Last week, the England and Wales Cricket Board announced it is in the process of organising the first official England tour of Pakistan in 15 years. This is, self‑evidently, the right thing to do. Since England’s last visit in 2005-06, Pakistan have toured this country eight times for various tournaments and series. From the ECB’s perspective, their decision to brave the pandemic and send a team this summer may well have proven the difference between financial ruin and mere recession.
And so naturally the decision to consider the possibility of maybe, potentially, exploring the idea of touring Pakistan for a very short Twenty20 series in early 2021 – subject to all the usual security and logistical caveats – has been spun in many quarters as an act of supreme munificence. Yet if England are genuinely keen on extending the hand of solidarity to Pakistani cricket, then there is something else it could do. It could politely but pointedly use its voice at next month’s International Cricket Council board meeting to ask why Pakistani players continue to be excluded from the world’s biggest cricket tournament.
Yes, the Indian Premier League, currently unfolding behind closed doors in the United Arab Emirates: a competition that likes to think of itself as the sport’s ultimate meritocracy, its global melting pot, a place blind to heritage or tradition. The cricketing embodiment of Martin Luther King’s vision, in which your four little children will be judged not on the colour of their passport but on their ability to execute their skills in an elite performance environment.
Of the 20 countries represented in the IPL in the past decade – including Nepal, the Netherlands and the US – Pakistan remains frozen out, ghosted since the inaugural season in 2008. (Azhar Mahmood, the sole exception, was technically a British citizen.) We all know why. Or at least we think we do. It’s something to do with security. Or politics. It just hasn’t really been explained, or even properly talked about, in about a decade.
Which, when you think about it, is pretty weird. Very few of the practical justifications for excluding Pakistani players hold even the slightest water. This is a competition that has managed to relocate its entire apparatus halfway around the world at a moment’s notice, creating a whole chain of rigid, biosecure bubbles across the Gulf. They could probably find a way of keeping Shaheen Afridi safe if they really wanted to.
In reality, this is a decision driven largely by ideology, nationalism and geopolitics: the dressing room as proxy battlefield, the auction as theatre of war. So here we are: an IPL in the adopted home of Pakistani cricket, without any Pakistanis in it. And not by rule or decree, but simply by convention: it has always been and thus will it always be.
There are two points to make about all this. The first is that this is how power operates in its purest and most devastating form: unspoken and unexamined, implicit and invisible. You don’t ask. You just know. This, more than any amount of ICC politicking or revenue-grabbing, is the best way of understanding India’s influence over world cricket.
The second is that even if you set the principle of the thing to one side, this is so clearly a self-defeating arrangement. Imagine how much richer a spectacle the IPL would have been with the participation of Umar Gul or Shahid Afridi or Mohammad Amir, how much their expertise could have enriched others.
This is a sadness that works in two directions: the experience not accumulated, the wealth not earned, the lives not transformed. Indeed, one of the more remarkable footnotes of T20 history is the way so many Pakistanis have managed to bestride the format without the benefit of its pre-eminent tournament: the equivalent of an elite footballer unable to test themselves in the Champions League. Pakistani bowlers make up five of the 13 highest wicket-takers in T20 history. The Pakistan Super League has gradually managed to build itself into one of the world’s leading competitions. All this while effectively being placed under sanctions.
You might ask what all this has to do with England. After all, there are many valid criticisms of the ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison, but a failure to broker a peaceful solution in Jammu and Kashmir is not one of them. At the very least, though, this is the sort of issue that deserves to be raised, not buried; discussed, not dissolved; that should be part of any conversation on the future of the sport and how its leading nations deal with each other.
Because if cricket’s past decade was defined by the question of wealth and how to share it, its next decade will surely be about borders and how to define them. In a world of walls and bubbles, the very concept of international cricket is being imperilled before our eyes. This is, and perhaps has always been, a deeply fragile ecosystem: a loosely strung web of temporary alliances and fleeting friendships, a world based on reciprocity and mutual interest and, above all, the audacity of shifting thousands of people all over the world for weeks at a time.
English cricket, as everywhere else, needs to decide whether this is a vision still worth fighting for. Cricket, at its best and most uplifting, can breach borders, forge connections, serve as a window into the world. That only works, however, if the window is open in the first place.