The year 1999 will finally see India and Pakistan play each other in Tests again. The secretary of the Indian board, Jagmohan Dalmiya, is on record as saying that the Pakistan cricket team will undertake a tour of India from January to March 1999. India will make the reciprocal tour in 2001, according to Dalmiya, who divulged this to a reporter in Calcutta on March 27.
Dalmiya said the first tour could take place only in 1999 because the Indian team already had sufficient commitments for the next year. This was the earliest time slot available. Apparently, the arrangement was made when Dalmiya visited Malaysia during the ongoing ICC trophy tournament; he met the chief executive of the Pakistan board, Majid Khan, and they agreed on the dates then and there.
India last toured Pakistan in 1989-90 under Krishnamachari Srikkanth and played four Tests, all of which ended in draws. Pakistan were led by Imran Khan. The last tour of India undertaken by Pakistan ended in victory for the visitors; Imran led them to a 1-0 victory in the five-Test tour of 1987. After the 1989-90 tour, the two countries have met in one-day tournaments at various venues but just once in either of the two countries -- during the World Cup in 1996. That match, a quarter-final in Bangalore, ended in victory for India.
The commitments may well have been made but there is no guarantee that the tours will take place. The beginning of talks between the two countries may well have led to some optimism that sporting ties would resume. Dalmiya is understandably keen to do something after he was nominated to be the ICC president. He will be giving up the post of board secretary some time soon and probably would like to be known as the one who worked out the resumption of tours with Pakistan.
But there are trickier problems than tour dates or itineraries to be tackled. The leader of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, whose organisation is part of a coalition government along with the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the state of Maharashtra, is opposed to Pakistan touring the country because of the political impasse between the two countries. He has often threatened violence against any Pakistan team which tours the country before political problems are settled. This is, and has been for sometime, a major hurdle to be overcome. It is highly optimistic to think that a couple of years hence, India and Pakistan would have settled all their differences.
The resumption of tours has been suggested before this but the fundamentalists on both sides -- the Hindu parties in India and the Islamic parties in Pakistan -- have made enough blood-curdling noises to prevent anything coming to fruition. And the matches played at Sharjah have only increased the bad blood between the two teams, much as people may claim otherwise. Even so-called friendly ties played in other countries have often ended in acrimony.
There was a suggestion floated some years ago, that India and Pakistan play a Test series at Sharjah which was touted as a neutral venue. There were not many takers for this idea and it died a natural death. Until Dalmiya's announcement, there has been no movement on resuming tours and his initiative is to be welcomed. But between now and 1999 much water can flow under the bridge and it remains to be seen whether the first tour will finally take place.