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Cricket: Pakistan's fate in the balance

Pakistan's fate in the balanceJust 20 days after it managed to strike a delicate balance over the Zimbabwe crisis, the ICC will once again be walking the tightrope over a teleconference spanning continents which starts at 10.30 GMT on Thursday - and this time, its executive board will hope to arrive at a consensus among the eight participating nations on the issue of staging the Champions Trophy in Pakistan this September.

As in the Zimbabwe crisis, which was resolved during the ICC annual conference in Dubai early this month with the country retaining its full membership while pulling out of the ICC World Twenty20 in England, the ICC hopes that a consensus decision will ensure that the tournament goes ahead as scheduled at the original venue or in Sri Lanka, the alternate venue.

However, once again, strong opinions have emerged on either side of this issue. Players from England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have expressed serious concerns over the prevailing security climate in Pakistan, and their representatives have warned of a pullout if the tournament goes ahead in that country. They seem to have the strong backing of their respective boards, too, except for Cricket South Africa (CSA) which seems to be of the view that Pakistan needs to be given "every opportunity to host the tournament to the best of their ability".

On the other side, India is leading the group of Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the hosts, who are determined that the event needs to go ahead as scheduled. They believe that the security briefing last Sunday by the ICC for officials of the eight participating nations, broadcast executives and players' representatives, has not pointed to any specific threat and has been "positive" about Pakistan's status.

"The Indian board sees 'no harm' in Pakistan hosting the tournament as scheduled," Niranjan Shah, the BCCI secretary, "We are supporting Pakistan as the venue of the Champions Trophy. Our Indian team had taken part in the Asia Cup without any incident. Besides, the report of the ICC's security consultants, which was presented during the briefing in Dubai (on Sunday) was positive. So the BCCI sees no harm in Pakistan hosting the tournament."

In fact, a few hours before Thursday's teleconference, when asked whether the tournament would go ahead as scheduled in Pakistan, a senior BCCI official shot back: "Why not?"

It's understood though that if there is stiff opposition to playing in Pakistan, especially from England, Australia and New Zealand, and the ICC reiterates its inability to provide any safety guarantees, the Indian board may suggest that the tournament be shifted to Sri Lanka, the alternate venue. Besides ensuring that the tournament stays in Asia - South Africa or England are being touted as the preferred alternatives by those who are hesitant to play in Pakistan - Indian officials believe that the current security climate in Sri Lanka, where India is playing a Test series, is peaceful and conducive for hosting the tournament.      

Tony Irish, the chief executive of the South Africa Cricketers Association (SACA), said that there was a possibility of top players from his country pulling out if the tournament went ahead as scheduled 

Duleep Mendis, the chief executive of Sri Lanka Cricket, had earlier this week that his country was "very confident" of hosting the event if it was moved out of Pakistan. "We are confident that we can hold the tournament within the short span of time if it's not possible to hold it in Pakistan," Mendis said. "We had confirmed our name as alternate hosts some time back and we stand by that. We are prepared logistically and on the security front and are very confident about hosting the tournament, if it comes to us."

Another option that may be discussed during Thursday's teleconference is postponing the event, even though Haroon Lorgat, the ICC chief executive, has said, "We are trying our best to hold the tournament as per schedule and hope that it is not postponed."

As of now though, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are learnt to be firmly behind Pakistan, the official host, which also appears to have gained the unexpected support of Norman Arendse, the CSA president.

"We must give Pakistan every opportunity to host the tournament to the best of their ability," Arendse told Independent Online. "I'm inclined to support Pakistan's hosting of the tournament. I know it might sound easy for us as administrators to make such decisions as we stay home while the players go to Pakistan, but I assure you it is not so."

Yet, officials on either side of the issue, and especially the ICC, realise that the executive board will have to seriously consider the threat of a pullout by top cricketers from England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, which would end up diluting the tournament's value and severely denting its credibility.

Speaking to Tony Irish, the chief executive of the South Africa Cricketers Association (SACA), said that there was a possibility of top players from his country pulling out if the tournament went ahead as scheduled (from September 11) in Pakistan. "I can't confirm this, but yes, there could be some players pulling out," he said.

Irish said that the players reiterated their concern at touring Pakistan after the SACA reported back to them on the ICC's security briefing in Dubai, which Irish attended. At the meeting, the players' representatives were told that the governing body or the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) couldn't give any foolproof security guarantees. "We have serious concerns with the security situation in Pakistan, especially after the briefing in Dubai," Irish said. This view has found a loud echo in England, Australia and New Zealand.

Against this backdrop, it's understood that the ICC board, while taking a final call on Pakistan, will also consider a report on the security briefing conducted by the ICC last Sunday. However, the report does not contain any specific recommendation - either way.

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