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Rediff.com  » Cricket » Thaw's on, then why call off U-19 tour?

Thaw's on, then why call off U-19 tour?

August 11, 2003 08:00 IST

It is confusing as hell.

Every straw in the political wind speaks of a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan; every day brings news of fresh moves aimed at rapprochement between the two nations.

And yet, one day before India's new high commissioner for Islamabad was due to present his credentials to Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf, the government refused permission for the Indian Under-19 cricket team to visit Pakistan for a triangular series that would also involve Sri Lanka.

That Indian cricketers were refused permission to tour Pakistan is neither new, nor strange. India's last Test tour of Pakistan was in 1989; its last one-day series in that country was in 1997-'98, when the two teams first played five games in the Sahara Cup series in Toronto, Canada, then moved to Pakistan for three more games.

Then came the misadventure in Kargil when Pervez Musharraf, then the country's army chief, sent troops disguised as mercenaries to take and hold Indian territory; since then, the Indian government has steadfastly refused to permit its cricketers to tour the neighbouring nation.

What is new and interesting is the evasive nature of official response to the question -- why?

In the past, successive sports ministers from S S Dindsa to Uma Bharti to incumbent Vikram Verma have minced no words in turning down the Board of Control for Cricket in India president Jagmohan Dalmiya's fervent pleas for resumption of cricket ties between the two nations.

The three ministers, in their respective tenures, have termed Pakistan a 'terrorist nation', and categorically said that as long as cross-border terrorism continues to be Pakistan's chief export to India, no cricket tours between the two nations is possible.

Not this time. For once, no government minister, or even minion, is prepared to state openly that Pakistan's fostering of terrorism in Kashmir is the issue. In fact, even previously outspoken ministers and members of Parliament now insist on speaking on the subject off record.

One senior Bharatiya Janata Party MP, thus, says concern for the safety of the players was the primary reason for the decision.

It seems on the surface rather illogical given that a delegation of Indian parliamentarians and journalists is currently touring Pakistan, sans security concerns.

Also, it is no secret that the desperately impoverished Pakistan Cricket Board needs India to tour; with Musharraf being both President of the country and patron of its cricket board, he has more than one reason to ensure that nothing untoward happens to disrupt a cricket tour by India.

It is an argument the MP does not buy. Whenever New Delhi has sought to improve ties with Pakistan, he pointed out, there was a spurt in terrorist activity in Jammu and Kashmir.

"We first had an attack on the pilgrims of Vaishno Devi in Jammu district. Next morning, fidayeen stormed an army camp, and on Friday we had a grenade attack in Lal Chowk, Srinagar," he said, pointing to recent instances.

The MP said all this could be mere coincidence, but the government could not take a chance.

Former Indian opener turned BJP politician Chetan Chauhan takes a similar line; he says the government must have had good reason for turning down the BCCI's request to allow the U-19 trip to go forward.

If anything untoward were to happen when the junior team was in Pakistan, it could undo all the good work done since April to normalise relations with Islamabad, Chauhan argued.

"There are many things the Government of India does not share with the public," Chauhan told rediff.com. "Maybe they have inputs from intelligence agencies that indicate that something might happen. It is better to wait till such time that one is assured of the safety of the players."

Chauhan said that India's veteran cricketers had invited their Pakistan counterparts to play some matches in India. "Even this proposal has not been cleared by the ministry of external affairs," he said.

Implicit in what Chauhan and others are saying is the thought that Musharraf may not have as much control over terrorist elements in Pakistan as he would like to think he has – thus, runs the subtext of the argument, while Pakistan officially wants a tour to go forward, terrorists would it to strike; such a strike would be disastrous given that cricket arouses strong emotions across India and harm to a cricketer could set back relations between the two countries irrevocably.

What this argument does not address is the fact that the U-19 tour had the government's blessings, if only unofficially.

As relations began thawing between the two nations beginning in April, the government reportedly assured Dalmiya that a junior tour could go forward now, and that the national team could plan on making a tour in February next.

Accordingly, plans had been made, at an Asian Cricket Council meet in London last month, for a three pronged initiative: a triangular series between the Indian, Pakistan and Sri Lankan cricket academy teams in Sri Lanka in August; an Under-19 triangular tournament in Pakistan in August-September; and an Under-17 Asia Cup in India in November.

All that has now gone for a toss -- as soon as India nixed the U-19 team's participation in the triangular, Pakistan reciprocated by saying that it would not send its side for the U-17 Asia Cup in India later this year.

Bishen Singh Bedi, for one, is fuming; he says the government's decision is likely to kill cricket in the subcontinent.

"Frankly, I have become immune to this kind of news," the legendary left-arm spinner told rediff.com

"It is an unfortunate decision, particularly when we are talking of normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan and allowing members of Parliament and trade delegations from the two nations to visit each other."

Bedi can -- and will -- talk. The same, however, cannot be said for officialdom.

As late as December 7, 2002, Vikram Verma had been blunt on the subject. Turning down an invitation from no less than Musharraf himself to send the Indian team to

Pakistan, Verma said: 'How can we send the cricket team to play in Pakistan, when they are supporting terrorist activities in Kashmir?'

Asked at the time about Pakistan's threat to boycott India tours in the event of a refusal, Verma if anything was even more blunt: 'We don't care if Pakistan decides not to tour India; we are not going to welcome them anyway.'

This time round, Verma does not say anything definite, he merely passes the onus on to other ministries. 'The matter is pending with the home and foreign affairs ministries,' he told Ashish Shukla in a recent chat. 'After all, it is much more than just a sporting matter.'

This lack of clear-cut answers is surprising – more so, as India's cricket hierarchy has its fair share of political figures. One such is Minister for Law, Justice and Company Affairs Arun Jaitley, who is also president of the Delhi and District Cricket Association.

Refusing all comment on the U-19 tour and normalisation of cricket ties between the two nations, Jaitley told rediff.com that as a member of the Federal Cabinet, he preferred not to enter a 'controversial debate'.

He did not explain what was 'controversial'. Either relations between the two nations are thawing, or they are not. Either India is normalizing ties with Pakistan -- vide the resumption of diplomatic contact, which was broken off in the aftermath of the December 2002 attack on Parliament, and the resumption of the bus services, and other initiatives -- or they are not.

If they are, the refusal of permission for the junior cricket team's tour makes little sense; if they are not, then the resumption of diplomatic relations makes little sense.

One person who would know, is Rajiv Shukla -- senior journalist, Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, known for his closeness with the topmost hierarchy of the government, and a member of the BCCI's executive committee.

Shukla, currently in Pakistan as part of a delegation of parliamentarians and journalists, admitted the government's decision has hurt the board's efforts to restore cricketing ties with Pakistan.

He, however, sounded confident that this was little more than a temporary setback.

"We are working on bigger things," he said, enigmatically.

Asked what those bigger things could possibly be, Shukla told rediff.com: "We are trying to work out something at the top [read Test] level.

Onkar Singh in New Delhi