March 17, 2012

Peace must return to Pakistan before cricket does

It's admirable that Bangladesh have agreed to visit, but is it premature?

If you've suffered as a spectator at cricket grounds in Pakistan, you might be tempted to make a case that international cricket should not return to the country. For even without the terror factor, Pakistan's cricket authorities lack the ability to stage matches at a standard that could be described as "international".

The stands are dusty, ramshackle, and uncomfortable. Crowd management is inefficient and insensitive. Food arrangements are just about adequate, while toilet facilities are abominable. There isn't a culture of observing queues and the authorities are too indifferent to enforce it. The sale and distribution of tickets, typically outsourced to branches of local banks, is needlessly disordered. And car parking and traffic coordination are customarily chaotic. It is no small mercy that the national team is an exciting one, and once inside the arena you invariably pick up great memories. But getting in and out in one piece is an ordeal.

On top of all this, there is the terror threat. Three years have passed since the horrific attack in Lahore - years that Pakistani fans have spent willing the incident into becoming an insignificant spot in the national rear-view mirror. But when you start thinking about it, you realise the wound is still raw.

Most disturbing is the possibility of what might have happened that day. As the bus carrying the Sri Lankan team sped away, the militants launched a rocket aiming for its fuel tank. What if that rocket hadn't missed? The answer chills the bone and scrambles the mind.

The terrorists behind the Lahore attack were eventually caught and killed, but that had nothing to with the ineffectual investigation that had ensued. In fact, more than two years after the Lahore attack, the same group staged a brazen assault on a major naval base in Karachi, that embarrassed and humiliated Pakistan's military brass. It was only last December that the police force finally reached them, tracing them to a hideout where they were holding a wealthy industrialist to ransom. Computer materials in their possession revealed that they had also been behind the Gaddafi Stadium episode.

There is no question that the lack of international cricket in Pakistan is a tragedy, but it hasn't been the unmitigated disaster that it threatened to be at one point. Many observers were initially concerned that without teams visiting from abroad, cricket in Pakistan would die. But there are no signs of that happening; nor has it ever happened elsewhere, in fact. Sri Lanka and South Africa both endured a prolonged drought of international cricket at home, with each resuming seamlessly when those chapters came to a close.

If anything, interest in cricket these days in Pakistan is at fever pitch. People have been stimulated by the astonishing Test whitewash over England, as well as agitated by the patchy show in the limited-overs games. Team selection is hotly debated, batting merits and demerits are dissected, spinners and seamers provoke endless arguments, and a passionate love-hate relationship has evolved with captain Misbah-ul-Haq. Now the Asia Cup has everybody engrossed, with the upcoming match against India becoming the primary focus of national attention.

More than anything else, Pakistan's cricket mood follows the team's fortunes, and the team and its supporters have all been basking in the warmth of a heartening revival, going back more or less to the start of the 2010-11 Asian season.

There is no question that the lack of international cricket in Pakistan is a tragedy, but it hasn't been the unmitigated disaster that it threatened to be at one point. Many observers were initially concerned that without teams visiting from abroad, cricket in Pakistan would die. But there are no signs of that happening

As for neutral turf, it has hardly been a liability. Since 1999, Pakistan have played 16 Tests at neutral venues (one each in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, two in England, and 12 in the UAE), winning eight and losing four, for a win-loss ratio of 2.00. Over the same period, Pakistan's win-loss ratio has been 1.75 on home soil (from 33 Tests), and 0.73 at the home of the opposition (from 65 Tests). This is not to argue that Pakistan should keep playing in neutral venues, but to make the point that by no means have neutral venues been a detriment for them.

When Zaka Ashraf, the PCB chairman, took office last October, he said the resumption of international cricket in Pakistan was his foremost priority. It struck many as an unrealistic and even misplaced claim, but Ashraf was determined to deliver, and he reached out to Mustafa Kamal, his counterpart at the Bangladesh Cricket Board, for a strategic partnership. The arrangement may have been founded on a set of bartered favours - including an implicit agreement to nominate Kamal to the vice-presidency of the ICC - but that can only be considered par for the course in such matters. The ICC approved tacitly, coming up with a special dispensation to let the tour proceed with "non-neutral" umpires and officials, should neutral folks feel queasy about visiting Pakistan. But Kamal, rationally, has declined to go ahead with the tour if the ICC isn't fully on board.

Bangladesh's reluctance makes sense, because terrorism as a problem in Pakistan remains alive and well. Scores of militants are scattered across the country, hell-bent on harming Pakistani people and national interests. Cricket's enormous popularity and outsized profile in Pakistan would make this home series another natural target.

