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