Pakistan home series is a triumph but what they really need is to play India
You may have noticed that there are side-effects to watching England’s series against Pakistan. Some are obvious, like a nascent infatuation with Harry Brook’s inside-out drives. Others, though, are less so. You may experience a nagging urge to switch to Sensodyne toothpaste “because life’s too short for sensitive teeth”, drink Tapal Tea, “it makes teatime terrific”, or start using Osaka Tubular Deep Cycle Premium Batteries. You may even find yourself overcome with inexplicable curiosity about the latest Dawlance Power Wash Challenge, in which members of the public compete on rowing machines to win a washing machine.
It’s easy to snigger at all this, the intermittent cutaways to approved toothpaste users gleefully biting into ice lollies in the stands, and drinkers mugging for the cameras over a steaming cup of the Pakistan Cricket Board’s official tea in the little wooden pavilion by the boundary. To be honest the joke gets even better when you see how some of the commentators who are contractually obliged to deliver these spiels feel about doing it (“Always good to see Waqar,” Mark Butcher tweeted under a photo of the two of them, “here we are, cooking up some more ads for toothpaste.”) But there’s something quietly interesting going on behind all this commercialism.
The PCB is spending so much on the security arrangements for these seven games that it is losing money on the tour. According to the British High Commission’s latest information, Pakistan is safer than it has been at any point since 2004, but the only way the PCB can get international teams over here is by laying on VVIP protection, which involves thousands of soldiers, dozens of armoured cars, and a couple of helicopters. In Karachi, they had to shut the main roads to and from the local hospital so the team could get in and out of the ground, in Lahore they have closed off the entire city block around England’s hotel.
It will be similar when Ireland’s women’s team comes here in November, again for New Zealand’s men in December, and on and on into the future. There’s so much at stake that the PCB simply can’t afford not to pay what it costs. Any slip would be irrevocable.
And they have to find this money despite being at one obvious disadvantage to every other Test-playing nation. They are the only team in the world which doesn’t get the benefit of playing against India. It’s been a decade since their last bilateral series – since then, they’ve only met when they’ve been drawn against each other in international tournaments. Which, in cricket’s lopsided economy, is a little like trying to bat with one hand tied behind your back. The broadcast rights for series against India are so much more lucrative than anything else in the game that most boards rely on them to subsidise the costs of hosting all the other tours.
India’s 10-match tour of South Africa last winter, for instance, was worth £80m to the hosts. Financially, the fat years when India visit allow the board to survive the lean years when everyone else comes. It’s the same for everyone, even, to a lesser degree, Australia and England, who faced a £40m black hole in their finances when the fifth Test at Old Trafford was cancelled last year.
But Pakistan have to go without. And that’s only the beginning of the problem. Pakistan’s players have been frozen out of the Indian Premier League since its second season, and, as IPL teams buy up franchise sides in leagues around the world, they’re now being excluded from those competitions too. “It’s sad because they’re such good players they would only add to the standard of cricket,” said Moeen Ali, when he was asked about it this week. “I feel for them because they’re probably missing out, financially, on a lot of money.” Which puts its own pressures on the game here. The PCB is being buffeted by the same currents everyone else is trying to navigate.
One reason why the PCB is launching its new Junior League for under-19 players from around the world is because of the need to develop ways of generating income, just like the ECB did with the Hundred. And these anti-Pakistani policies will become a problem for the English board too, if, as is widely expected, it opens the competition up to private finance. At the moment, the evidence suggests that any money from India would come with unwritten stipulations about whether Pakistanis are allowed to play.
The PCB is understandably frustrated about the lack of any pushback against all this from the other Test-playing nations. There are clear moral arguments here, but the grim realpolitik of cricket means that, while they get plenty of sympathy, no one is about to start making demands on India on their behalf. England’s attempt to open negotiations about holding a series in Birmingham is as much as anyone has done yet. The hope is that holding the game on neutral ground would help defuse any tension. Getting the game played would certainly be a fillip for Test cricket.
The PCB’s preference is that the teams would be able to host any games themselves. And relations between the boards have improved since Ramiz Raja took over at the PCB, and Sourav Ganguly at the BCCI. They toured each other’s countries as players, and Raja, for one, believes from his own experiences that the majority of fans in both nations feel more warmly towards players from the other than the vicious bickering you see on social media suggests. But the decision about whether or not it will happen is being made at the higher levels than even those Ganguly moves in. There are signs things may be slowly improving there too. Anyone who loves the game, and who believes in its ability to bring people together, will hope the politicians hurry up about it.