Whither cricket diplomacy?

September 26, 2021

As New Zealand and England cricket teams cancel their Pakistan tour abruptly citing “security threats”, it becomes apparent how cricket, once used as a tool of diplomacy is now a weapon to settle enmities

Whither cricket diplomacy?

September 17 afternoon. The stage was set for the beginning of an interesting one-day international series between Pakistani and News Zealand cricket teams on Pakistani soil, for the first time in eighteen years. The Rawalpindi cricket stadium was slowly filling up with cricket enthusiasts excited to watch the first one-day match between both the teams. Journalists covering the match had also been anxiously waiting for the Black Caps to reach the stadium for a few hours. But minutes before the scheduled time of the match, news broke that Black Caps suddenly cancelled the tour due to security reasons. This led to shock and anger in Pakistan with the masses, governments and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) unhappy with this situation.

Two days later, more devastating news followed when the England Cricket Board (ECB) announced that it would be postponing its visit to Pakistan which was initially scheduled for next month. Australia, scheduled to send its cricket team next year, is also reconsidering its plans, according to reports. Australia said they were monitoring the situation and gathering information from security experts before deciding to tour Pakistan in February and March next year — which would be the team’s first tour to Pakistan since 1998.

“There was no threat alert or information from our side. State-of-the-art security, which is provided to heads of state, was provided to the team. We tried to convince them by reassurances from the highest level but they preferred to leave the country,” said the Interior Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, while addressing the media, adding that he believed that “this threat was fabricated from the Indian soil to sabotage international cricket in Pakistan.”

“We are a lively nation. We cannot be isolated; we cannot be ignored. Good days will come and international cricket will come to Pakistan,” he said, reiterating the commitment to foil such conspiracies in future.

New Zealand was scheduled to play three one-day internationals and five Twenty-20 matches in Rawalpindi and Lahore. The ECB also abandoned their tour of Pakistan citing “concerns about travelling to the region”. The England men’s team were supposed to play two Twenty-20s in Pakistan and their women’s team was also scheduled to tour to play a few matches. According to Pakistani officials, they tried their best to convince the Black Caps not to cancel the trip as there was no security threat but the team, following the directions of their government, left the country without sharing any information on the threat they received.

Minutes before the scheduled time of the match, news broke that Black Caps suddenly cancelled the tour due to security reasons.

Ramiz Raja, the PCB Chairperson was outrageous at cricket’s “western bloc”, for becoming part of this alleged conspiracy and felt betrayed.

“I am severely disappointed in England’s withdrawal but it was expected because this western bloc gets united unfortunately and tries to back each other,” said Raja, adding, “So, you can take any decision on the basis of security threat and perception.”

The cancellation of the New Zealand team, according to media reports from New Zealand, was decided after its government received a security alert from the Five Eyes intelligence group over a “direct and imminent” threat to its cricket team. Five Eyes – a global intelligence alliance of New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom – has shared information on the threat with New Zealand but Pakistan is still waiting to know its exact nature.

Pakistani authorities, in their many pressers, also blamed the neighbouring archrival, India, for “fabricating threats” to compel the New Zealand team to withdraw from Pakistan.

“Fake threats were generated through mobile devices in India through fake emails to threaten the Black Caps. One threat was sent on August 19 via a fake Facebook account, the other on August 24 through a fake email address and a third one on September 17,” claimed the Information Minister, Fawad Hussain Chaudhry.

Chaudhry said that earlier on, the New Zealand government confirmed that the August threats were fake and that is why they sent their team to Pakistan, adding that the players had been peacefully practicing in the stadium for a few days too. The Minister also claimed that a similar fake threat has been sent to the West Indies cricket team which is scheduled to tour Pakistan this December. He added that Pakistan was paying the price for its stance and for not submitting before the superpowers to the recent tour cancellations by these countries.

Many in Pakistan, including those at the official level, consider it to be part of a conspiracy hatched in India, enacted by other major countries unhappy with Pakistan’s political stance after the Taliban took over Afghanistan. The authorities in Pakistan have openly declared it a conspiracy against Pakistan and have blamed India for generating fake threats to exploit the situation.

It is ironic that cricket which was once used as a tool to enhance diplomacy, especially between Pakistan and India, is becoming a weapon of exploitation and tool of proxy wars. It is unfortunate to see that a much-loved international sport has become a tool to settle enmities and scores.

If this trend continues unabated, it seems that Pakistan, already fighting on multiple fronts, will now also have to fight to bring international cricket on its soil. For this, it needs to multiply its diplomatic efforts and work to gain serious confidence of the cricket stakeholders at the world level to restore goodwill.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]      Twitter: @waqargillani

Whither cricket diplomacy?