Cricket in the time of terrorism

If the PCB wants to get it right, they would do well to get the ICC on their side before finding a willing opponent.

Pakistan's coach Dav Whatmore (C) talks with his players during a training session at the Gaddafi Stadium. (AFP/Getty …

Pakistan, the cricketing civilization even when distinguished from the nation-state, has seen far more troughs in recent years than it has crests.  While it must induce head-shakes and tut-tuts around the world, for fans of Pakistan cricket each valley is uniquely painful and distinctly embarrassing, because the people involved are from your home town or you were able to spend a few evenings with players as they sought halal meals in the Caribbean. 

In spite of all this, and the long shadow cast by spot-fixing, the saddest day in Pakistan’s cricketing history is the one that keeps the lights off in her cricket stadiums.

The day the music died for cricket fans in Pakistan was 3 March 2009 when terrorists opened fire on the Sri Lanka team bus carrying players back to their hotels after the third day’s play.  Over three years have passed since then, and in that time a World Cup on the sub-continent.

It seems like Pakistan is constantly trying to overcome the darkest chapter in cricketing history.  Perhaps it is a blessing the rest of the world is able to see this cautionary tale unfold.  Sri Lankan players who escaped the whizzing bullets said they had the presence of mind to react quickly because of the instability in their homeland. 

Confessing such was an act of kindness, courtesy and class to the good people of Pakistan when none could have been hoped for. Without saying they could make sense of senseless violence or dismissing the violent realities in Sri Lanka, their players served as Pakistan’s greatest ambassadors in a time of crisis. It was as if to say, “We understand. We know instability and unpredictability.  Our evening betrays our hopes virtually every night, as well. Our newspapers teach us to be uncertain when we step out of our homes, too.” 

A Bangladesh tour of Pakistan – which looks increasingly unlikely to happen – would mean just the first step in a long road to redemption for Pakistan. The first successful ICC-sanctioned tour in Pakistan, regardless of the opponent or the result, will perhaps be the most important one in the nation’s – and not just the PCB’s – history.  The Pakistan Cricket Board ought to be jumping through hoops to mollify any opponent even casually considering the prospect of visiting, and should have been actively improving security conditions for the past three years.  Instead, the PCB waits until a mere 10 days before the first match to submit their 70-page security plan to the ICC. It is unsurprising the Bangladesh court order stalled the tour from going forward for four weeks.
The PCB does not seem to be serious about this tour.  Or at least, they are too much of a mess internally to appear otherwise. This is not to condemn Zaka Ashraf as PCB Chairman. He has done a much better job with the office than his predecessor. For one, in light of the 2009 attacks, Ashraf secured high profile international talent for the Head Coach (Dav Whatmore) and Fielding Coach (Julian Fountain). Interim Coach Mohsin Khan performed well, but his being local worked against him in this case. If the name
‘Pakistan’ inspires fear and doubt, one of the more effective ways to overcome that is to bring in spokespersons from outside who can testify to the opposite.

Whatmore has been doing his part to this effect since he was hired by repeatedly stating he has been safe and comfortable at all times. The Coach has also expressed his disappointment in the court order that postponed and perhaps cancelled the tour given Pakistan’s visit to Sri Lanka looms in May.

The ICC has sidestepped any involvement in the tour with one of its magical special dispensations, while simultaneously assessing Pakistan ‘unsafe to appoint match officials’.

It might be an unfair world that punishes the PCB for the crimes of a small, isolated terrorist act, but it is the hand that has been dealt. The PCB has to work to prove to the ICC that the country is safe for complete bilateral tours, triangular tournaments and global competitions.

As I said earlier, even baby steps are huge victories for the people of Pakistan and for cricket against terrorists, but the PCB seems to think progress is the result of no backward steps. A maximum of 140 overs of cricket over 36 hours in a single stadium in a single city does not constitute a real bilateral tour. It was probably all the BCB would agree to when it was proposed in December 2011, but if the tour does not take place, it can still be a blessing in disguise for Pakistan. Presumably, the Bangladesh players would see nothing but a secure army landing strip, their hotel and Gaddafi Stadium for the 72 hours they spend on Pakistani soil.

This is not a recipe for success and it is not sustainable. Troubled parts all over the world manage to put together enough infrastructure and plan their events well enough to give officials and athletes across the globe peace of mind. If the PCB wants to get it right, they would do well to get the ICC on their side before finding a willing opponent.

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