South Africa in Pakistan 2003-04 September 23, 2003

Failing the test of wealth

Wisden's Asian View by Kamran Abbasi

Earlier this month I stayed at the Karachi Sheraton Hotel for four nights. Two or three times each day I passed the scene of the bomb blast that killed French engineers, shattered the windows of the Sheraton on the other side of the street, and ended New Zealand's cricket tour in May 2002. Each time I drove into the hotel my car was stopped and checked for bombs by policemen with wide-angle mirrors to ensure the undercarriage was clear. Another guard patrolled the entrance of the hotel proper to check bags and briefcases. Guests and residents had to pass through a security doorway that shrilled when they forgot to declare anything metallic or electronic. And we were mere mortals, not VVIPs like the cricketing gods from South Africa.

This is modern Pakistan, with its KFCs and McDonald's intermingling with traditional eateries, with the forces of globalisation and deep-seated Asian and Islamic culture coming to terms with each other. It is also a security-conscious country, courtesy of Mr Bin Laden and assorted followers. The military regime in Pakistan understands the damage that bomb blasts and suicide killings can do to the economy, hence the high level of security. And cricket is a vital part of Pakistan's economy - boosting both material wealth and public mood.

Let's be clear, the level of security that we received would be trivial to that afforded a head of state, which is how Graeme Smith's men would be treated. It is astounding that an isolated incident in a shopping mall with no casualties and no link to South Africa could overturn the findings of a several-day fact-finding mission and the evidence of a trouble-free tour by Bangladesh.

Karachi is a city of 20 million inhabitants, sprawling over 20 kilometres. These kinds of incidents will happen, just as they will in every other city of the world, including London and New York, and Cape Town and Johannesburg. Where will South Africa's board find safety? If they cancelled a home Test each time there was a violent incident in Cape Town, their team would never play. With such confused logic South Africa's players will be lucky to venture beyond their front yards.

But all this presupposes that there is a problem in Pakistan, and I would argue that there isn't. One sure way to lose public support in Pakistan would be to harm an international cricket team. It is unthinkable - men with beards love cricket too. It is also unprecedented. Despite countless bombings in South Asia, cricketers have not been harmed. This is a threat nourished by an overactive imagination rather than founded in reality. In fact South Africa's cricket board is deluded about its self-importance if it imagines that anybody with a hatred of the "West" would bother with its players.

Which leads us to the next conundrum, of South Africa's role in international politics and sport. Nelson Mandela's courage produced a nation that was fit to champion the rights of the poor at the rich man's table - something that has seen South Africa lend support to many worthy causes such as the right of poorer countries to make cheaper drugs to treat their huge burdens of AIDS and tuberculosis. In cricket, South Africa has added its voice to those of the Asian countries in creating international policies that have brought greater equality and lessened the might of cricket's traditional powers. Internally, the quota system has created controversy but also opportunity. South Africa then, is a leading voice in asserting the rights of poorer countries and disadvantaged people.

But there have been unworthy causes too. Regional politics have meant that South Africa is unwilling to tackle Robert Mugabe head on, to the extent that teams were encouraged to play in Zimbabwe during the World Cup despite direct threats and promised demonstrations. To cancel a tour of Pakistan in the absence of threat, therefore, is the height of hypocrisy. Where now then for Mandela's legacy of courage and leadership? This is not how the Rainbow Nation was meant to be.

Ultimately, the status of South Africa is not the only issue - remember that cricket and politics are rarely separated, and why the game grips us so is because it reflects the social fabric of each nation that plays it. Ultimately, the ICC and the future of international cricket are threatened. If countries can pull out of tours for such tenuous reasons as South Africa have given, the international cricket programme is dead and buried.

ICC's future will be one of never ending legal wrangles over compensation. It is also an issue of discrimination. I find it inconceivable that South Africa would pull out of a tour of India, England, or Australia, under similar or even far worse scenarios. But South Africa, and others might pull out of a tour of Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka. The split in world cricket that this crisis predicts is not of Asia ripped asunder from the rest, but rich and poor divided. No other sport lives with such economic diversity at its highest level, and cricket is failing the test of wealth.

The Pakistan Cricket Board should not have offered a compromise but it has. South Africa's board has time to rethink, for the sake of their own international standing and the future of international cricket. In the middle of it all, Ehsan Mani, Pakistan's man at the ICC, faces the biggest challenge of his career. This is a dangerous moment for cricket and it might well define the future of a sport that aspires to be truly international.

Kamran Abbasi, born in Lahore but raised in Rotherham, is deputy editor of the British Medical Journal.