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PSL final in Lahore unlikely to change perceptions

What will beefed-up security outside the Gaddafi Stadium achieve? AFP

Roadblocks will be set up and traffic diverted. Policemen carrying AK-47s will line the route to the stadium, and snipers will be ready. Security is promised to be at the level provided to a visiting head of state. The country's prime minister and chief of army staff are taking the lead on the security arrangements. Fans will be ordered to get to the venue at least three hours in advance, or risk not being allowed in. The message that Pakistan is a safe place to hold a cricket match needs to be sent out loudly.

Over the past few months, the PCB - in particular Pakistan Super League chairman Najam Sethi - has campaigned admirably and sincerely to ensure the PSL final is held in Pakistan. Sethi has sought assurances from the government, invited ECB chairman Giles Clarke on a fact-finding mission to inspect security arrangements, and provided regular briefings to overseas players in the PSL about internal security in his country. Even during the last fortnight, as a fresh wave of terror attacks tore through the country, Sethi said he would leave the decision up to the Pakistani public, while strongly expressing a desire, over a dozen times, to see the final take place at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. Everywhere he could - on Twitter, late-night talk shows, press conferences, and PR events in the UAE.

His reassurances have been necessary every time - after an attack on media personnel in Karachi last Sunday, a bomb blast during a protest in Lahore the day after, bombings in Quetta and South Waziristan over the next 24 hours, and then a blast at a Sufi shrine in Sindh that killed over 80 people. After that last atrocity, Sethi said that the PSL management and franchises were even more resolute in playing the final in Lahore.

Today, just three days after that announcement, a bomb went off in Defence Housing Authority - one of Lahore's most posh neighbourhoods - ripping through a shopping plaza, killing at least ten people and injuring dozens more.

"The very presence of exhaustive security glaringly points to what some might wish to obscure: if Pakistan was really a safe place for international cricketers, why were such comprehensive arrangements needed in the first place?"

It has become hard to avoid the feeling that the PCB appears to have lost sight of the reason why a Lahore final was so important in the first place. The idea behind hosting high-profile cricket in the country was to demonstrate that Pakistan was a place capable of hosting international cricketers once more. Instead, the focus seems to have moved away from that bottom line, and myopically towards a "final in Lahore" for the sake of ticking a box.

While the central argument in favour of a Lahore final is understandable - it will be the defiant statement that life will go on despite the violence - the irony remains that, for many in Lahore, life will have to come to a complete standstill for that message to be sent.

Let's be clear about a few things: fans in Pakistan will weather any security-related inconveniences to ensure that the Gaddafi Stadium will be overflowing on the day. Cricket-starved enthusiasts will overcome any obstacle to get their fix, and the PSL's desire to give them a taste of what is ultimately their own competition is worth appreciating. There is a very good chance that the game will take place without a hitch, even if it requires the city to be in effective lockdown.

But what does all of this achieve? Does anyone really think this will convince international onlookers that Pakistan provides a safe environment for an international tour? Never mind that presidential-style security for every cricket match is hardly a sustainable way to revive the sport in the country. The very presence of exhaustive security glaringly points to what some might wish to obscure: if Pakistan was really a safe place for international cricketers, why were such comprehensive arrangements needed in the first place?

Even if the PSL final is to be viewed as a small step on a long and winding road, the risk simply outweighs the reward. The Zimbabwe tour of Lahore in 2015 made much bigger strides towards returning cricket to Pakistan, because it involved a touring party remaining in the country for almost two weeks, playing five matches across two formats. The scope of the preparations during that tour included players' journeys to and from the stadium, for training as well as games, and arrangements for their overnight stay.

That good work is not being built upon by hosting the final in Lahore - because nothing new is being achieved. It does not appear to justify the excessive risk being taken either. It is worth remembering that the Zimbabwe tour, generally considered a success, wasn't completely incident-free. A suicide bombing outside the stadium during the second ODI killed two people and injured several others.

In any case, despite all the arrangements being promised for the PSL final, it is likely that most foreign players will opt against making the journey anyway. So far, not a single overseas cricketer has openly stated he will play the final in Lahore. The Federation of International Cricketers' Associations (FICA) continues to warn players against it; also, they might face issues with their insurance arrangements; and Pakistan has had a wretched last few days in its desperate fight against terror. The PSL season is when foreign cricketers are perhaps most in tune with events in Pakistan; the timing of the recent spate of attacks does perceptions about the country no good at all.

If the final is ultimately a contest between 22 domestic players, would the game even be a landmark moment in the return of cricket to Pakistan? Domestic cricket matches, after all, happen up and down the country all year round anyway - remember Sialkot Stallions? Moreover, given that the PSL is Pakistan's biggest domestic competition, would it be wise to dilute the quality of the two teams that will be playing in the final?

"If the final is ultimately a contest between 22 domestic players, would the game even be a landmark moment in the return of cricket to Pakistan? Domestic cricket matches happen up and down the country all year round"

The solution provided by the PSL for that conundrum is, at best, supremely unsatisfying. The two finalists will be allowed to draft in foreign players supposedly willing to make the journey. This attitude appears to consider players as names to throw onto team sheets, rather than people who have been part of the narrative of their team's progress to the final. Say, for example, that Peshawar Zalmi do not qualify for the final, but Darren Sammy - who seems to have supplanted even Shahid Afridi as the face of Peshawar - is willing to make the trip. Can you imagine him playing for any other PSL outfit? Could he put on the shirt of the side that, say, defeated his own in an agonising semi-final simply for the sake of logistics?

Then there is the sagacity of concentrating limited police resources within a radius of a few kilometres around a cricket stadium in a vast city like Lahore, especially at a time when the threat of terrorism is palpable. While there is no doubt that the final will take place in a secure environment, the same cannot be said of the rest of a city which houses over ten million people. With Sethi inviting the country's prime minister, its chief of army staff, and the four provincial chief ministers to the game, there is the threat of even more resources needing to be removed from other parts of the city. The risk of a tragedy happening elsewhere will just as effectively mar whatever feel-good factor the Lahore final could provide. For nothing, not even cricket, is worth a human life.

Even two weeks ago, a Lahore final was not just important for the PSL, it was necessary to retain the trust of the cricket-mad Pakistani public. That was a time when the message that Pakistan was moving towards a safer, more cricket-friendly future could still be reasonably stated. As that opportunity vanishes for yet another year, the reason for a Lahore final seems to have been indelibly obscured. It might be held here anyway, but the issue, along with a lot of other things in Pakistan, is now much more complicated.