Celebrity-owners of the Indian Premier League cricket franchises have brought glamour and drama to the player auctions of the last two years. But this year’s bidding for cricketers had an added element of farce: not even one of the 11 players from Pakistan, the current world champion in the Twenty20 format, was bought by any of the eight franchises. While rookie cricketers were bought for staggering sums, world class players such as Shahid Afridi and Umar Gul, who have shone in the T20 version of the game, found no takers. In the absence of encouraging signals from the Indian government or the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the owners of the franchises were not convinced that the Pakistani players would be able to get the necessary clearances. However, the government now says that apprehensions over the issue of visas were “completely misplaced,” and points out that visas were issued at short notice to 17 Pakistani cricketers in December-January for the IPL 2010 auction. There were of course heightened security concerns, amid fears that right-wing elements such as the Shiv Sena might disrupt matches involving Pakistani players in Mumbai. In any case, the team-owners were risk-averse and took the lazy way out.
Understandably, the snubbed players and the Pakistan Cricket Board have taken offence at the mishandling of the auction. Under IPL rules, at least one franchise will have to show interest in a particular cricketer for him to be included in the auction. So what changed between January 6, when the final list of Pakistani cricketers was cleared, and January 19, the day of the auction? If doubts over the availability of the 11 players in the context of visa- and security-related uncertainties were the reasons for this strange situation, the proper course would have been to exclude them from the bidding pool and honestly state the non-cricketing reasons for such exclusion. Instead, those running the IPL and the owners managed to humiliate the Pakistani cricketers, some of whom had played an important part in the success of IPL-I. Such is the unpleasantness created by this non-auction that Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik saw in it an indication that India was “not serious about the peace process” while Sports Minister Ijaz Jakhrani spoke of hurt Pakistani pride and giving a fitting reply to India. These may be exaggerated emotional reactions but there is no denying that sport, within its limitations, can serve as an effective way of promoting people-to-people contacts in problematical circumstances. Now that the damage has been done, the BCCI as well as the government authorities must do their best to see that the fall-out from this unedifying episode is contained within IPL-III.