Pakistan board assures highest level of security to Australia
The Pakistan Cricket Board has guaranteed the highest levels of security to Australia for their tour in March. If it goes ahead the visit will be the first by an Australian side in nearly a decade, although the ICC has hinted that a neutral venue option may be explored.
Even though the tour is still two months away, concern has been growing over its status following a year of considerable political turmoil in Pakistan. The assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, in Rawalpindi on Thursday, has only deepened the crisis, resulting in violence across the country and a virtual three-day shutdown of activity.
General elections were scheduled to be held on January 8, but there is a chance they might now be postponed in the wake of the assassination. If they are postponed closer to the time Australia is to arrive, touring Pakistan will become a less attractive proposition.
Cricket Australia maintains that it will fulfill its commitments in Pakistan but that no decision will be taken until the eve of the tour, after a security delegation has submitted its findings. The delegation is expected to arrive in Pakistan in February but Nasim Ashraf, the PCB chairman, insists that player safety will not be an issue.
Ashraf told the Age that Australia would be given state-level security for their tour of three Tests and five ODIs. "Touring teams are routinely given the same level of security of visiting heads of state, and we would make every extra effort to make sure the Australians are safe," Ashraf said. "That would be above that of visiting prime ministers.
"If you look at the history of our country, sporting teams have never been targeted, even during periods of great political turmoil. We are hoping and expecting the Australian tour to go ahead. The tragic events of this week have caused a state of mourning and shock, but I expect that in a week or so things will begin to settle down and we can go back to planning as normal."
Significantly, perhaps, the ICC spoke on the matter as well, chief executive Malcolm Speed hinting that a neutral option might be explored should unrest continue. Speed, who was at the MCG for the first Test between Australia and India, said the ICC could attempt to persuade the PCB to shift the series to a neutral venue, or even to Australia, if the situation warranted.
"Security can't be guaranteed anywhere," Speed said. "Cricket is played in some dangerous countries. Wherever possible we would like to see cricket tours that are scheduled to go ahead.
"It has been a long time since Australia has played in Pakistan. There will be many Pakistani fans who are waiting for this great Australian team to come and play against their team.
"We could have a counselling role about [neutral venues]. The problem with playing neutral series is that the home fans don't get to see it, and from a commercial perspective it doesn't work as well. We just need to let things play out."
The Pakistan board had ruled out the prospect of the series being played at a neutral venue, but that was before the death of Bhutto. After it, and the ensuing turmoil it has unleashed, the situation no longer remains the same.