THE POLITICS OF CRICKET

A breezy Saturday evening on the picturesque hill station of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh had bought along torrential rain and hailstorm. Maybe this was god’s displeasure after the hill station had lost the chance to host a high profile cricket match because of nasty politics.

It had all began as a fairy tale for the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) when they were given the rights to host the India – Pakistan cricket match in the T20 World Cup 2016 at their stadium in Dharamsala.

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The hill station of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh

The happiness though did not last long for the people of Himachal as an objection made by the Congress Chief Minister of the state, Virbhadra Singh sparked a controversy. Virbhadra said that hosting the match with Pakistan would be an insult to the martyrs of the Pathankot terror attacks.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) then decided to shift the match from Dharamsala to Kolkata to avoid any further issue.

Politics had trumped cricket! Devbhoomi (the abode of gods), as Himachal proudly refers to itself, had lost the opportunity to host a match of high stakes.

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Himachal Pradesh Cricket Stadium, Dharamsala

It is said that politics is full of irony, and rightly so, in 2005, when India and Pakistan contested the first-ever international match at the HPCA stadium in Dharamsala, the chief guest was Virbhadra Singh, who was then in his previous innings as Chief Minister.

To complete the irony, the man hell-bent against matches between India and Pakistan at the time was HPCA President Anurag Thakur, now also secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and responsible for picking Dharamsala as the venue for the tournament’s most high-profile match 11 years on.

How it all began?

The politics began last December, soon after Dharamsala was selected as the venue to host the March 19 India-Pakistan match. With Anurag Thakur’s firm backing, Dharamsala beat out fierce competition from larger and better equipped stadiums in Kolkata, Delhi and Mohali. The decision was controversial as HPCA Stadium had a capacity of only 20,000 and the hilly town lacked adequate boarding and lodging facilities for such an important game.

Thakur and his father, former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, have a running feud with the incumbent Virbhadra Singh. During his tenure as chief minister, Dhumal opened several corruption-related inquiries against Singh and had a number of cases registered against him.

Virbhadra Singh is not one to forgive and forget. He has had cases registered against Dhumal and Thakur since wrestling power from Dhumal. Three of these cases were related to the HPCA Stadium in Dharamsala.

The controversy

Ultimately, what led to the cancellation of the India-Pakistan match at Dharamsala was the inability of the State government to give any undertaking for the safety and security of the visiting team to the State.

The State government cited opposition from the relatives of two soldiers killed in the January terror attack on the Pathankot Air Base. The protests were led by the state’s Ex-Servicemen League, headed by Major Vijay Singh Mankotia, a senior Congress leader.

Incidentally, Anurag Thakur and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had vociferously opposed a proper series between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Gurdaspur terror attack last July. Seven months on, their argument was that they had opposed a bilateral series, while the March 19 match was a part of a world tournament.

Thakur also pointed out that Virbhadra Singh had waited till the eleventh hour to oppose the match, despite the schedule being announced more than two months ago. He alleged that the conduct of the chief minister had embarrassed the State as well as the country.

For his part, Virbhadra Singh said that the Pathankot attack had infuriated the people of the State, prompting the change in the government’s stand.

Dharamsala’s loss – Eden’s gain

They say what goes around, comes around. Five years after the ICC had moved a marquee match between India and England in the 2011 World Cup from the Eden Gardens to Bengaluru, leaving Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) officials red-faced for their failure to complete stadium renovation work in time, the world cricket body turned to the iconic venue to save its own face.

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The majestic Eden Gardens with over a lakh supporters in the stadium.

The Eden Gardens in Kolkata was allotted the prestigious fixture as one cricket lover succinctly pointed out those Pakistani players would have to face the jeers of at least one lakh spectators at Eden Gardens instead of the 20,000 at Dharamsala.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, when heard that the ICC was deciding to relocate the match to another stadium, promptly wrote a letter to CAB President, Sourav Ganguly stating that the state was ready to offer security to the visiting Pakistani team.

With West Bengal set to go to polls next month, this was Mamata’s way of appeasing her voters. As one journalist rightly pointed out that ‘Didi’ was a master of vote-bank politics and by inviting the Pakistani team, she is sure to get votes from the minorities in the upcoming elections.

Politics after all has no boundaries and leaders change their views to suit their needs, be it hosting a cricket match or inviting a Pakistani singer like Ghulam Ali to perform in the State before elections.

What the loss meant?

For Dharamsala, it was more than the loss of just a cricket match. Being a small town, the match meant business for the hotel owners, travel agents and many more. Ravinder Kumar, the owner of a hotel in Dharamsala said that his hotel was booked for the duration of the match and he had hired extra personnel for laundry and room service but with the match being  cancelled, the reservations had to be cancelled which meant a loss to his business.

Reactions after the shift

Shiv Sena President and BJP ally, Uddhav Thackeray, praised Virbhadra Singh for showing ‘true patriotism’ over his stand on the India-Pakistan match and reiterated his party’s opposition to the match saying cricket and terror strikes can’t go hand-in-hand.

The Sena chief accused Mamata Banerjee, of playing vote-bank politics by assuring “foolproof security” to the Pakistan squad.

“When you talk of vote-bank politics and indulge in Muslim appeasement for vote-bank politics, it is called secularism. But if we appease Hindu vote-bank, you call it communalism?” added Uddhav.

The way ahead

The India-Pakistan match was successfully held at Eden Gardens albeit minor rain scares which curtailed the match to 18-overs a side. The match was witnessed by over 70,000 people in the stadium which included high profile industrialists, politicians and movie stars. All of which could have been Dharamsala’s gain, ended up being Kolkata’s victory.

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Eden Gardens on match day with covers on.

India did win the match, but did India actually win? Politics and diplomacy played the nasty game and ultimately ended up hopes of a small town boy’s dream to watch his country play live at his home stadium.

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