Five years ago, City of Joy was stripped of the India-England World Cup tie supposedly because Eden Gardens was in a poor shape. Ironically, in 2016, the very same ICC has thought it fit to bestow Kolkata with the India-Pakistan ICC World T20 clash, a far bigger event by any stretch of imagination.
The key encounter providentially landed in Kolkata’s lap not by design but owing to a shambolic political tussle between a Congress Chief Minister and a BJP strongman who is also the BCCI secretary.
But who cares? Neither Kolkata nor Indian cricket fans would have any objection to the shifting of the match because such a high-octane clash should rightfully have come to the magnificent Eden Gardens in the first place.
Unfortunately in India, cricket scheduling in important tournaments like World Cups is not a matter of rotation or merit but one of political expediency. Kolkata bore the brunt of BCCI’s wrath in 2011 because the powers-that-be sought to isolate its erstwhile president, the late Jagmohan Dalmiya. Dharmasala, for instance, got the nod ahead of other stadiums for the marquee clash not because it was better than the rest but because it is Anurag Thakur's home venue.
At the best of times, an India-Pakistan match is an excessively emotive issue among the sub-continent. Shrewd businessmen have milked this emotion quotient substantially in various locales of the world, including Sharjah and Toronto. But while businessmen have bank balances and bottom lines to contend with, politicians have other interests on their plate.
If that were not the case, BCCI, nose-led by its honorary secretary Thakur, seasoned BJP politician and son of former Himachal Pradesh chief minister, would never have opted to stage a highly explosive tie in a cricketing backwater like Dharmashala.
The stadium can barely seat 20,000 spectators, which might be great for an IPL match but a crying shame for a clash involving two of cricket’s prime rivals. The matches between these two are the biggest draw in the game where even 100,000 spectators will fork out serious money for the privilege of witnessing the players in action.
Thus, as is evident, the decision to host the match at this cricketing boondocks was a political one to start with. Thakur wanted to score brownie points over the Congress who are in power in HP in the hope that this would yield good dividends at the hustings in the foreseeable future.
But the Congress leadership was obviously not going to simply lie back and watch Thakur walk away with the glitz and glory of having brought an India-Pak cricket tie to the hills. Sure, the politically naive will point out to the inconvenient timing of the Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh's statement that his government aligned with the feelings of the families of the Pathankot martyrs from HP and as such he could not provide security to the Pakistan cricketers.
Could he not have said this two weeks or even a month ago so that we could be better prepared for contingencies, they ask. But CM Singh, whose house was raided recently by tax authorities on the day of his daughter’s wedding, knows more than a thing or two about 'inconvenient timing'. And he is not the one to oblige the scion of a rival political family. Thus his reluctance to provide security to Pakistani cricketers is as much a political decision as Thakur’s move to organise the marquee match in Dharmasala.
But the tournament really is far bigger than a Virbadhra – Thakur side show, even if the Pakistanis sought to exploit fault lines during the ensuring imbroglio.
This was the point driven home ICC CEO Dave Richardson. He said the safety and security of the event was paramount and it was after taking all things into consideration, including the inputs from the Pakistan delegation that the ICC decided to shift the match to Eden Gardens.
The decision might have left Thakur with egg on his face but honestly, as BCCI secretary he ought not to be too vexed. Eden Gardens is one of the iconic venues of world cricket and the passion and exuberance that 75,000-odd Kolkatans bring to the venue is unmatched anywhere in the world.
And when India take on Pakistan in the 19 March ICC World T20 clash, the ambiance and energy levels at the Eden Gardens would be a sight for sore eyes.