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March 3, 2017

Cricket’s aborted homecoming


March 3, 2017

Pakistan’s long sporting isolation ended in February when Iran’s tennis team visited Islamabad – the first country to do so in 12 years – to play its Davis Cup tennis tie. Maybe it ended in 2015 during the Bangladesh women’s cricket team’s series in Karachi. Or if we continue to believe men’s cricket is the only sport in the country, then it might have been when the Zimbabwe team played a series of matches in 2015.

Slowly and haltingly, international sports is coming back to Pakistan. The final of the Pakistan Super League was supposed to be the crowning glory, when we showed the rest of the world that we are once again open for business. And that may be our problem. When a man keeps insisting unprompted that his weight loss is entirely due to healthy eating and hours slaving in the gym, you just know he has had a tummy tuck. The more we declared Pakistan was safe, the less anyone outside was going to believe it.

In Pakistan, image is everything. Anyone who talks about our problems – and boy are there so many to talk about – is instantly branded unpatriotic, especially if the talking is done in the international media. No one denies that these problems exist; it’s just that letting the rest of the world know about it is just so bad for our image. Pervez Musharraf’s battle cry of ‘enlightened moderation’ was meant for outsiders more than us, to show them that the country isn’t riven by extremists. The first reaction of our politicians to a militant attack is to fear what it might do to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – and now to the PSL final.

The PSL is the best thing to happen to Pakistani cricket since Saint Misbah took over as captain. In the long run, it will make us a more competitive T20 team as we catch up to the likes of India and Australia, whose experience with the IPL and Big Bash League have us eating their dust. Eventually, it will be a source of crucial revenue for our cash-strapped board and allow our cricketers to live the lifestyle they deserve to get accustomed to. Plus it’s a heck of a lot of fun. Anyone who is tired of the PSL, as Samuel Johnson might have said, is tired of life. Nothing makes me happier than the thought of the Kevin Pietersens and Kumar Sangakkaras of the world descending on Lahore for the final.

Except they aren’t going to and – whatever the PCB and PSL may have told us – they were never going to. Every foreign player has sadly given his regrets and gone back home. They have also been subjected to abuse from disappointed Pakistani fans on Twitter, as if the way to show them how safe and welcome they will be in our country is by showing them our repertoire of four-letter words. This anger is the fault of our cricket officials who, until the very last moment, were deluding either themselves – or more likely us – into believing that most international cricketers were ready to play in Lahore. Even a last-gasp incentive offered to foreign players wasn’t enough. Sure, the recent spate of terror attacks could not have helped but it is telling that it was only the PCB that said all along that foreign players would play in Pakistan; not a single cricketer had made that same commitment.

There was no reason for them to do so, especially if they knew what happened when Zimbabwe toured Pakistan in 2015. Then, the entire area around Gaddafi stadium was in shutdown mode. Yet a suicide bomber managed to blow himself up and kill a police officer less than a kilometre away from the stadium. The government claimed the incident was a gas explosion. Only when it became impossible not to state the facts did it admit a suicide bomber was responsible.

This is why no one believed the government when it kept changing its story about the blast in Lahore DHA. It started by saying it was caused by a cylinder explosion, followed by the police saying it was a bomb blast before the Punjab government went back to the cylinder story. How can we expect international cricketers with no stake in the country to believe our government when we can’t be sure it’s telling the truth ourselves?

Imran Khan, who is right less often than a stopped clock, was for once correct in saying that a militarised Lahore for the PSL final will hardly send a message of peace. Kevin Pietersen even cited Imran when announcing his decision to pull out – although let’s not kid ourselves into thinking he was going to come anyway.

Announcing that the PSL final would be held in Lahore, insisting the venue would not be changed after the attacks and then acting as if it were no big deal if only local players showed up was entirely the wrong way to go about things. We should have continued down the same gradual path we were already on. Hosting matches in sports that have a smaller profile was the correct way to start. Less security is needed for such events and the relative normalcy in which they are held allows us to point to their success. Having a PSL final with no foreign player highlights just how unprepared we are.

As Imran said, showing the world a final where there are as many security personnel as there are spectators is hardly a great showcase for the country. Lest we forget, the Sri Lankan cricket team was specifically targeted. Any incident in Lahore like the one when the Zimbabwe team visited would have set back the cause of bringing back international cricket to Pakistan.

As it is, our goal right now should not be to host cricket matches no matter what the situation on the ground. We should be working towards reaching a place where Pakistan is actually safe rather than have to convince cricketers that they should visit right after half a dozen attacks have taken place.

Pakistan is not the first country to be isolated in this way. In 1996, Australia and the West Indies pulled out of their World Cup matches in Sri Lanka because of the Tamil Tiger insurgency and few countries were willing to play in Zimbabwe when Robert Mugabe’s reign got particularly brutal. Let us not now bemoan our separation from international cricket and complain about how there are double standards in the way we are treated. Our sole focus right now should be on defeating the militant menace so that first Pakistanis feel safe at home. Then we can worry about the rest of the world.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.

Email: [email protected]


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