Suresh Menon

The 11th hour syndrome, and why there is no Plan ‘B’

Dharamshala will host the India-Pakistan tie on March 19.  

India, as someone once said, is a country that lives in the eleventh hour. Sporting India even more so. The World T20 cricket began on Tuesday, with the business end of the tournament (the Super 10) set to commence in a week. Yet, as I write this, there is no assurance that matches scheduled for Delhi will go ahead, or that Dharamshala will host the India-Pakistan tie on March 19, or indeed if the women’s team from Pakistan are arriving at all. Tickets for the matches went on sale late enough to discourage many tourists from outside Asia.

The last-minute syndrome is typical. In the end, everything somehow falls into place, and handicaps that seemed insurmountable disappear. Perhaps we need the uncertainty to spur us on. Perhaps we work best in the face of doubt and ambiguity.

In 1982, as a fresh sportswriter, I reported the Asian Games in Delhi. The start of construction of stadiums had been delayed, there were doubts about things being ready on time, farmers were agitating and threatening to ruin the Games, measuring equipment was found to be faulty and so on. Yet, the Games were a success; you could set your watch by the event that was taking place, such was the precision and punctuality. Nearly three decades later, the Commonwealth Games began with the same uncertainty and finished with the same cheer. The eleventh hour had triumphed again.

Cricket usually escaped the curse of uncertainty for one very good reason: No government wanted to be seen as opposing the people’s sport. For the same reason, brinkmanship was the political game. In the 1980s, the Congress government hinted that an England team might not be welcome in India because two of the players, Geoff Boycott and Geoff Cook had played in apartheid South Africa. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi then found reasons to forgive these players, and announced the tour would take place. A nation was grateful.

If in the 1980s, it was politics, in the 90s, it was commerce, with uncertainty over television rights and who would get to watch what on which channel. When the Board of Control for Cricket in India challenged the antiquated Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, it was called “anti-national.” Once that battle was won (in the courts), the next battlefield presented itself: Pakistan.

In 2004, the NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee first considered a “feel good” factor if India toured Pakistan and won, then considered the opposite effect if they lost — this in the build-up to the elections. Then on Valentine’s Day, as Indian fans played “will-we-won’t-we”, Vajpayee abruptly announced the tour would go ahead. Again, a nation was grateful.

Normal build-up

Clearly nothing has changed. Now Virbhadra Singh, the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh has said that as a mark of respect to the families of those killed in the Pathankot attack, he will not be providing security at the match. In Pakistan, Imran Khan has advised against the team travelling to India. A group calling itself the “Anti-Terrorist Front” has threatened to dig up the wicket. The ex-Servicemen’s League in the state would be unhappy if the match is held, but they will decide formally later. Just the normal build-up to an India-Pakistan match, you might say.

The Chief Minister’s late awakening notwithstanding, he is using a familiar technique. The binary system. On the one hand is the Indian army and all that it evokes: duty, patriotism, nationalism, bravery, sacrifice. Then there is the ‘other’: Pakistan, dissenting students, anyone who disagrees with the official viewpoint, certain minorities.

Put that way, it would be “anti-national” to even suggest that the Dharamshala match be shifted to say, Bangalore or Chennai. But if Pakistan are unwelcome, that should have been made clear in January soon after the Pathankot attacks.

Now we have the sight of the security experts from Pakistan checking out the system in India. That’s irony for you.

The BCCI Secretary Anurag Thakur has said that “there is no Plan ‘B’.” Where Pakistan hosting or touring India is concerned, it is usually prudent to have a Plan ‘B.’

On the other hand, he might be speaking with the confidence that, as in the past, everything will be sorted out at the eleventh hour. Cricket-wise Pakistan need India more than India need Pakistan, so threats of a pullout may not work in their favour. On the other hand, television and sponsorship deals might have to be renegotiated if Pakistan withdraw.

That there will be “trouble” at home if we play Pakistan (only in cricket, though) tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who feel strongly that there will be trouble are the ones who instigate it. It doesn’t take too many people or too much effort. If history is any guide, then there is time left. Eleventh hour is not yet upon us. There is time enough for confusion and consolidation, retraction and reiteration before sport takes over. Soon we will be wondering what the fuss was all about. Till the next time, that is.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 1:53:26 AM |

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