To play or not to is the question

India and Pakistan have begun a process of normalisation of relations. Bus, train and air services are to be resumed. Delegations are making visits from each country with a lot of optimism and hope. Can cricket lag behind in this changed atmosphere?

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

Bishan Bedi want a resumption of cricket matches between India and Pakistan as soon as possible. — Pics. RAJEEV BHATT-

ABDUL AZEEZ is a friend, working in a government department. He's a cricket freak, but he dreads an India-Pakistan encounter, for various reasons. He prefers to take leave from work on the day of the match, and the day after, to avoid unpleasant exchanges with colleagues. An Indian win brings him taunts from certain elements and a Pakistani win makes it even worse. His reactions are watched closely and obviously his comments have to be measured. He dare not praise any Pakistani cricketer because that would put him in the anti-national category. He almost gave up watching cricket.

Azeez's best years have been when India and Pakistan have not had any cricket exchanges.

But times are changing. India and Pakistan have begun a process of normalisation of relations. Bus, train and air services are to be resumed. Delegations are making visits from each country with a lot of optimism and hope. Can cricket lag behind in this changed atmosphere?

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) have latched on to this development. There is talk of revival of cricket ties between the two nations and suddenly things are looking up. The Board President, Jagmohan Dalmiya, had all along advocated resumption of cricket ties even at the height of tension between the two countries. "We'll be isolated if we continue to refuse playing Pakistan,'' was Dalmiya's refrain everytime the Government rejected the idea.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) has wisely decided to treat the subject with care, leaving the decision to the respective governments. Pakistan may have shown its eagerness at various points for resumption of cricket ties, but then India had a valid justification for refusing to adopt a similar line. Cross-border terrorism, at the behest of Pakistan, had stood in the way. In the absence of government permission, the Board had no choice but to keep cancelling bi-lateral cricket schedules with Pakistan.

As the Board joint-secretary and a veteran administrator, Jyoti Bajpai, said, "it's unfortunate that things came to a stage where we had to sever cricket ties with Pakistan. There is enormous interest in an India-Pakistan match but then we can't ignore the country's interest for the sake of playing cricket. The Board is driven by the policies of the Government and if the Government feels it is not in public interest to play Pakistan then that's what the Board too has to follow. We can't go against the Government, which is the best judge to decide whether it's the best time to play Pakistan or not. The Board on its own can't decide on such matters even though our stand did put us in an awkward position in the International Cricket Council. But for the Board national interest mattered a lot.''

Former India captain Bishan Singh Bedi, a popular figure in Pakistan, did not agree that there are good times or bad times to play cricket. "All times should be good to play cricket between two good teams. My only concern is that the two giants of the sub-continent should meet each other and ascertain their cricketing existence. Why deprive the public of good cricket because such encounters can tell men from boys? Of course, other factors too matter a lot and ultimately it is the Government, which decides on national policies. If playing Pakistan goes against the nation's interest, then I too wouldn't press for an India-Pakistan match,'' said Bedi frankly.

Bedi welcomed the recent moves to improve the relations between the two countries. On the cricket front, he stressed that India and Pakistan should play each other in their own country. "We have had enough of this neutral nonsense. I don't think India and Pakistan should play in neutral conditions. They either play in India or in Pakistan or they don't. But sooner they resume the cricket ties the better,'' Bedi said.

Would Bedi recommend an annual series between the two countries? "Not really. Difficult to say how things would be in the future, but at least we can have one series in two years. Cricket between India and Pakistan is also a huge financial success for the respective Boards. See, if we have to go to Pakistan, we should. Let the administrators sort out the hassles, but cricket should go on. Look at England and Australia. They continue to attract full houses. India and Pakistan also ensure full houses whenever and wherever they play each other. Did we not play them in the recent World Cup? It was a wonderful game of cricket. Why should the public be deprived of this?'' asked Bedi.

Former India captain Ajit Wadekar held similar views. "I don't understand why we can't play Pakistan in cricket when we can play Pakistan in all other disciplines. Are we not playing hockey with Pakistan? Why should only cricket suffer? From personal experience I can say that the Pakistanis have got along well with the Indians. All their aggression on the field is for their public because a lot of things are at stake. But the teams hardly had any problems on or off the field. I'm all for resuming cricket ties with Pakistan.'' For Yashpal Sharma, cricket with Pakistan brings mixed memories. "My elder brother fought two wars (in 1965 and 1971) with Pakistan. I know a lot about the Pakistanis through him. Two of my nephews are right now serving on the front. As far as I'm concerned, our nation's prestige should come first. Cricket can be secondary because what matters is the country's prestige,'' said a passionate Yashpal.

