The Indian cricket authorities are extremely worried that there could be a terrorist strike from a Pakistani-based al-Qa'ida group against the Indian Premier League. The third edition of this immensely successful Twenty20 tournament starts in India in two weeks' time, on 12 March.
The Indians feel that the threat could be defused if Pakistani players were to take part in this tournament. At present Pakistani players are excluded from this year's IPL, including five Pakistani players, Kamran Akmal, Misbah ul-Haq, Abdul Razzaq, Umar Gul and Sohail Tanvir, who had IPL contracts.
The Indians are concerned about internet comments which have been made by al-Qa'ida groups that the absence of Pakistani players makes this year's IPL an even more legitimate terror target.
The exclusion of the players has created much controversy in India, leading to televised debates on this subject, with some IPL franchise holders expressing unhappiness about the decision. They include the Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan. However, his comments in favour of Pakistani players so incensed Hindu fanatics that there has been a boycott of his latest film My Name is Khan in Mumbai, the centre of the Bollywood film industry.
Highly placed Indian Board officials have told me that they would now be prepared to allow Pakistani players back but on condition that the President of Pakistan Asif Zardari sacks Ijaz Butt, the head of Pakistan cricket.
One very highly placed Indian board official told me: "We have approached the Pakistani President and told him that, for the sake of sub-continental cricket, he should exercise his power as patron and sack Butt. Without Butt's removal our two boards cannot work together. In the past, despite political problems between our two countries and even with the armies squaring up to each other, the two cricket boards worked together. But now we cannot because of Butt. In the present situation this could put the IPL under threat."
I understand Butt and the Indians have never hit it off, with problems dating back to 1987 when the two countries hosted the first ever cricket World Cup to be held outside England. However, the present crisis dates back to last year when, following the terrorist strike against Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore, the International Cricket Council decided that Pakistan would not stage matches at next year's World Cup. They were meant to host the tournament along with India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The 14 matches due to be played in Pakistan were reallocated, with the Indians taking the lion's share.
The Indians have argued that, had they not done so, the World Cup would have been moved from the subcontinent to Australia and New Zealand, the reserve venues for the competition. But Butt has never forgiven the Indians for what he feels was an act of betrayal and with India, he feels, taking advantage of the terrorist strike in Lahore. He has made public and private comments blaming the Indians for isolating Pakistani cricket and forcing it to play all its home matches overseas.
The breakdown in relationship between the two boards is so complete that I am told the Indian cricket officials are not on speaking terms with Butt. And Butt's comments have so incensed Lalit Modi, the Indian Board official who organises the IPL, that he has written to David Morgan, the chairman of the ICC, registering a complaint against him and demanding that Butt be brought before the ethics commission of cricket's governing body.
Publicly, Modi continues to draw comfort from assurances on security given by the Indian government. He said: "The government has already given us ample assurances for safe conduct of games." He has even mocked the Australia captain, Ricky Pointing, for allegedly trying to persuade Australian players to withdraw and rubbished calls from the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations about the security threat. Modi has said that there were as many as 98 players ready to take the place of anyone who withdraws.
However, I am told that Modi himself has personally received threats from al-Qa'ida and some of them have specifically mentioned his role in excluding Pakistani players. Last December Modi declared no Pakistani player would play in the IPL on the grounds that they had failed to obtain their visas before the deadline for confirmation of participation.
Butt immediately contested Modi's version, saying: "The players have applied for visas but the clearance hasn't come from the Indian side. The ball is not in our court."
The issues concerned were not insoluble and from talking to Indian officials it is clear that their antagonism for Butt played no small part in keeping the Pakistani players out.
The Indian terror concern has been heightened following the terrorist strike in Pune, western India, 13 days ago when a backpack bomb left in a restaurant killed 16 people and injured more than 60, the first such attack since the Mumbai outrage of November 2008.
The Indians have probably calculated that their demands to remove Butt would find favour in Pakistan, where he is hardly the most popular man following the country's dismal recent showing in Australia. Many see this former Pakistani Test cricketer as a political appointee: he is the brother-in-law of the country's defence minister and an important member in Punjab of Zardari's Pakistani Peoples Party. In a land where cricket and politics are inextricably mixed and where both have many factions, Butt has not only faced criticism from former cricketers such as Javed Miandad but also politicians. His bête noire is the Pakistani parliamentarian Jamshed Dasti.
Dasti, who heads the National Assembly's standing committee on sport, has often demanded that Butt be sacked. Dasti and his colleagues grilled Butt two weeks ago but, when he was called the following day by the sports committee of the upper house of Parliament – the Senate – he did not turn up. The explanation given was that he had to meet the President. Whether he met the President or some official in his office is not clear, but the summons suggested he was to be sacked. The rumours were denied but the Indians are clearly hoping their pressure will see his removal and ease their fears about their precious money-spinning tournament.Reuse content