A GAME is being played in the negotiations for the Asia Cup, and the game is called false equivalence. Pakistan is hosting this year’s tournament in September just before the ICC World T20. It is a major deal for Pakistan considering the revival of international cricket at home. What could be better than a multinational tournament to underline the PCB’s claim that Pakistan is now safe?

It will be important to other South Asian teams too. Afghanistan has a reputation to build. Bangladesh is beginning to flex its muscles in one-day cricket. Sri Lanka is getting its house in order after a period of internal strife. The one country the Asia Cup is an irrelevance for is India.

Once upon a time, India needed its South Asian friends, in the days when the old powers of Australia and England were being toppled. Friendship in cricket boardrooms was stronger than the political discord that is an ever present in the region. A voting bloc of South Asian nations, with Pakistan a key ally, was essential to India’s rise to supremacy in cricket politics. India’s commercial clout mattered too, of course, but winning control of international cricket was a numbers game of raised hands at ICC meetings.

What India did next was to move beyond its region, and reach out its seductive palm to Australia and England to create a new ruling alliance. The rich, you might say, created a premier league of international cricket enshrined in law by the skewed fixture list of the Future Tours Programme.

Ironically, Australia and England have baulked a little at the power of India, but the ruling elite remains the ruling elite with most of the other nations hanging on to their coat tails. Politics and India’s attitude condemned Pakistan to cricket’s political wilderness, and only now does the cricket board possess sufficient savvy to rebuild Pakistan’s international influence. Indeed, this political dimension is the biggest test for Ehsan Mani and Wasim Khan, manifested most visibly in their ability to attract international teams and tournaments to Pakistan.

Two years ago, the Asia Cup was moved from India to the United Arab Emirates. The reason was that India would not have issued visas to Pakistan’s players. That is a political choice made by India, and it affects anybody of Pakistani heritage seeking entry to India, not just superstar cricketers. In these circumstances it was appropriate for the Asian Cricket Council to move the tournament.

Now, India says its team will not travel to Pakistan for the Asia Cup this year but requests, and here’s the false equivalence, that it plays at a neutral venue. In 2018, it was India’s decision not to grant visas to Pakistan’s cricketers. Today, Pakistan is not threatening to refuse visas for India’s cricketers. Instead, India is choosing not to travel to Pakistan.

This is another strand in India’s bare-faced strategy to marginalise Pakistan cricket. As such, the Asian Cricket Council should keep the whole tournament in Pakistan. Equally, the PCB should not waiver in its insistence that India fulfil fixtures in Pakistan. One way to deal with a bully is to call his bluff, and India has grown used to bullying the rest of the cricket world without due consideration for the global game.

The realpolitik of international cricket’s return to Pakistan is that India will not entertain bilateral relations or a tour of Pakistan under India’s current prime minister. When it comes to playing in Pakistan, India is a lost cause. But the other Asian teams will visit, as in time will West Indies and South Africa.

That leaves Australia, England, and New Zealand, and persuading them will be the true measure of the PCB’s diplomatic success. A tour by the Marylebone Cricket Club is an encouraging signal that England will eventually send a team, but their historical responsibility to the region is greater than Australia’s or New Zealand’s.

Cricket, we know, is politics writ large, and it is a game that the PCB has lost for decades. Pakistan cricket’s growth strategy needs to ensure it does not depend on India. Planning for an Asia Cup without India is a good place to start.

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2020

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