Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


The End – On Cricket, Passion, Religion and Tragedy.

6 Jul 2010

After 12 straight losses against Australia, having last beat them in the first half of 2009, Pakistan finally managed to turn up the gas in yesterday’s T20 at Edgbaston, Birmingham. This is Pakistan’s ‘home’ series against Australia, being played at a neutral venue because of security concerns in Pakistan. While Australia has refused to land in Pakistan for more than a decade now, other teams met breaking point when gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in March 2009 in an unprecedented, unpredicted, monster of a terrorist attack. That was that for international cricket in Pakistan for a while. The International Cricket Council (ICC) just announced hosts for multilateral events for the next five years and Pakistan is predictably missing from the list. The episode has been a gruesome reminder of the pariah status that Pakistani soil has bought itself.

For now England is our new home ground, thanks largely to the great crowd support the team saw at the World T20 victory in England, June of ’09. Cricinfo writes in their tour diary after yesterday’s game:

It’s sad that Pakistan won’t be hosting any international teams at home for the foreseeable future. But if Monday’s Twenty20 in Birmingham is any indication, they could do worse than making England a de facto base in the next couple of years.

The Edgbaston ground wasn’t quite full – substantial rebuilding works played a part in that – but of the 12,000 or so fans it’s fair to say 80-90% were supporting Pakistan. Birmingham has one of the biggest Pakistani populations in the UK – indeed the previous lord mayor of the city, Abdul Rashid, was originally from Pakistan – and they can expect similar support when they hit Leeds for the second Test.

As is obvious to many, cricket is not just a game in Pakistan, not at all. It has been called religion, and while that’s a metaphor, to say that it is an essential component of Pakistani cultural is as real as you can get. From being the old adage to fight of the British in the field, to being the source of our only modern day heroes, to being our primary source of entertainment, to being the one thing that people say brings Pakistanis together under one flag, to the cricket boys will play on every third street corner and all dusty empty plots in the crackling heat. Cricket is in Pakistani blood.

Politicians have used the sport for the famed ‘cricket diplomacy’ which saw its brightest moment this decade, but fizzled after the Mumbai attack in November 08 and the subsequent attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. I wrote a paper on it this year and wanted to quote some bits I really liked.

Expectations from the 2004 Indian tour of Pakistan, and the two annual tours following that, were unrealistically high. Bandyopadhyay argues that the tour of 2004 represented a culmination of the confidence building from both sides. It was in the Indian government’s interests to let the cricket go forward, as not doing so would have “invited questions” about its intentions. In fact, he argues further, not only did Delhi okay the tour, they utilized the cricket “as a tool for forthcoming election propaganda”. The Prime Minister’s opponents, Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party then cashed in by visiting Pakistan and supporting the team at the venues (1662). Prime Minister Vajpayee told the cricketers “to not only win the matches in Pakistan but also win the hearts of the people there” (qtd. in Bandyopadhyay 1663). Bandyopadhyay notes that India had previously used the deliberate exclusion of cricket from bilateral ties to make its point, which made the whole event rather complicated. But governments and cricket boards alike reckoned the 2004 tour to finally get rid of that tension (1664). It is here that we begin to see the first signs of what governments thought the tour could do for them. On the other side of the border, Shaharyar Khan, former Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board and seasoned diplomat, labeled it the “most important, highly publicized and politically important cricket tour in Pakistan Cricket’s history” (qtd. in Bandyopadhyay 1667). And as the Wall Street Journal reports, President Musharraf in Islamabad, invited both cricket teams over and announced with much fervor that, “both Pakistan and India have weapons of mass destruction” (Varadarajan). This was referring not to the nuclear weapons both sides have, but to Shoaib Akhtar and Sachin Tendulkar, the former Pakistani, the latter Indian, both destructive cricketers. Croft recalls that merely a year later Musharraf, in the aftermath of his visit to India to watch a one-day cricket match, was proud to announce “a breakthrough” in the peace process. His cabinet talked of the resolution of Kashmir in the near future, and he got together with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to declare that “the peace process was now irreversible” (Croft 1056). Sporting tours of any kind seldom get such political involvement, but this is cricket in South Asia.

And later in the paper, I talked about the fan contact cricket created between Paksitanis and Indians in the same timeframe.

The real value of the tours from 2004 – 07 was the fan contact they created. Both sides created a special kind of visa they referred to as a “cricket visa” as Varadarajan reports.