``Cricket,'' continued Yashpal, "should go on. An India-Pakistan match generates tremendous interest and I know how it feels because I have made two tours to Pakistan (in 1978 and 1982). I know cricket can be interesting, but we must not compromise. All the passion and emotions are fine but we must also give a thought to the situation on the border before pressing for resumption of cricket ties between India and Pakistan. A cricketer can be your ambassador, but please don't ignore the soldier who guards the border. The common man in either country may not want a war, but we have to consider the Government's policies. I can tell you from experience it's no fun visiting Pakistan. There's no freedom. On the other hand, the Pakistanis enjoy far more freedom when they come here. At least they are not tailed when they leave the hotel. Let us resume cricket with Pakistan but only if the situation on the border is fine.'' Even Mohinder Amarnath wanted the nation to remember the sacrifices of the soldiers before taking any decision regarding cricket with Pakistan. "All this talk of improving the relationship is fine. I also would like India to play regular cricket with Pakistan but please understand that sports can never improve the relationship between the two countries. We should have sporting contact with Pakistan only if we have peace at the border. People must realise that just playing cricket will not help matters. There are so many factors involved. Cricket against Pakistan is a great challenge and it always gives us great satisfaction when we win against them. But I don't think things have improved to the extent to start thinking of playing cricket. In fact, things have become worse. I don't think we need to visit Pakistan or invite them when our jawans are still dying at the border,'' was Mohinder's candid assessment.

Mohinder's former mate Madan Lal did not mind resumption of cricket. "There's nothing wrong in playing Pakistan as long as the Government feels it's fine. Here also it's the Government, which will decide whether we play Pakistan or not. If we can play Pakistan in any other discipline why can't we play them in cricket? I think the more we play Pakistan the lesser will be the tension between the two countries,'' summed up Madan Lal.

Abbas Ali Baig, former Test opener, made observations similar to Madan's. "It appears as if it is the right time to resume cricketing ties. India and Pakistan have a similar background — culture and language are common to many. The players too enjoy each other's company. It's the hype that creates the pressure on and off the field and that's why I feel there's a need to play Pakistan very often. We should make a start as early as possible and make it a regular affair.''

For Mumbai Cricket Association joint-secretary Prof. Ratnakar Shetty, the signs are good for the revival of the India-Pakistan Test series. "India and Pakistan always bring quality cricket. It brings the best out of the players. It's unfortunate that the involvement and emotions spill beyond the boundary and create needless pressure on the players. And that in turn creates problems.''

Like many, Prof. Shetty noted, "we've been playing Pakistan in other disciplines too, and without much problems. But cricket creates far more excitement. You could see it from the celebrations we had in India after the win against Pakistan in the last World Cup.'' In Prof. Shetty's opinion, "the Government has a role to play because an India-Pakistan cricket result could create a law and order problem. If the Government today feels we can play Pakistan, then it must be the best time to do so. The Board is influenced by the Government's policy. We can't defy the Government or the public by insisting on playing Pakistan. We need the Government's permission to invite a team or to tour a country. It's one thing to say that sport and politics shouldn't be mixed but another to ensure they don't. The nation's image is also important for all us and we can't do things which would harm the country's interests.''

So did he look at the current scenario as an administrator? Prof. Shetty did not mince words. "Let it be accepted that the animosity is deep-rooted. There is hatred for each other for reasons we all know very well. This hatred factor can't be denied or swept aside.

It's all right to talk of playing each other, but let it be accepted that the mindset of the common man is different from what we assume. For the common man what matters is just the result. Like Sunil Gavaskar says that it'll take time for the people of the nation to look at cricket like just any other game. Students have to be taught in school in Pakistan that the Indians are not their enemies. We should play cricket with Pakistan but without compromising our prestige. We must honour the sacrifices of the soldiers and not play cricket just for the sake of playing.''

Former Test stumper Kiran More, a National selector at present and also Secretary of the Baroda Cricket Association, wanted India to tour Pakistan. "As a sportsman I think it's a good development. We went to Pakistan in 1989 and had a good time. Of course, there were some problems, but overall it was a nice trip. If we're planning to go again, it's only after the Government gives the permission. The Government knows the truth of what's happening at the border, but as a cricketer I would look at opportunities for the two countries to start playing each other. I always enjoyed playing Pakistan. It brings out the best out of a cricketer because Pakistan is a good team. It's a very competitive team and matches between us produce quality cricket. I won't mind India playing Pakistan regularly.''

On the relationship between the players, More pointed out, "the players have hardly had any problems honestly. The teams treat each other with respect. I had my problems with Javed Miandad on the field, but I always rated him one of the greatest cricketers ever. I've a lot of regard for him and he's a fantastic person off the field. There's nothing wrong with being competitive on the field. But off the field we do respect each other.

"If the Government feels the atmosphere is right, we must play Pakistan regularly. It'll help ease the tension.''

We would thus conclude that the cricketers, with a few exceptions, do welcome the resumption of cricket ties with Pakistan. Of course, like Mohinder and Yashpal suggested, one also needs to recognise the sacrifices of the soldiers at the border, and also the thousands of paramilitary forces engaged in protecting the country from disruptive forces, before deciding to resume cricket ties. "Let's not play cricket with Pakistan just for the sake of it,'' maintains Mohinder Amarnath. Many, like my friend Azeem, would support this view no doubt!