakistan, that left a very bitter taste among the people of the two countries. I am not sure whether we can risk the repeat of similar images being beamed live today across the two countries and not expect retaliation.
That leaves us with Sri Lanka as the most acceptable venue. Since revenues from television are probably the prime motivator of the two boards to go ahead with the series, they won’t mind a venue where the local populace and its board would have no interest in the matches. Maybe an insipid ambience and an empty stadium would be a perfect foil to the high pressure series which would keep India and Pakistan on the edge and jangle the nerves of cricket fans.