Islamabad, Pakistan – When Pakistan last hosted the Asia Cup in 2008, Imran Khan was a political novice, Narendra Modi was still banned from travelling to the United States, India’s cricket team was making its third visit to the country in five years and the entire tournament was played on Pakistani soil.
It was also the last time an Indian cricket team set foot in Pakistan.
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Fast forward 15 years as Pakistan gets set to face off against minnows Nepal on Wednesday at the Multan Cricket Stadium to open the 16th edition of the regional cricket tournament, it will be the first of just four of the 13 Asia Cup matches that will be played in “host” nation Pakistan.
Some Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) officials say that even hosting four matches – three in the first stage of the tournament, one in the second – is nothing short of miraculous, considering the obstacles Pakistan has faced.
Pakistan was awarded Asia Cup hosting rights in 2021 by the Asian Cricket Council (ACC). It would have been the first major multilateral tournament to be hosted by the country in years and suggested evidence of growing normalcy across the cricketing landscape as international teams returned to the country after the 2009 gun attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.
But the PCB was in for a shock when, exactly a year later, Jay Shah, secretary for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the president of the ACC, said India would not travel to Pakistan for the tournament, citing “political tensions” between the two nations.
Shah, who is also the son of Amit Shah, India’s home affairs minister and a key ally of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Modi, said the tournament would have to be played at a “neutral venue”.
Pakistan scrambled for a response, ranging from a threat to boycott the tournament to various options for a hybrid model.
Ultimately, in June, the current model of the tournament was agreed upon by all the participating nations: One match is to be played in Multan and three in Lahore, and the rest are to be hosted by Sri Lanka – including at least one match between Pakistan and India and possibly as many as three depending on the results.
Pakistan also toyed with the idea of boycotting the Cricket World Cup, set to be hosted by India in October. However, this month, the Pakistani government granted permission for the team to participate in the showcase tournament.
To many observers, the decision to strip Pakistan of most of its hosting rights to placate India was yet another example of outsized influence wielded by India’s cricket board, unquestionably the most powerful in world cricket thanks to the country’s billion-plus population and immense cricketing financial clout.
Saad Shafqat, a Karachi-based analyst and cricket writer, believes “Indian hostility” towards Pakistan is to blame for the situation.
“Their board [often] refuses to play against us in bilateral games. They don’t include our players in the Indian Premier League [IPL],” Shafqat told Al Jazeera. “They are only able to do this because they have the biggest cricket market, and they dictate terms on a global level. Nobody wants to cross them.”
A source at the PCB with direct knowledge of negotiations over the hosting of the tournament said it took an “incredible” amount of diplomatic efforts to persuade other ACC nations that Pakistan could even get a hybrid model with four games on its soil.
“Considering the influence India holds over the International Cricket Council as well as ACC nations, I cannot imagine any ACC country, apart from ours, being able to stand up to the BCCI. Nobody can afford to antagonise India,” the source at the PCB said.
India’s sway over cricket was turbocharged after the success of their domestic T20 tournament, the IPL, which has become one of the most lucrative sports tournament in the world since it was launched in 2008. It was also the year that the Mumbai attacks took place, after which India refused to play in Pakistan.
Despite achieving huge success in the shortest format of the game, Pakistani players have participated only in the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2008 and have been shunned since – although the BCCI and IPL officials have never acknowledged the existence of an official or unofficial ban on Pakistani players.
Veteran cricket analyst and writer Sharda Ugra said what the BCCI’s stance towards Pakistan reflects its “small-mindedness” and Shah being both BCCI secretary and ACC president is a conflict of interest.
“The Indian cricket board is hurting Pakistan just because it can. Back in the 90s, Asian nations were a bloc and presented a united front, but things have unfortunately changed now. This is a classic bullying tactic,” the Bangalore-based Ugra told Al Jazeera.
Former Pakistan captain Rashid Latif said the PCB should have been prepared for the BCCI’s refusal to play in the country – as they have made clear India will only play in Pakistan in events run by the International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s global governing body.
“We all knew that India were not going to travel for this tournament. However, with Pakistan scheduled to host the Champions Trophy, an ICC tournament in 2025, you will see them travelling here,” the former wicketkeeper told Al Jazeera.
Latif added that, with few cards to play, Pakistan was left with no other choice but to go with the hybrid model and should take heart from the fact that BCCI President Roger Binny and Vice President Rajiv Shukla have agreed to travel to Pakistan during the Asia Cup.
“That is a very big deal and should be appreciated and seen as a positive development between the two countries,” he said.
Shafqat, who wrote a biography of Pakistan’s former captain Javed Miandad, said Pakistan must accept that it has a weak hand, but it can still show the world what it has to offer during the four matches.
“We can show to everybody that we mean well. It is easy to get demoralised in such a situation, but this can also be a great motivator to do well on the ground and let it spur you on. I feel that this is what we will see by the Pakistan cricket team, not only in this Asia Cup but also the World Cup in October,” he said.
In Islamabad, where fans are generally happy to make day trips to Lahore and Multan for cricket matches, there is practically no interest in the tournament and no marketing of it either in the streets or on TV.
Ugra said politics is taking place at the cost of cricket.
“Do not treat cricket as the Line of Control,” she said, referring to the 740km (460-mile) de facto border between the two nations through the disputed territory of Kashmir. “Do not make the sport a border conflict.”