This is not cricket!

This is not cricket!
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is always in the news. Unfortunately, most of it is negative and often without due cause. Cricket also arouses strong passions. Anyone who has played it even for a bit, or read about it, or watched it on TV with action replays, third umpire decisions and “expert” comments also fancies himself an expert. Everyone has pet hates. However, few “experts”, even first class cricketers, understand how a sprawling autonomous organization like the PCB functions, with nearly 600 employees, nine stadiums, three cricket academies and year long domestic and international tournaments costing billions. Fewer still understand sources of revenue and costs — in short, its financial constraints and leveraging abilities. Remarkably, hardly anyone fully understands how the International Cricket Council (ICC) – the mother hen – functions and relates to its member boards.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the proposed revival of India-Pakistan cricket series has raised such heat and dust. In theory, cricket and politics should be kept apart. In practice, however, the warring nationalism of both countries tends to dictate matters. This has given rise to the most charged and exciting contest in the world of cricket but also to the notion of positive or negative “cricket diplomacy” by both governments. The latest tension between the PCB and BCCI is a case in point.

After the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009, international teams stopped touring Pakistan for safety reasons but continued to play Pakistan outside Pakistan. However, after the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008 by a Pakistani jihadi squad, the Indian government took the political decision to order the BCCI not to play Pakistan bilaterally inside or outside Pakistan. In 2012 the Indian government relented and permitted the BCCI to play a short series against Pakistan in India. The revenues from this should justly have gone to Pakistan because it was owed a “home series” by the BCCI. But politician-sugar magnate Zaka Ashraf, who was chairman of PCB, quietly agreed to forego millions of dollars from this series to India. In 2014, Zaka Ashraf further mishandled the situation, leaving PCB high and dry when all full ICC members except Pakistan signed on the new Big 3 ICC constitution and quickly cemented revenue generating bilateral cricket series among themselves for the next eight years, thereby inducing isolation and potential bankruptcy in the PCB.

Zaka Ashraf was booted out by the Supreme Court in 2014 for rigging PCB elections, gross mismanagement and corruption. Consequently, the new PCB management decided to salvage the situation inside the ICC instead of remaining in isolated limbo. In exchange for its vote to stress ICC unanimity, the PCB convinced the BCCI to renew cricketing ties with Pakistan over the next eight years (the MOU is expected to yield PCB revenue of over Rs 2 billion), include Pakistan as one of the five core members of the all-powerful Executive Committee of ICC and give the Presidency of ICC to Pakistan for 2015-16. This was no mean achievement considering that the value of Pakistan’s single leftover vote was zilch.

The BCCI is now under pressure from anti-Pakistan hardliners in the Modi government and its supporters to renege on the cricket series against Pakistan scheduled in the UAE in December 2015. Under the rules of engagement, cricket boards are allowed to cancel commitments without financial claims for damages if so ordered by their governments or courts. The leadership of the BCCI formally invited PCB officials to visit Mumbai last week to chart a positive way ahead. But Shiv Sena activists stormed BCCI headquarters and compelled it to cancel the proposed talks. The BCCI feared the Sena might disrupt next Sunday’s match between India and South Africa in Mumbai if it didn’t comply. As the Indian media roundly condemned the hooliganism of the Sena and the timidity of the BCCI, the Pakistani media, incredibly enough, turned on the PCB for going to Mumbai and being “humiliated” by the BCCI. This has provoked misplaced nationalist passions and outrage. But it is not cricket.

If the BCCI had wanted to say no to the series, it would have left it to the Indian government to say the dirty word. But by inviting the PCB for talks, it indicated a desire to find a working solution. Its headquarters is in Mumbai, its annual meetings were in progress, so Mumbai seemed a natural venue for the talks. It has since indicated to the PCB that talks are still possible in the near future at another venue. Until then, regardless of what the Sena threat is and what might eventually transpire between the BCCI and the Modi government, the PCB has no choice but to hang in there. Indeed, if anyone has been showcased in bad light at home and abroad, it is the Modi government and the BCCI, and not Pakistan or the PCB.

The PCB is the Pakistani media’s favourite whipping boy. The tragedy is that sometimes this negativity hurts the national interest.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.