The phenomenal hospitality the Indian fans received in Pakistan was memorable, and the public mood was unlike any other tour in the history of Indo-Pak bilateral cricket (Varadarajan; Crick 74). Both teams engaged in cultural interaction beyond the cricket field, as cricketers from both sides met students, went to orphanages, did charity work, and had some good publicity all round (Crick 74). Varadarajan equated this change of public mood to “a genuine political optimism”. Crick builds on this further, and argues that the citizen contact on both sides help dispel stereotypes about the  ‘other’. Most fans from the 21st century were not around during partition, and hence have no real image of what is across the border, and cricket can help them move beyond “such stark views and desire peace and development more than hostility”.  The cricket provided a chance for both countries to see when their team was applauded for good cricket in their host country. It was estimated that 20’000 Indians crossed over to Pakistan in 2004, and that and subsequent tours gave many fans the chance to visit their ancestral homes, which they were estranged from since Partition (Crick 73). Sharhyar Khan also says that some fans “were given such generous hospitality that they returned home as ambassadors for Pakistan” (qtd in Crick 73; Naess-Holm 55). Khan’s argument is really about what the people of both countries actually wanted. He feels that cricket gave fans the chance to show the “real public opinion”, in response to what he calls the “manufactured public opinion” in speeches, editorials and the media (qtd. in Crick 73).  Naess-Holm says that cricket gave the single largest window for people to talk to one another in five decades (56). On a lighter note, cricketers also came together for mutual benefit. An example was The Shaz and Waz Show, starring former Indian star Ravi Shastri, and Pakistani legend Wasim Akram, a humorous cricket show that aired for a few years (Banyopadhyay 1661). It is things like this Banyopadhyay argues, than can help cricket move from “a metaphor of war to a vehicle of peace” (1661). The positive effects of cricket at a citizen level are what actually made it such a game changer. So the sudden end of this immensely successful period of cricket diplomacy is all the more surprising.

Was the attack on the Sri Lankan Cricket team in Lahore Pakistan’s 9/11? You say no, and I’ll say maybe. The scale of the bloodshed was of course, lower, and Pakistan has seen worse attacks, the recent ones on the Data Darbar and the popular Pakistani Sufi Islam that it is revered by is probably a good example, but at the time, when the military operations by the Pakistan Army weren’t hardly as driven or severe, and when (like all days in the past), life seemed safer, the Lahore tragedy against the Sri Lankans was symbolic. The imagery finally hit everybody in Pakistan.

Everybody, politicians, journalists, cricketers, administrators would tell the world that cricket is safe, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Cricket was never a target and so life could be normal alongside everything. But that changed.

I quote Kamran Abbasi’s post This is the end from Pak Spin the day of the attacks.

Today’s attack on Sri Lanka’s cricketers is a despicable act, a coward’s agenda. Nobody should lose their life over a game of cricket, and no sportsman, official, or spectator should be injured in pursuit of the game they love.

The sole purpose of this barbaric act is a craving for the oxygen of publicity. There can be little political or strategic mileage to be gained by an attack on sportsmen. Indeed, we can only hope that such mindless violence will deeply damage the cause of the perpetrators, and precipitate their rapid downfall.

Brave Sri Lanka did not deserve this insult, and all sympathies are with their players and the officials who have been injured. Questions will inevitably be asked about the security arrangements, despite the regrettable deaths of several policemen. How could such a high profile tour have been allowed to have been ruined in this way? What do Pakistani security guarantees count for?

The least of the consequences of this disaster is that those who have advocated the continuation of international cricket in Pakistan – including me – have been proved wrong. No international team will now visit Pakistan, and the Pakistan Cricket Board should voluntarily arrange all future tours at neutral venues for the next year, may be longer.

This the darkest day in the history of Pakistan cricket and it occurred in a pleasant suburb of Lahore, a once great city of gardens and tranquility, not far from my own family home in Pakistan.

This is the end.

For this reason, the World T20 victory three months later meant that much more to Pakistan. It was Pakistan’s second world title, perhaps lower in sporting stature to the ’92 victory, with regards to the format of the game played, but Ramiz Raja, former captain and member of the ’92 squad wrote a Cricinfo article titled ‘Bigger than 1992’ for those reasons. It is why Imran Khan is a symbol of hope, and one of Pakistan’s biggest heroes to date.

But the question remains. Was it the end?