Is it time Pakistani players were welcomed into the IPL?

This is a bit of a subjective question as, in reality, all neutral spectators would love to see the likes of Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal challenging in the established order. When we see Harbhajan Singh and Ricky Ponting giving each other a hug, is it really too much to ask for Indian and Pakistani players to play in the same team again?

Ponting and Harbhajan, warms your heart doesn't it? (ESPNcricinfo)

Ponting and Harbhajan, warms your heart doesn’t it? (ESPNcricinfo)

Instead, the Pakistan team will take on Scotland in two ODI’s in mid-May (in which they won the only match playable by 98 runs) followed by Ireland, just before the IPL comes to its climax, which is bound to be a spectacle.  Pakistan, along with England, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, are the only test playing nations who are playing during the IPL window, and who haven’t started to look at ways to create an international window for it (apart from New Zealand, who have a clause written in central contracts saying the IPL window will remain open). We know why the English still have problems with the IPL, but with cricketing ties reunited between Pakistan and India, why was there not one Pakistani player in the auction? Plus Mumbai alone could have five Australians warming the bench for them all season, is this an excessive use of average players when there could be more international class involved? Does the IPL need Pakistan and less Australians in order to be the tournament it claims to be?

Shahid Afridi celebrates a wicket in IPL uniform (PC: Mid-Day)

Shahid Afridi celebrates a wicket in IPL uniform (PC: Mid-Day)

In the 2007 auction, Shahid Afridi went to the Deccan Chargers for $675,000. He, along with fellow countrymen Shoaib Ahktar and Mohammad Asif, were seen as some of the most important buys of the auction, all fetching high prices. Despite Afridi having a torrid time with the bat, he was influential with the ball and Umar Gul finished top wicket-taker for KKR, a franchise which included three other Pakistani’s. But after the events of late November of that same year in Mumbai, all Pakistani players in the IPL had their contracts terminated or suspended.

As if to replace the Pakistan players, seven of England’s finest T20 players went up for auction, with Pietersen and Flintoff picking up lucrative contracts. Five of these players were sold, with Graeme Napier being snapped up by Mumbai before the auction. It should be remembered, however, that for most English County players after they have paid tax, agents fees and their counties, they don’t end up with as much as is speculated.

By comparison, in the latest auction, 32 Australians went up for auction. Ranging from legend Ricky Ponting to Cameron Boyce, the 23-year-old Queensland leg-spinner who has played a total of 15 first-class games. 13 of these Aussie’s were sold, young Boyce ‘surprisingly’ went unsold, with Glenn Maxwell picking up the highest price at the auction. This brought the total number of Australian participants in this years IPL to 34. That’s enough to fill the quota of a whole franchise. If two more Australians were snapped up, it would be possible an Australian could have taken up every overseas spot in each franchises match day squad for every game. Showing how helpful the calendar is in lining their pockets. Not to mention with the class in the Australian side at the moment, you can bet half of these Aussies are not international standard players, with the likes of Ben Laughlin going in the recent auction for just $20,000.

The reason for the low English involvement is well-known and over-discussed. The Australian interest is due to the obvious window Australian players have, just after the end of their first-class season and central contracts that promise an open IPL window. As well as the added global exposure from the Big Bash league, which may be why the aforementioned Ben Laughlin is involved in the tournament, something only a few Pakistan players and virtually nil English players gain. It does of course leave the Australian domestic players without a closed season, as they will go straight from India into pre-season training, which may not aid a fast-bowlers career. The Pakistani’s lack of involvement is politically driven, with the terror attack five years ago, it is due to safety. But after the successful tour, and Pakistan’s impressive record in T20, the IPL are certainly missing out.

The Champions League T20 is a perfect example of discrimination from the BCCI towards other countries, with Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa being the other founding partners. Held alternately between South Africa and India, Pakistan’s domestic teams did not feature until 2012 when they were allocated one qualifying spot. To compare to the participation from other counties, the IPL has three direct entrants and one qualifying, the Big Bash has two direct entrants and MiWay T20 challenge in South Africa also has two direct entrants. Despite the Pakistan teams lack of involvement, Pakistan’s two premier umpires, Aleem Dar and Asad Rauf, have officiated in over 25 CLT20 games between them. This also shows why Australia and South Africa have the highest number of participants in the IPL, with 34 players and 15 respectively, possibly due to the close ties with the countries respective boards. With the Caribbean T20 now allowed one automatic qualifying spot, the amount of West Indians in the IPL this year is 14. The Sri Lankan Premier League has the next highest participants in the IPL with 13, plus the next highest amount of positions in the 2013 CLT20. A pattern seems to be emerging.

This years IPL was talked about being different, with the BCCI saying they would allow Pakistan players into the auction, this never came true. Maybe the Indians didn’t like being beaten and this was their reaction… The IPL officials have said that it is the franchises decision whether the Pakistan players get a shot or not,  ‘It is for the franchises to decide their teams. The franchises invest a lot of money and they do not want to take a risk by including Pakistani players. The idea is to play it safe.’ The BCCI were being cautious after protests from political organisation Shiv Sena against the ODI series against Pakistan. Further to this, all Pakistan women’s games were moved from Mumbai to Cuttack following the same protests. The question remains what is the ‘risk’ of including Pakistani players, if the BCCI representative means match fixing, then that is potentially slanderous, or does he mean Pakistan players may be targeted?  What does that say about their own security or the behaviour of their fans on what is supposed to be a family day out?

Matt Prior had a brief stint in the Big Bash while England were playing the shorter formats, he went unsold in the IPL auction due to his availability (PC: Zimbio)

Matt Prior had a brief stint in the Big Bash while England were playing the shorter formats, he went unsold in the IPL auction due to his availability (PC: Zimbio)

The BCCI have an opportunity to make the IPL the premier domestic cricket tournament it promises to be. In England it already has a large following, with ITV4’s viewing figures averaging at 300,000 for a saturday doubleheader,  while the BBC radio stations totalled just under 80,000 for the opening day of the county championship. But with the stalemate in whether the IPL will ever have its own window, the BCCI should have to convince the test playing nations that not playing matches during this period would be worthwhile for them. But, as is the power of the BCCI and IPL, the players of these countries are doing this for them. Matt Prior was the highest profile name to recently state the players wanted a clear window.

It is a shame that politics has such a big say in such a colourful tournament. With Sri Lankans now banned from Chennai, the cracks are getting larger and politics are being pushed higher up the agenda which is disappointing, but inevitable with the amounts of money involved and international exposure.

I believe that the BCCI should take a much stronger line and not just invite Pakistani players to play in the IPL but to really encourage the franchises to buy some of the top talent, which could lead to an Indian and Pakistani cricket fans dream of Shahid Afridi running into bowl at MS Dhoni. Not to mention increase the overall quality of cricket played in the tournament.

With Pakistani coaches, commentators and officials allowed to participate already, the banishment of players has gone on for too long and the IPL should have seen the interest in the ODI series between the nations as a reason to invite them back. Hopefully, this will be the last year without the 2009 ICC World T20 champions.

In terms of England, I feel it is only a matter of time before there is an agreement (most likely with the England test season being moved back a couple of weeks!). The English centrally contracted players will continue to take a tougher stance over negotiations with the board (maybe KP will be thanked for what happened last summer in the future, in the way Tony Greig was before him) in order to provide for their retirements. The opinion of an optimist may be that this could be good for the English county Championship. With the early games in the summer showcasing some of the counties future talent while the big stars are away playing in India. Sadly, this probably won’t bring the punters into the grounds, as well as counties able to convince players to stay, rather than play in the IPL, getting a large lead in the opening months (an example would be Graeme Smith knocking a 19-year-old debutant all around the Oval in early April). One thing’s for sure, it is very unlikely the BCCI will move the beginning of the tournament to a month before to accommodate the ECB’s agenda. I blame Allen Stanford and Giles Clarke…

However, one player who has citizenship from both England and Pakistan is in the IPL. Azhar Mahmood is playing for the Kings XI Punjab after playing international cricket for Pakistan and county cricket for Surrey and previously Kent, gaining British citizenship so he does not class as an overseas player in England. He has been a model professional while in India, another reason for other ex and current Pakistan internationals to be included.

Even in cricket, ‘the Gentlemen’s game’, sport and fairness don’t go hand in hand. As ever the BCCI is really only interested in money, so the challenge for the Pakistan Cricket Board is to come to an arrangement with the BCCI because the increased viewers and interest will make it worthwhile for all to have player involvement from all around the world. I think the Pakistan cricket fans would love to have the IPL on their screens, with their heroes playing a part. Hopefully the stigma regarding Pakistan and match-fixing will not come to the surface after the recent scandal. It would also give these young Australians a chance to play elsewhere and improve their technical game, rather than carry crates of Pepsi around for two months.

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