Most people know how it feels to be stood up. After all the small talk, you put the date in the diary. As the date draws nearer, the anticipation builds, a venue is decided on and what kind of appearance might work best. But then the reassuring gentle banter via WhatsApp goes quiet. A slight concern turns into worry and then full-blown anxiety. As the supposedly happy day arrives, and there’s no one there, dread and realisation take hold. Despondency turns to annoyance and, finally, after much soul searching, the need for answers.
Every single Bangladesh fan is entitled to feel all these emotions, with news of the postponement of the white-ball series against England. But the quest for a rational explanation only invites gloom, as trying to disentangle the web of dishonesty and hypocrisy among the English, Bangladesh and Indian cricket boards, inevitably leads to disillusionment with the way international cricket is now run.
It’s clear that something has been awry with the planning of England’s tour for a while. Despite being in the fixtures calendar since last year, no firm dates had been committed to for the proposed three ODIs and three T20Is. England using the spike in Covid-19 infections as a reason for not touring looks flimsy. Sure, Bangladesh is very much a red-list country with significant infection rates and a national lockdown in place, but Australia are there right now – possibly the most risk-averse cricketing nation.
The ECB’s stance of postponing the tour and giving players the option to compete in the unfinished IPL, from September 19, leaves it wide open to charges of hypocrisy. The mood music in England cricket centres around giving players as much time off as possible in light of potential mental health issues; it’s a laudable aim, yet totally undermined by putting the players in an awkward position of choosing to play in the IPL or resting. In the end, the riches of the IPL may well prove too alluring for even the weariest player.
And what about the T20 World Cup preparation itself? There are now only two T20I matches in England’s calendar before the World Cup begins – both against Pakistan in Karachi in mid-October must be in serious doubt due to the IPL window and England’s seeming acquiescence towards it. The ECB will face diplomatic uproar if they are seen to withdraw from the two games in favour of players taking part in the IPL. It would represent a huge slap in the face to the PCB, particularly after the way the hand of friendship was extended last summer, by agreeing to tour when the UK was near the peak of its pandemic.
The inference is that the ECB is happy to use the IPL (and to an extent the Hundred) over international matches as preparation for the World T20.
For all the noise coming from the ECB, it’s important to note that no official announcement has been made by the BCB or by its usually quick-to-judge president, Nazmul Hasan Papon. There’s a contradiction in the ECB stating it was the Bangladesh board’s decision to postpone, while reports emerging from the BCB indicate that conversations are ongoing.
Bangladesh’s reason to postpone, ostensibly to rest players, itself sounds hollow. Although player burnout is a global issue, Bangladesh have a feast or famine approach to scheduling. It’s not that long ago that Bangladesh cricketers faced a gap of 315 days between internationals. In any case, the argument that the ECB is an exonerated bystander is weak – it conjures images of a feeble teenager who always promises to visit a slightly eccentric aunt, the visit being cancelled because there’s a possibility she might be tired after entertaining guests from a few weeks prior.
Put simply, if there was the will and desire from England to tour, it almost certainly would have gone ahead.
Of course, underpinning everything is the spectre of the BCCI. Just who spoke to whom, and agreed what, is conjecture – and perhaps deals are being thrashed out at this very moment, so that no one loses face. Bangladesh over the last few years have solidly aligned themselves, to the point of nauseating sycophancy, with their economically-powerful near neighbours, both in cricket terms and a broader political context. In common with all South Asian countries, Bangladesh’s cricket board acts as a proxy for its government and has very much embraced the BCCI and its whims.
On this occasion, it looks like the BCB has committed an act of gross self-harm, caving in to pressure from the BCCI to get the IPL completed with England’s marquee players involved, whatever the cost. It could possibly still end up being a shrewd move from the BCB, if it can leverage something tangible, such as extra games in India and maybe even the golden ticket of a tour to England. Given the BCB’s track record in diplomacy, the odds are against a favourable quid pro quo. Instead, Bangladesh cricket’s self-worth appears to have been sold down one of the myriad rivers that meander across the country. What message this sends to Bangladesh’s young up and coming players, is anyone’s guess. It certainly doesn’t foster a culture of long-term success.
By far the most depressing aspect of this saga, is what this says about the state of international cricket today. Informal agreements have always been struck between cricket boards, but rarely has one board influenced fixtures so overtly. In the pursuit of narrow self-interest, India has again acted less like the moral arbiter of the game, and more like a one-eyed behemoth.
It’s yet another example of the game turning in on itself, shrinking furthermore. As ever, the ones to suffer are all of us who have a passing interest in the visceral excitement from hearing a wooden bat connect with a ball. England’s tour to Bangladesh might appear to be inconsequential in a packed international calendar, but there’s a very real sense of all cricket being diminished if it doesn’t go ahead.