Pakistan players have not featured in the IPL after the first season in 2008 © Getty Images
By Arunabha Sengupta
The lot of the Pakistanis in the Indian Premier League (IPL) can only be described as macabre. On the field we can watch the familiar frame of Wasim Akram, in all his pomp and glory, adding glamour and wisdom to the dugout as the mentor of the Kolkata Knight Riders. Then there is Rameez Raja regaling us with his views from the commentary box. Well, okay, I admit I perhaps played fast and loose with the word ‘regaling’ there, but he is a constant presence and a well-recognised voice.
As the specialist in the studio, Shoaib Akhtar brings a pleasantly surprising combination of flair and freshness into his outspoken analysis of the game. Perhaps the gloss of the new role has allowed him to remain untouched by the customary clichés of the commentators. He uses his brash candidness to good effect, and is not prone to hark back to the supposedly good old days of the 1970s as frequently as an Imran Khan.
It is an interesting mix. And then there is the little thing about the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, the adopted home ground of the Pakistanis, being used to host the IPL matches. Yet, in spite of all this, there is no Saeed Ajmal sending down his deadly doosras. There is no Umar Akmal blazing every part of the ground with his uncanny stroke-making ability. And of course, there is no Shahid Afridi, the one player who was perhaps born — no one knows when — to play in this format.
Since the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, Pakistani cricketers have not played in the IPL. In 2010, 11 Pakistani players were involved in the auction but even names like Afridi, Akmal and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan remained unsold. In 2012, Azhar Mahmood did turn out for Kings XI Punjab, but only by virtue of his adopted British nationality. Looking back at the history between the two countries and the once colonial overlords, that is a convoluted connection indeed. The results by now are bordering on the ridiculous. Not only are some excellent cricketers missing out on a stage under continuous cricketing limelight, it will not be a far stretch to say that the worst hit by the embargo are the fans themselves.
After all, Pakistan as a team has always been a volatile composite made of brilliant individuals. As a side, they stand No 3 in the ICC T20I rankings, but that amounts to little in a private league. What is far more important is that they are an ensemble of riotous crowd pullers.
Saeed Ajmal ranks No 3 in the world among bowlers, sharing the spot with India’s Ravichandran Ashwin. Would it not have been a fascinating sight to watch these two battle it out for their teams in a tussle between the best off-spinners in the shortest format? The diminutive Ahmed Shehzad just became one of the dashing dozen to have scored a T20I century. And in 2008, Shahid Afridi brought crowds streaming in to watch Deccan Chargers in action in spite of having a rather ordinary tournament.
There are many purists who scoff at the format as a poor cousin of real cricket. The organisers of the tournament, however, don’t give a damn about the nuances, finesse and tradition associated with the beautiful game. Business thrives in the subcontinent because of the appeals of spectacle, not sport. IPL is just that — a mind-boggling spectacle dressed up in cricketing gear. And even in this garb, players like Afridi and Ajmal are about as spectacular as they get. Not having them listed in the attractions distinctly lowers the charm and pull of this madness of a month and a half.
Besides, conspicuously involving the likes of Akram, Rameez and Shoaib as major highlights in this extravaganza, and keeping the Pakistani cricketers out of the show, make little sense — both from the cricketing and the business point of view. At the same time, it succeeds in making a mockery of the political link that runs through the issues.
When asked about the Pakistanis in IPL, Wasim Akram did say, “Mixing sports and politics was going to do no good.” It sure does not do any good — be it to the game, to the tournament or to the fans.
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(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at @senantix. This article has been published with the permission of DNA, where it was first published)