August 25, 2008

A devastating decision

The decision to effectively cancel the Champions Trophy completely alienates Pakistan - as a cricket team and as a nation

Brian Murgatroyd, a part of ICC's six-member delegation in Pakistan, being frisked in Lahore. Pakistan did all they could to ensure players' safety © AFP

Unless you live in Pakistan, or have been here through the madness of the last year or so, it will be impossible to understand the despondency the decision to postpone the Champions Trophy is likely to cause.

For one, it is actually a cancellation. Next year has enough action to fill a John Woo trilogy. Fitting a tournament into it is harder than getting Oprah Winfrey into one of Kate Moss' dresses. And the only thing more useless than the Champions Trophy in some eyes is two Champions Trophies in two years: one is scheduled to be held in 2010.

But this decision also essentially sets in stone a future policy for all non-Asian nations now: there is no need to tour Pakistan. The war on terror Pakistan is leading will not end overnight, because such nebulous wars don't. At best, within this country, it will have to be managed so that interference with life's everyday grind is minimal. Expect stories that Pakistan's place as co-hosts of the 2011 World Cup is under threat to be churned out from next year.

For countries like Australia it makes no difference, for they seem to have put their policy in place some ten years ago. They haven't toured even once in that time and have never shown a particular willingness to do so. Leaders they may be on the field, but on this matter they have been consistently disgraceful.

South Africa have toured here, but pulled out of the Champions Trophy first, which at best is inconsistent and at worst hypocritical. They came last October when the situation was as, if not more, unstable than it is now. They even stayed after the first attempt on Benazir Bhutto's life, and weeks before they arrived, the siege of Lal Masjid had just ended. Days after they left, a state of emergency was announced, indicating just how turbulent things were.

Incidentally it was players from these countries who didn't mind the bombs in Jaipur during the IPL. The context may be different, sure, but how much does that really matter? A bomb after all is a bomb, in India or Pakistan, whether suicide or planted, one of a series or solitary, and equally likely to cause damage. Perhaps next time Pakistan should dangle a bagful of dollars in front of players rather than inviting tedious security assessments.

Barring that what more could Pakistan have done? Nothing. The security arrangements, by many accounts, were outstanding. FICA's chief is supposed to have told the PCB that they were the best arrangements he had seen. The Asia Cup was held recently without so much as a beep on the many metal detectors and scanners placed at stadiums. No, the question is not what Pakistan could have done, for they did everything.

The question really is what the unwilling countries could have done. Open their minds is the only answer, because from the account of at least one individual involved in the task-force meetings, players had already closed their minds and were willing to hear only what they wanted. Does it need repeating that cricket has never been targeted here? Or even that security anywhere in the world can never be guaranteed? Eventually the concerns weren't so much over the security arrangements but over whether they could be sustained. How on earth is any organisation supposed to prove that sustainability without the tournament actually going ahead?

Pakistan needed to show itself - and see itself - in headlines that didn't have the words 'terrorist' and 'Al-Qaeda' in them. They went out of their way to try and ensure it, yet were still rebuffed. At a time when Pakistan needed most to feel involved and wanted in the world of cricket and the world itself, Pakistan finds itself shut out

Things must be put into perspective, people will say, and that it isn't worth putting lives at risk. It should be countered not only that risk is everywhere, but that things must now be seen from Pakistan's perspective.

Pakistan has had a miserable year and a half. It feels as if another downward spiral has been embarked upon. Battles are raging in remote parts of the country, there is political uncertainty, the economy is in the pits, and much, much else that requires another forum. But increasingly the feeling is that instead of being further engaged in the debate that is shaping the world, the country is being marginalised.

That feeling is now seeping into the cricket. Already this will be the first calendar year in many that Pakistan doesn't play a single Test. Once, in the 1970s and 1980s, they were a leading voice in the game's administration. At times they are now but a hollow echo of the BCCI. There is also a mediocre and now untested team on the field.

So Pakistan needed to host the Champions Trophy, the second-most important ODI tournament in the game, to put some feelgood back in the air, an opportunity to show that it still matters. Pakistan needed to show itself - and see itself - in headlines that didn't have the words "terrorist" and "Al-Qaeda" in them. They went out of their way to try and ensure it, yet were still rebuffed. At a time when Pakistan needed most to feel involved and wanted in the world of cricket and the world itself, Pakistan finds itself shut out.

Pakistanis are fond of asking what actually unites and defines them. Some say there are many things, some say there are barely any, but cricket is a given, in both cases, a bond of some kind. It has always pulled people here together, however briefly, in joy, in grief, in celebration, in outrage. It has been played with verve for much of the country's history, and talked, argued, shouted and screamed about with greater passion. It is one constant in a land of very few.

For that to be taken away, at this time, when it was probably most needed, the disappointment, the anger, the frustration and the ensuing depression of that will not be understood by people outside Pakistan. It is time that it was.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo