Just as one was settling down to ten fun-filled minutes of hectic bidding, dawned the realisation that there were no frantic discussions between team representatives, no furtive glances at the next table to see if the ‘torch’ was being raised. Team owners sported indifferent, disinterested looks; it was as if unheralded Dutchman Ryan ten Doeschate, and not Shahid Afridi, was up for grabs.
It didn’t take long for the auctioneer to bang the gavel and declare Afridi ‘unsold’. Afridi was in a minority for only a short time, because soon afterwards, none of the other ten Pakistanis in the auction fray attracted any bids either.
Few who witnessed Tuesday’s auction in Mumbai, either in person or on live TV, would have bargained for the huge outcry that has since emanated from across the border. In all, 66 players were competing for 11 slots; the 11 Pakistanis apart, 44 others too found no buyers, among them accomplished and established stars such as Brad Haddin, Doug Bollinger and Ramnaresh Sarwan. No one else has questioned the wisdom, or indeed the right – for, after all, it is their money! – of the franchise owners in making their choices.
There has been a massive outpouring of disappointment and rage – whether spontaneous or orchestrated -- in Pakistan at the perceived ‘insult’ to the players and the country itself by IPL owners and, by extension, the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the Indian government. In these troubled times, with diplomatic relations fragile, it’s perhaps a predictable path to embrace, even if it means reason and common sense are given the go by.
There have been calls for a black-out of the IPL in Pakistan, the players themselves held a meeting in Brisbane ahead of a one-day international against Australia – which, as an aside, they went on to lose fairly comprehensively – in which they decided that they would turn their backs on the cash-rich event for the foreseeable future, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister threatened to ‘pay India back in the same coin’, a parliamentary probe has been initiated to ascertain why the Pakistan Cricket Board didn’t extract assurances that its players would not be ‘humiliated’ and the PCB has approached the International Cricket Council with a complaint over the slight to Pakistan. Lest it should be forgotten, the IPL is a private enterprise. Team owners have invested millions of dollars not for a charitable cause but with an eye on eventual profits. The industry is market-driven, and while it is undeniable that there is a huge market to be tapped when it comes to the likes of Afridi, the current political climate left the franchises with little option but to desist from acquiring players from Pakistan.
Shilpa Shetty, the co-owner of Rajasthan Royals, sought to put things in perspective by endorsing IPL chairman Lalit Modi’s views that there was no ‘pre-conceived conspiracy’ against Pakistan players. Obviously irked by the mushrooming controversy, she also tersely countered that she didn’t owe an explanation for not buying a Pakistani cricketer.
Player security and player availability – not driven so much by international engagements as by the post-26/11 equations – were key factors that influenced team owners’ call on Pakistani cricketers, but whether anyone from across the border is listening, however, is a moot point. Tempers are flying high, fanned by inflammatory comments from respected former captains Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad, as well as by political rhetoric designed to ensure that the lines between politics and sports remain blurred. Through it all, though, another former skipper Wasim Akram, currently with the Kolkata Knight Riders as a bowling consultant, has maintained an understandably studied silence.
In many ways, it’s almost as if Pakistan is admitting that while the IPL may not be poorer without Pakistani participation, Pakistan will certainly be poorer without IPL representation. Despite tensions between the two countries, players from India and Pakistan have invariably got along famously off the field, even if the needle on it has been hard to miss. It will be a shame if the developments of the last week throw a spanner in the works when it comes to personal relationships, especially when there is merit to the theory that sport helps build bridges and dissipate tensions.