March 11, 2008

An unfortunate, hard-biting reality

Ultimately, there is no clear wrong or right in this. Pakistan lose out in many ways but Australia's decision not to tour cannot be wholly and forcefully condemned


Australia should have sent a security team to assess the situation © Getty Images
 

The blasts in Lahore came too late to affect Cricket Australia's decision to postpone the tour - in all probability that decision had been made some time ago - but they go some way in helping to understand that decision, unpalatable though it may be.

Lahore has, until this year, been gregariously safe among cities in Pakistan. Hale, hearty and welcoming people are Lahoris, rightly proud of their city's reputation as the cultural hub of Pakistan, untouched by the violence that has afflicted other parts of the country. For cricket, it had become the main centre, often hosting the bulk of internationals for teams unwilling to travel to the North-West or Karachi.

But since the turn of the year, even Lahore, once safe, warm, hospitable Lahore, has been hit by four suicide attacks. 2007 was one of the most turbulent of Pakistan's 61 years, political uncertainty compounded by over 50 suicide attacks across the country. The rate has not lessened this year. Many people in Pakistan will tell you they do not feel as safe in their own country as they did 12 months ago. It may or may not be an irrational fear, but it is borne of irrational violence and is a fear nonetheless.

Simply put, nobody - not Pakistanis, not those outside - is sure quite what will happen in Pakistan now or in coming days and weeks. Australia's decision to not tour in 2002-03 was wrong, based as it was on fears of another country's war spilling over the border. But this time around the violence is closer to home and that much more intense and unpredictable. Privately, even PCB officials concede that they understand Australia's apprehensions.

But still many will argue, with some force, that the postponement - and it is, for all intents and purposes, a cancellation - is wrong and there is merit here as well. Australia should have sent a security team to assess the situation - that is the least they should have done.

And Geoff Lawson's words - that this might be construed a victory for terrorism over normalcy of life - carry some weight, as do the sentiments of Nasim Ashraf, the PCB chairman, who pointed out that cricket and cricketers have never been targeted in all the violence.

Recent visits by international sides, including South Africa and Zimbabwe, lend further weight to this argument, though the situation has worsened since the former were here. And inevitably, the 2005 Ashes series will be recalled, when Australia continued playing in England after the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London underground. If one can argue that the background environment in both countries is at least two worlds apart, then another can say equally that it only takes one attack to derail matters.

Ultimately, there is no clear wrong or right in this. It just is and it is an unfortunate, hard-biting reality. Pakistan lose out in many ways: financial losses will be incurred and it also means that the world's best team will not have toured the country for well over a decade when and if they arrive next. Australia's decision, meanwhile, in the context of what is happening here, cannot be wholly and forcefully condemned.

 
 
Until the situation in Pakistan improves, however, some countries might want to come, some might not, which perhaps expresses the dilemma as well as it can be expressed
 

Could the Pakistan board have done more? If so, it is difficult to know precisely what, for the security situation in the country does not come under their remit. One thing they have done right is refuse to shift the series to a neutral venue, which would have reinforced the precedent that was originally set in the aftermath of 9/11. They believe that cricket can and must go on and if Australia or anyone differs, then the two shall respectfully disagree.

That stance might help their staging of the Asia Cup in June, for which India and Sri Lanka insist they will come. After that, in October, might come the real test with the Champions Trophy, when the International Cricket Council will also have a say. Until the situation in Pakistan improves, however, some countries might want to come, some might not, which perhaps expresses the dilemma as well as it can be expressed.

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