Champions Trophy August 24, 2008

Old powers bomb a soft target

Let's be clear: the chances of the next edition of the Champions Trophy taking place in Pakistan are next to nothing. The political compromise crafted in words by the ICC is a cover for the international blockade of Pakistan as a venue by cricket's traditional powers. The rift in international cricket, between old and new, is alive and well. India's economic might protects it from any possible backlash from the ancient powers of Australia and England, but Pakistan is a softer, easier target.

Indeed, the rise of money in international cricket means that cricketers and cricket boards can turn their noses up at an inconvenient tour of Pakistan, knowing that it will little damage their careers or their bank accounts. The campaign against touring Pakistan has been a cynical and hysterical drama based on spook stories and vivid imaginations.

Playing international cricket in Pakistan remains safe, just as it was a month ago when the Asia Cup was played there, and just as it was last year when South Africa toured. What remains unsafe, however, is the pretext upon which cricket boards have chosen to marginalise Pakistan. Cricket boards should have sent players willing to tour Pakistan and take the chance of furthering their careers.

The behaviour of the cricket boards of Australia, England, and New Zealand is no surprise. All three have always painted Pakistan and Pakistani cricket in the worst possible light, an attitude that has stemmed from their fundamental misunderstanding and suspicion of a culture that they little understand. A bomb in Karachi, by their bizarre calculus, is far more threatening to international cricketers than a bomb in Mumbai or London.

If their tunnel vision is unsurprising, then the response of the cricket boards of South Africa and West Indies is a bitter disappointment. In matters of personal safety, both countries are ill placed to preach to others. On the contrary, West Indian cricket has a long tradition of solidarity with the Asian cricket boards. Meanwhile, South Africa has a pivotal position in drawing together rich and poor worlds, a leadership role that it has failed in over Zimbabwe and now Pakistan.

But this lowest point in the history of Pakistan cricket is not entirely the responsibility of cricket's old and confused powers. The Pakistan Cricket Board has to accept equal share of the blame. Pakistan's cricket team is nowhere in international rankings, an unattractive side to host or visit. The board's unprofessional approach to managing players and processes gives the impression of a cricket structure in chaos.

The greatest failing, however, is Pakistan's unattractiveness as a venue for cricket--and here I don't mean the availability of alcohol, bacon butties, or nightclubs. The experience of playing cricket in Pakistan has to become an exciting one, with matches played on sporting tracks with lush outfields in front of packed crowds. International sport has moved a long way from being simply a sport, as the Olympics have reaffirmed. Top international sport now has to be a memorable experience for players and spectators to be viable. Cricket in Pakistan is a hard slog for all involved.

These failings of Pakistan cricket should not have been enough for the Champions Trophy to be postponed, but they are subjective impressions of a country and its cricket that inevitably will have influenced individual cricketers and made them reluctant to tour.

Pakistan cricket must rebuild from this lowest point. Yes, it is hard for sport to thrive in a struggling society but a formula must be found to rejuvenate Pakistan cricket and elevate it to the standards now expected of international sport. This responsibility for rejuvenation lies with Pakistan's new political leaders and they should understand the power of sport to unite peoples and provinces.

At the same time, the ICC must immediately address the issue of the future of international cricket in Pakistan. A major cricketing country is being isolated by irrational decision making. The PCB's call for clarity around the security measures required is a step in the right direction but it is only a small step. The concerned cricket boards must now commit to a structured return to Pakistan, which might begin with A team tours and short series to rebuild confidence and eliminate suspicion.

Above all, the current crisis reminds us that an international sport that relies on a small number of competing nations at the highest level is a sport that will always be at the mercy of powerful groups or even individuals.

International cricket is at a troubling stage in its evolution and its current leaders seem to favour shows of compromise over making tough decisions. The tough--but right--decision would have been for all boards to have agreed to the Champions Trophy taking place in Pakistan as scheduled. This is a precedent that international cricket may wish it had never set. It is certainly a decision that dumps Pakistan cricket at the lowest point in its cricket history.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here