The bilateral relationship between Pakistan and India remains very rocky, but when the two come head-to-head at cricket, it is undoubtedly box office. Their clash at the 2019 World Cup, at neutral Old Trafford, was the most-watched match globally with 273 million unique viewers tuning into linear TV coverage with over another 50 million digital-only viewers. It would be no surprise if a clash between the two in the forthcoming T20 World Cup had similar figures.
Will that clash happen in India as planned though? Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman Ehsan Mani has stated they will push the ICC to relocate the upcoming tournament outside India if the hosts do not guarantee visas to Pakistani players and fans.
The political tension between the two neighbours is at an all-time high in recent times. They have not played a full-bilateral series since 2007. The last bilateral series between them took place in 2012 when Pakistan visited India for a short limited-overs tour. Since then, India and Pakistan have only met in ICC tournaments and the Asia Cup and India deny the crème of Pakistan's white-ball talent the opportunity to play in the world's premier domestic T20 competition, the IPL.
The relations between the two countries further deteriorated in 2019 following the Pulwama attack when a suicide bomber drove into a convoy of buses carrying Indian police in the continued dispute over Kashmir and could take another turn for the worse if the Pakistan players and the fans are not granted visas ahead of the World Cup.
Mani recently revealed the PCB is planning to push for ICC T20 World Cup 2021's relocation to the UAE if the Indian government does not give them written assurances. Mani said the PCB want that assurance by the end of March, so the clock is ticking.
"There is a need to change the 'Big Three'. We are not seeking written assurance for the visas of the national team only, but for the fans, officials and journalists as well," said Mani. "We have told the ICC that India should give written assurances by the end of March so that we know where we stand or we will push for the relocation of the World Cup from India to UAE.".
The invoking of the "Big Three" is interesting in its echo of a similar statement made by Graeme Smith recently. But in this case, it feels like a smokescreen for a clearly bi–national issue.
This is not the first time such a situation has arisen for India and Pakistan. In 2018, the Asia Cup, originally scheduled to be in India, had to be relocated to the UAE due to political tensions. Last year, the venue for the Asia Cup was shifted again from Pakistan to Sri Lanka for the same reason, although it was ultimately postponed because of the Covid pandemic. The Asia Cup will be now held this year in Sri Lanka.
Given the situation between India and Pakistan at present, it would not be entirely surprising if the T20 World Cup does move out of India. But as India are arguably the biggest of the "Big Three" when it comes to influence on the ICC, the situation will be interesting to watch.