"Malala may have taken one for the team"

It may seem misplaced to drag cricket into what is a grave matter of life and death, but Pakistan cricket has already been dragged into grave matters of life and death

The attack on Malala Yousufzai may have implications on Pakistani cricket
If you haven’t been following the news coming out of Pakistan lately, let me summarize it for you. A helpless and defenseless 14-year-old girl, who had achieved international recognition as an outspoken blogger denouncing Taliban atrocities in her native Swat valley, was recently shot from close range. The bullet entered in or around the head and lodged near her spine. Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility.

What does this have to do with cricket? Potentially, quite a lot. As autumn slides into winter, we are in the fourth consecutive domestic season in Pakistan without any hope of international cricket on home soil. For the first two seasons after the Lahore attack of March 2009, we were all too dumbstruck and scattered to even think about hosting visitors again. Then late into the third season, with a calmer and saner PCB chairman in office, overtures were made to the Bangladesh Cricket Board for sending a team to play a bilateral series in Pakistan. Well-intentioned as this effort was, it was premature, as the ground reality of terrorism and mayhem wreaked by Pakistan’s Taliban insurgency had not changed. Inevitably, the tour did not materialize.

It is not easy to sit through this drought of international cricket that threatens to continue for season after depressing season. Normally, this is the time of year when the South Asian cricket follower’s senses are at their most acute. The days begin to shorten and you awaken to an early-morning nip. The sun becomes a mellow gold and the air feels dry. These tweaks of the climate act like a Pavlovian signal triggering salivation at the prospect of a cricketing feast. Run your eyes around South Asia right now and you will find that indeed the feasts are aplenty: New Zealand in Sri Lanka for two Tests, five ODIs, and a T20I; West Indies in Bangladesh for a similar menu; England in India for four Tests, five ODIs, two T20Is, and a healthy clutch of side-matches.

The one place remaining barren is Pakistan. Instead of hosting talent and teams, we are hosting tragedy and terrorism. Despite this unrelenting onslaught, the home season’s Pavlovian cricket reflex is still strong, and waves of salivation keep gushing forth. You imagine lining up for tickets or, depending on your station in life, peddling influence for a pair of passes. You visualize the hustle and bustle outside the stadium gate. You relive the walk from the parking lot to the entry point of your designated enclosure, where a group of self-important policemen with oversized bellies and comical moustaches inspect your ticket and make a needless security issue out of whatever you happen to be carrying. And then you feel the moment: you are settling into your seat, overlooking a rusted steel mesh fence and loops of billowing barbed wire, scanning the scoreboard and the field setting at the same time, a chaos of sounds and smells everywhere around you, as Younis Khan eases into his stance and some highly regarded international visitor well-placed in the ICC rankings turns at the top of his bowling mark.

All this is enough to make the mouth water, but these days all the salivation is for nothing. In the end, it is just a lot of wasted drool.

To understand what will end this famine, you must begin by appreciating what caused it. A visiting Test side came under automatic gunfire within walking distance of Gaddafi Stadium. In security matters, one hears a lot of talk about perceptions and realities, but this is the kind of event that makes such distinctions irrelevant. The scale of the disaster – six dead policemen, two dead civilians, one dead PCB driver, a badly injured umpire, and an entire Sri Lankan team coming to within an inch of its life – went far beyond cricket. It will take something far beyond cricket to erase its stigma.

We are talking about something with geopolitical implications. So far, we have had Zaka Ashraf, the PCB chairman, advocating through media statements for the restoration of international tours. Another senior administrative figure, provincial sports minister Dr. Mohammad Ali Shah, has even arranged for a World XI led by Sanath Jayasuria to play two T20 exhibition matches in Karachi. These are laudable efforts, but something fundamental and transformative is needed to reset the dynamics of this unprecedented calamity that has befallen Pakistan cricket.

This is where the courage of fourteen-year-old Malala Yousufzai comes in. Her incident has united Pakistanis in anger and there appears to be a groundswell of support for doing whatever it takes to wage an uncompromising war against the forces of intolerance and extremism. Even otherwise despondent thinkers and observers have become sanguine about Malala’s positive impact. Noted journalist and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid, writing in The New Yorker, observes that Malala’s story “has the potential to bring about a serious geopolitical change in the region that could actually help stabilize Pakistan.” Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf is often seen as being soft on Taliban, has also been vehement in his condemnation of the attack on Malala.

What is required is to capitalize on this crisis by permanently exorcising the Pakistan Army’s infatuation with the Taliban, whom it has long cultivated in the hopes of achieving its Holy Grail of a favorable settlement on Kashmir in the east, and a protective zone of “strategic depth” in the west. Emerging as a captivating symbol of Pakistani innocence and bravery, Malala is final and convincing proof that this dalliance has extracted too heavy a price. After an initial period of medical stabilization in Pakistan, she was transferred to a high-intensity treatment facility in England with experience in serious trauma. News reports indicate she may well make a good recovery.

It may seem misplaced to drag cricket into what is a grave matter of life and death, but Pakistan cricket has already been dragged into grave matters of life and death. Cricket in Pakistan is not a triviality. It is part of the national fabric and one of the pillars of national morale and self-esteem. A service to cricket is a service to the nation.

We cannot be faulted if we are now dreaming of rosy scenarios in which peace returns, and brings international cricket with it. If the insurgency is indeed brought to an end, it will be hard for even the likes of Australia and India to turn down a bilateral series in Pakistan dedicated to the greatness and valor of Malala. If cricket becomes one of the fruits of her fearlessness, then Malala would truly have taken one for the team.

This article was first published on www.PakPassion.net