Forget the notion that Shoaib Bashir’s visa hold-up is the upshot of some unfortunate clerical oversight. His paperwork has been in the hands of Indian bureaucrats for more than six weeks. The only plausible explanation is that Narendra Modi’s fiercely pro-Hindu regime is making an example of a British Muslim of Pakistani ancestry, one variable over which he has no control. And so, on the eve of the proudest moment of his young career, the rookie off-spinner is stranded in diplomatic limbo. It is a shameful humiliation of a blameless player, and one that his England team-mates should punish in Hyderabad by refusing to take to the field.
The significance of this moment can hardly be understated. India has effectively concocted a method of determining which players can and cannot play for England based on their race. This is indefensible, and it demands to be met with the strongest response. Short of Ben Stokes marching into the visa department on Bashir’s behalf, the one powerful recourse he has left is to delay the series, to demonstrate that England will not be subservient to the world’s most powerful cricketing nation. The demeaning of one of their players for reasons not of his making should be treated as an affront to them all.
Imagine, for a moment, if the roles were reversed. Picture the almighty ruckus that the Board of Control for Cricket in India would create if one of their own were still waiting for approval to enter England after 44 days. They are so used to having their every whim indulged that in 2021, India had a decisive fifth Test against England at Edgbaston postponed, ostensibly on the pretext of a positive Covid-19 case. The explanation did not persuade Nasser Hussain, who argued the decision was all about enabling players to return for the Indian Premier League season.
It is a reflection of India’s insuperable might in the game that England are, in public at least, remaining so calm. “Things take time,” says Brendon McCullum, normally the straightest of shooters. Yes, but the process of issuing an Indian visa does not, for any England player without Pakistani heritage, take 1½ months. This is one impasse that could all be resolved within seconds. All it would take is one phone call from Jay Shah, the BCCI secretary, to his father, Amit, India’s minister for home affairs. In these situations, interior ministers are invested with the power of God to decree who passes through their nations’ borders. The fact that India wants to humiliate Bashir regardless illustrates how this case is about far more than the wheels of government grinding slowly.
This is about the 20-year-old being, in the eyes of England’s hosts, the wrong ethnicity. We know this because the pattern of behaviour is so well established. For last year’s World Cup, Pakistan were forced to cancel a two-day training camp when India only granted their visas 48 hours before the tournament. Usman Khawaja, a dual citizen of Australia and Pakistan, also faced a fearsome struggle to be admitted last March, with even Ramachandra Guha, a former BCCI administrator, calling his country’s treatment of the opening batsman “spiteful”.
The same label can be attached to India’s belittling of Bashir. What possible national security grounds are there for refusing him entry? He was born in Surrey, with his only connection to Pakistan through his parents. The Somerset bowler described himself as “lost for words” at the honour of his call-up to the England Test squad, and he has worked assiduously to prove his credentials with the side in Abu Dhabi. Now, while everyone else makes the short hop across the Arabian Sea, he is suffering the indignity of having to fly home. That it is all the product of muscle-flexing by India makes the experience doubly galling.
What should be Bashir’s finest hour is now his grisliest ordeal. A place in the first Test is out of the question, and a return for the second, starting on February 2, is increasingly in jeopardy if India’s intransigence continues. And what if the visa does not come through at all? This would carry the ugliest echo of the D’Oliveira Affair, when the statement by then South African prime minister John Vorster that Basil D’Oliveira – as a so-called “Cape Coloured” – would not be accepted as a member of the touring English side exposed the full repugnance of apartheid. On that occasion, England held their nerve, cancelling the 1968-69 series. Will Stokes’ men follow suit?
Do not hold your breath. India’s capacity to bend cricket to their will is such that Stokes, who must privately be harbouring molten rage, can say only that he is “frustrated”. The calculation is that there is too much political capital at stake to rock the boat. Except this particular controversy goes beyond politics. The snub to Bashir is, quite simply, a move with race at its heart. And this is one outrage that England cannot let stand.