Pakistan's interior ministry keeps making glib statements about foolproof security arrangements, but so far they have nothing to show that would inspire much confidence. All corners of the land continue to be victimised by terrorism, usually in the form of suicide bombings by crazed fanatics, but also increasingly through group executions by masked gunmen. This reality flies in the face of the government's spin on security. Nothing would be better than the peaceful return of international cricket to Pakistani shores. But a pre-requisite for that is that peace itself should come back. We are still waiting for that to happen.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on March 20, 2012, 14:36 GMT

    hmmm....all i can say is that cricket in pakistan should resume sooner rather than later...but even if bangladesh tour pakistan ..even then other teams still wont wiling to tour pakistan and that i think is the crux of this article its better to wait and hope for the overall security situation in pakistan to improve rather doing it all hastily

  • Dummy4 on March 20, 2012, 6:15 GMT

    What an absolutely ill-informed article! have you ever stepped out of pakistan? I have attended matches in India, Bangladesh and Carrabien and Pakistani Facilities are better than all three of them (Not to take anything away from great efforts put by those countries). Pakistan's domestic matches are very well organized and managed even today. If it bothers you so much, i would suggest you stay at home and watch cricket on TV and write your useless columns from there. Why are you trying to take away from rest of 180 million what they deserve and crave for.

  • Syed on March 19, 2012, 13:07 GMT

    Great and honest article. What is more tragic then international teams not visiting is that we did not turned this situation we are in especially for last 11-12 years into an opportunity? an opportunity to build and develope local competition that is attractive to crowd's participation, developing a league (even at a modest level) to build the base. Why are we so hung up on international teams? if we truly feels that it is safe then we should devleop activities and international teams would follow. If 'we aren't building it Why should they come?' Pakistan should have been the first one to have T20 leagues b/c it was being played there at grass roots level for last 3 decades but it lacked the leadership to turn that into opportunity.

  • Dummy4 on March 19, 2012, 4:27 GMT

    Mr Saad your article took me with surprise. Rightly said you have highlighted all the negatives and totally ignored the positives. You are a Cricket genelist and you are representing Pakistan at international level and your views should sound like a neutral. One can easily see the difference in law n order situation in pakistan compared to 1 0r 2 years back. And if the government is taking the full responsibility withthat much seriuosness then why not we can expact Bangladesh here.

  • Nuaman on March 19, 2012, 1:14 GMT

    I dont know whether the people who are talking about this tour's security even know anythng about Pakistan. The matches are not going to be played in Waziristan, Bajaur or Khyber Agency. Why do everyone generalize north Pakistan to all the other cities. Yes, 8-9 months back, i was also against matches in Pakistan but now its definitely safe. And if BCB chairman himself is satisfied with the security then all the questions must be answered automatically. Why we are always thinking that players and administration are on two different boats.

  • Vinod on March 18, 2012, 22:26 GMT

    Fantastic writeup by Saad, kudos to you. The lack of basic facilities are common in India too, where reaching the stadium to view a match is an ordeal in itself. I pray for the day for peace to return and teams start touring Pakistan and give the cricket loving public of pakistan the entertainment they deserve. Am indian, but love the cricket and rivalry between our two sides, and like Pakistan cricket in general... Here's hoping for an indian tour to Pakistan in the very near future!!!

  • Dummy4 on March 18, 2012, 19:05 GMT

    Though I really feel very sad for the thousands of passionate cricket supporters who are deprived from any international cricket, but as a Bangladeshi fanatic i really dont want Bangladesh to tour Pakistan. Things still dont look very good in Pakistan and i am pretty sure Bangladesh wont be getting the same level of security if Australians, South Africans or even India would have received. I dont see any reason why the Bangladesh team has to be the brave big hearted team !

  • Dummy4 on March 18, 2012, 7:09 GMT

    Even though I don't think there will be another such attack, I do agree with you with the first part. Pakistan is a long way from hosting international cricket simply because we don't have international standard facilities. The so-called international stadiums are worse than what we see in the Australian grounds used for domestic games. I think the PCB first needs to focus on building our roots right. Sometimes things seem to take place naturally, this can be a great opportunity for Pakistan to once and for all get the basics right when there is no international cricket going on.

  • Don on March 18, 2012, 6:27 GMT

    The most balanced piece of commentary I've seen from a Pakistani writer in a long time; maybe ever! Well done Mr Shafqat!

  • Jack on March 18, 2012, 3:56 GMT

    Fantastic article Saad. I have to confess that I was dismayed to learn of Osman Samiuddin leaving cricinfo - but your concise and articulate articles are equal if not superior in some regards.

    As a Kiwi I have loved and loathed the Pakistani team; but noone can deny the fact that Pakistan play a beautiful, flamboyant version of the game. To watch them play is truly a joy and it's sad that the cricket-mad populace of Pakistan are denied the joy of live Test match cricket due to the selfish evil perpetrated by a few. The sheer talent Pakistan churn out so effortlessly leaves us Kiwis green with envy, given our stark stocks!

    All the best for Pakistan and for the region. I'm not religious, but I pray for peace and for the day when honest, theatrical Test match cricket at its finest can return in harmony to Karachi, Lahore, etc.

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