Security concerns have rattled the cricket establishment in India following the announcement of General Elections and the terror attack on Sri Lankan players in Lahore on Tuesday. The Board of Control fro Cricket in India’s (BCCI) showpiece Twenty 20 championship - Indian Premier League (IPL) - faces the threat of being bowled out even before the first ball of the Twenty20 championship is bowled.
The BCCI and the Union Home Ministry are at loggerheads on whether the players' safety can be ensured or not. Clearly, the sporting world has been shaken after the terror attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan.
On the show Face The Nation the question being debated was : Terror targets cricket: Should the IPL go ahead? Joining the discussion was former Indian cricketer and commentator Maninder Singh and Managing Director of 21st Century Media Lokesh Sharma. Also on the panel of experts was former Inspector General (Training) of the National Security Guards BS Dhillon, co-owner of IPL team King's XI Punjab Ness Wadia and Dawn News correspondent Raza Kharal.
So given the brazen and dramatic terror attack that took place in Lahore on Tuesday should the IPL be held at all? The terrorists, who attacked the Sri Lankan team lobbed grenades, fired rockets and fired many rounds before getting away with absolute ease. The terrorists had a clear and free run at the Liberty Chowk roundabout in Lahore, a prominent landmark of the city.
Does this mean that Pakistan as a country or a state is simply out of control, now?
Kharal disagreed that matters had come to such levels where one could write off normalcy in Pakistan.
"No, it is not such a situation here, but we are surprised that despite the promise of the law enforcement agencies as to why these people (armed to their teeth) felt so free to move about in the streets with such ease in the morning ," said Kharal. "But clearly the law enforcement agencies are working on it and will hopefully come out with a solution to eliminate fears about Lahore and Pakistan," Kharal said.
Where were the Lahore police even as 12 terrorists had a free run on Lahore's streets with automatic weapons and even rocket launchers in their hands, walking with total ease?
"People are scared and are questioning as to why the police have not been very apt and active. They are also asking why the police did not actively respond after the incident and why were the terrorists so fearless when they were moving around in the city," said Kharal.
The daring and dastardly attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore on Tuesday has aslso raised security concern about the IPL and whether the championship should be held at all. The Indian government has gone into a precautionary overdrive. With General Elections just round the corner, Home Minister P Chidambaram said that it may not be possible for him to provide fool-proof security for the IPL.
Players who have signed up say that cricket is important, but it is not as important as life itself. They promise that they will be thinking twice before going to play cricket in the sub-continent.
Indian politician and former BCCI president Sharad Pawar has disagreed that the comparison with Pakistan made any sense and has said that India is not as unsafe as Pakistan.
Chidambaram had already told CNN-IBN that he would prefer if the IPL was rescheduled as security forces would be busy with the General Elections.
Security fears are greater than ever before and the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations' has asked for more assurances. Team owners, too, have asked the government to ensure that the players' safety remains uncompromised. Earlier in the day, Kings' XI Punjab co-owner Preity Zinta had expressed complete faith in the Indian security set-up.
Kings' XI Punjab co-owner Ness Wadia claimed that he had not been confronted with any of his players being apprehensive.
Sign of the times
"Unfortunately, we live in times which are extremely volatile and the world has changed. So, yes, from a perspective, the players as well as the owners are apprehensive. The public is apprehensive and everyone is apprehensive. But having said that we must realise that the times are difficult but the IPL has been very pro-active," Ness Wadia said.
But the Pakistan attacks were different. However, Terror strikes have also taken place in Colombo until some time ago, even when cricket teams were visiting. In one such attack a bomb went off outside the Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo where the players were put up and it was not directly targeted at the players. But the audacity and brazenness of the Lahore attack is one of the most direct and horrifying attack on cricketers ever.
Wadia said that the one thing everyone is forgetting is that it is not about security itself but about intelligence inputs. "Where was the intelligence?" he queried of the Lahore attack and the shortcomings of the Pakistan government.
After the IPL starts on the scheduled dates, it will be a month-long championship with 140 players to take care of. Is there no risk there?
"I think the media is playing up the situation more than it should. The Home Minister says one thing and another minister says another thing. At the IPL, we believe in what Sharad Pawar has said and that is that this is not Pakistan, this is India. Secondly, the Pakistan government should have had the intelligence inputs and done the necessary arrangements. The world is watching India as far as the IPL is concerned as it is a world class event and we must rise to the occasion and protect all those who come in," insisted Wadia.
