Sunday, August 24, 2008

Inevitable, but what next?

The PCB could have done no more than assure touring teams the highest level of security.

Let's not be fooled by the wording: postponement is merely a euphemism for cancellation. The Champions Trophy has not been postponed by a couple of weeks or a month, but by a year, to 2009. The year of the ICC World Twenty20; also of the IPL, the Champions League - for which a window will be found - and a seven-match ODI series between Australia and India scheduled for October.

And even if three weeks were to be miraculously carved out somehow, what guarantee that the security conditions would have improved enough to persuade those averse to touring Pakistan now to change their mind?

But postponement is the expedient word. It doesn't suit the Pakistan Cricket Board, which had done everything within its powers to address the security concerns, but it is a better outcome than the tournament shifting to Sri Lanka or elsewhere. And since the tournament has not been officially cancelled yet, the ICC doesn't need to, for the moment at least, start calculating the compensation it has to fork out to the television rights holders. And of course, the players who didn't want to make the trip to Pakistan would be mightily relieved.

In other words, it is an inevitable compromise that has become the hallmark of the ICC.

To be fair, other options were virtually closed. Pakistan - and they had India's backing - wouldn't countenance a relocation, and four of the eight teams wouldn't travel. The other option would have been to hold the tournament with those willing to come - but that could have meant another Asia Cup plus Zimbabwe. That was no option really. To begin with, the television rights holders wouldn't count it as the Champions Trophy.

How, then, to make sense of a situation that appears so utterly different from two different angles? On the face of it, it is the mere confirmation of cricket as a fractured community, split along the lines of geography, race and culture. It would seem that nothing has moved since the 1996 World Cup, when Australia and West Indies decided to stay away from Sri Lanka and when India and Pakistan made a grand show of solidarity with their Asian neighbour by sending a combined team to play a friendship match.

And it was only last month that India and Sri Lanka played without as much a blink in the Asia Cup, which went off without a hitch in Karachi and Lahore, the two venues for the Champions Trophy. The PCB could have done no more than assure touring teams the highest level of security, the kind accorded to visiting heads of states. Nothing, they can now argue, would have sufficed for minds had already been closed. Also, it can be pointed out that the Ashes went on in 2005 despite serial bomb blasts in England, and, more recently and more pertinently, an IPL match took place in Jaipur days after multiple blasts had claimed 80 lives.

And yet judgment needs to be reached carefully. The world has changed immeasurably since 1996. It is not enough to say that cricket has never been a target for terrorists. In fact, for those seeking to create impact and those completely unconcerned about what the world thinks of them, a high-profile tournament can be a legitimate target. Living in the shadow of the bomb has become a way of life on the subcontinent, so much so that it would be impossible to carry on otherwise. But is it fair to expect the same level of detachment and equanimity from those accustomed to a different way of life? However exaggerated their fears may be and however ill-informed the security advice may be, the allowance for a different perception must be made and respected.

After all, cricketers are neither diplomats nor soldiers; is it reasonable to expect them to put the game, and the misfortune of another cricket board, above the concerns over their personal well-being? Many of these players are heroes on the field but few aspire to heroism in life outside it and they shouldn't be grudged for it.

Where does this leave world cricket now? It is difficult to foresee any of the teams unwilling to travel to Pakistan next month changing their minds in the near future. The war against terror is unlikely to be won soon. The security situation in India has got no better, with recent serial bomb blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad - both these cities are scheduled to host Tests against Australia and England soon. And the subcontinent is due to host the World Cup in 2011.

By postponing the Champions Trophy the cricket boards have merely avoided an immediate crisis. But the problem will not go away. Perhaps no one should mourn the death of the Champions Trophy, for it is an increasingly irrelevant tournament that will inevitably give way to Twenty20 championships of various kinds. The question of Pakistan's place in the international cricket calendar cannot, however, be swept aside by merely delaying a decision.