Serious doubts over India-Pakistan series in Sri Lanka

One of the key issues Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to address on his return from the UN Summit on Climate Change in Paris is whether or not to clear the short cricket series between India and Pakistan in neutral Sri Lanka next month.

Media reports clearly suggest that it’s a done deal as far as the Indian and Pakistani boards are concerned and after Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has quickly given his green signal, all eyes are on Modi.

There are serious doubts among senior ministers as well as among board officials over the series coming off. The Pakistanis are getting tensed with no response forthcoming from the Indian side. Four days elapsed since Foreign Office spokesman in Delhi Vikas Swarup tweeted that no decision has been taken on the series.

As suspected Nawaz Sharif scored a diplomatic point by clearing the series thus putting Modi in an awkward situation. The hawks in his government and party are deadly opposed to any contact between the two countries till Pakistan desists from its terror activities in India from across the border. He knows he must have a convincing line of argument to either clear or refuse the team’s trip to Sri Lanka.

Though the Indian board is opposed to playing Pakistan’s home series in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as other international sides do, its chief Shashank Manohar had no qualms about meeting his Pakistani counterpart Shahryar Khan in Dubai to work out the modalities of the series.

The Indian board invited Pakistan to play in India thinking it would be tempted to jump at it as the series is only of three One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and two T20 matches instead of originally planned two Tests, five ODIs and two T20s. Also, the Pakistanis are desperate to play India more for financial considerations.

Yet the Pakistanis refused to cross the border, citing the political atmosphere in the country and invoking their right to host the home series in the UAE. Pakistan also pointed it out that the MOU signed in 2014 was for playing in the Emirates.

The Indians had objection to playing in the UAE going by the past experience and the lone option left was Sri Lanka. Pakistan agreed to play in the Island nation.

Once the chiefs of the boards decided in principle that the series should go ahead subject to clearance from the respective governments, the Pakistanis moved quickly getting all clearances whereas the Indian board is waiting with bated breath for the Modi government to clear the series.

Should the series be played at a neutral venue?

Ask cricketers and their public expression will be in the affirmative whatever their personal stand. Ask the man in the street the answer depends on the age and political leanings. By and large people in both countries will be unhappy to see their teams playing in a third country, more so Pakistanis who are starved of international cricket at home for nearly six years. Even their T-20 pro league is being played in the UAE.

Pakistan is desperate to resume cricketing ties with India. While Pakistani players, former and current, are keen that the two countries should play at any venue India chooses. The Indian players invariably leave it to the board, though some former players have strong views subject to their proximity to the border.

As for the media, the sports writers generally take the stand that their job is to report on what’s happening out in the middle or in the board rooms. Political writers are divided as expected. The so-called liberals see it as an opportunity to firm up the ties between the perennially warring neighbours.

There is no other go than encouraging people-to-people contacts and for that there are no better vehicles than sports and culture. The right wing writers are expectedly will have none of it. There is even an appeal to Virat Kohli and his team-mates to make themselves unavailable for the series!

The columnist, however, did not tell the players, like the right-wing politicians, to go to Pakistan if they want to play with them; he only said they should send out a message that they would refuse so long their government harbours terrorists, who spill Indian blood and their troops violate the LIne of Control (LOC).

All this assuming the government consults players before taking the decision. It is for the external affairs ministry to clear the trip. Here, it is for Modi to decide and he would surely consult his senior cabinet colleague Arun Jaitley, who would have been the board president had Modi not swept to power last year.

Things would not have moved so swiftly for Modi to come into picture without Jaitley’s knowledge. Both Indian board president Shashank Manohar and his Pakistani counterpart Shahryar Khan met the union finance minister and did the spadework a couple of months ago.

It was Jaitley who prevailed upon a “reluctant” Shashank to take over board’s reins following the death of Jagmohan Dalmiya and the two must have discussed the pros and cons of playing the series before taking it to Modi.

The biggest fear in both the countries is crowd response in Sri Lanka even if the series is of shorter format, though the returns from the gates are not going to make so much difference.

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