But what about the players' psyche following the Lahore attacks?
Maninder Singh refused to believe that the players will be subject to any thing of the sort that took place on in Lahore.
"I do not think that it is going to happen in India in this way really, ever. The pictures that we see of the terrorists moving around so freely are scenes that can happen only in Pakistan. I think it is the Pakistan government who is to be blamed for it because they are protecting these terrorists all the time by lying about them. The terrorists have confidence that the Government of Pakistan will protect them. I do not think that this will ever be the case with India," said Maninder Singh.
Maninder expressed that some of the international players are talking in an apprehensive manner as the issue is hot at the moment but as the tournament draws closer all will fall in step and arrive in India.
"We certainly cannot wish away the terror aspect," pointed out Lokesh Sharma. "The probable election dates and the schedule of the IPL had been doing the rounds for quite some time," he pointed out.
"It was known that the schedule of IPL and the elections will overlap. It is unfortunate that the government must bring up this issue at this time. Unwittingly, we just walked into the theatre of terror in Pakistan and have got ourselves linked to what happened in Pakistan," said Sharma.
Chidambaram's statement that it would be difficult to arrange for adequate security around election time also disturbed Sharma.
"I think he has just jumped the gun. There was no need to state it on a day when the whole world was focussing on what had happened to the Sri Lankan team in Pakistan. We did not have to become a party to that incident but we have. This is going to send out a very wrong signal because people will think that if the Home Minister feels that there is not adequate security when the elections are on, then nobody should be visiting India, not doing any business with India," said Sharma, calling it a badly timed comment.
"Let me tell you that you cannot postpone IPL, you will have to cancel the IPL. You cancel an IPL; what happens is that in the last six months you have cancelled the Champions League in India, you've cancelled the English tour in India and now you go and cancel the IPL. In this manner, you are becoming another Pakistan!" remarked Sharma. "You are yourself saying that we cannot provide a safe environment for any kind of activity that requires freedom," he added.
It can be recollected that in 2002 when the Indian cricket team had visited Pakistan, the level of security that was given to the players was of the level that is given to the President of Pakistan. But here we are talking of not just 16 players that made a team but of 140 players to be given security cover while the elections in the nation are in full swing. Is it possible for the security agencies to provide security for an event of this scale?
We are ready, we can do it
BS Dhillon expressed that the concerns have come out of the blue. "Till yesterday, we seemed to have no problems. The IPL and the election dates were known. After the Lahore incident only has everything erupted suddenly and the security issue has come up on the forefront," Dhillon said.
"I think that the Lok Sabha elections are important. The whole country is involved and we will elect a government for the next five years. In the execution of this administrative exercise, 20 lakh troops will have to be deployed and 40 lakh personnel will carry out other election work. IPL too is important, with security coming up as an important issue now," Dhillon added.
It is going to be a five-phase election spread across a month. Will the security forces not be stressed out?
"We have the required infrastructure to deal with the situation," assured Dhillon.
"The troops required for elections will be different. There are troops stationed, which can be used if required, Even the NSG has been used in the past to provide cover for players when they travelled abroad. So there are troops available and for that matter the Centre should intervene," said Dhillon.
The cricketing body's request to the state governments and the state DGPs writing to the Home Ministry means everyone is playing the tune the Home Ministry wants them to, felt Dhillon.
Wadia was of the view that fear rules the people's mind only for now as a temporary effect of an incident fresh in the minds. Should a similar poll be taken a few days later or a week later, as IPL fever catches on, Wadia expressed belief that it would show more optimism and faith in favour of the IPL.
"IPL has already taken into consideration the vast security measures. They have hired a team from South Africa who has dealt with this before. They are going to have different levels of security and every venue is going to have a co-ordinator. Apart from that we are also going to have the police and probably our own security. So I think as far as that is concerned, every effort has been made. Do not forget that this is a world event. The world is watching. India cannot afford to be lackadaisical in what it does and I am sure IPL has taken 100 per cent precautions," said Wadia.
Final SMS/Web Poll: Terror targets cricket: Should the IPL go ahead?
Yes: 56 per cent
No : 44 per cent