Politics of cricket:
A setback to Pakistan

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By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

It is very rare in the long history of the game of cricket that a team pulled out of a match abruptly when the toss was up, leaving the hosts astounded and red-faced. Minutes later, we would know that the New Zealand cricket team visiting Pakistan and playing its first match in Rawalpindi had received a ‘credible’ terror attack threat.

The Pakistani hosts had done everything to protect and secure the visitors to project the image of the country as safe for international cricket. Since March 2009, when terrorists attacked the visiting Sri Lanka cricket team, foreign teams refused to play in Pakistan. Even the Pakistanis felt too insecure to hold Pakistan Super League matches within the country.

In consultation with the International Cricket Control Board, Pakistan held its host matches in the UAE, including the PSL for over a decade. Meanwhile, the image of Pakistan suffered gravely, as a country where terrorist groups had established fiefdoms in the areas bordering Afghanistan, and from where they terrorized the civilian population in the cities by sending suicide bombers. 
It took a lot of time, effort and sacrifices for Pakistan— about 70,000 civilians and 15,000 security personnel killed— to defeat militant groups. However, very little seems to have changed about the perceptions of the country. Pakistan remained somewhat isolated from international sports competitions and tourism. It was after a lot of persuasion that Sri Lanka sent its team, the first in a decade, to visit Pakistan in 2019. It was followed by the visit of the West Indies team to showcase to the world that Pakistan could provide security and was open for hosting international cricket on its soil again. The two visits served as a morale boaster, and so did arranging all PSL matches, which include many international players, this year in Pakistan. 

Pakistan skipper Babar Azam (left) and New Zealand captain Ton Latham stand with the trophy for the ODI series but New Zealand’s unilateral decision of abandoning the game deprived the cricket fans the series.

Getting the New Zealand cricket team to agree to play in Pakistan was a big win for the country in normalizing its image and rebuilding the confidence of cricket playing nations. Against many diplomatic efforts and goodwill, the sudden departure of the New Zealand team came as a rude shock to the entire Pakistani nation from Prime Minister Imran Khan, a world-renowned cricketer himself, to ordinary people in the street. Grief-stricken and angry, Pakistanis have been asking themselves one question: what really happened, and who did it? 
Pakistani authorities employed every means possible to find the answer by investigating the source of the threat, its credibility and how the New Zealand cricket Board made the decision to call off the tour. Pakistan has said that the email in question came from India, using a virtual private network with an IP location address of Singapore. The Information Minister of Pakistan, Fawad Chaudhry claimed that the team also received threatening emails even before landing in Pakistan. 
That the ‘threat’ came from India would be hardly surprising to Pakistanis. But what shocked the country was the precipitousness of the New Zealanders in calling off the game, and not even getting into a huddle with Pakistan to find out how genuine the threat was before quitting the tour. It may take Pakistan a very long time to recover from this setback. 
If that was not enough, England and Australia, who were due to visit Pakistan later this year, have also cancelled their tours, rubbing salt on fresh wounds. The question is, what threat did they face?

What is happening to Pakistani cricket is quite the opposite of what the ‘gentleman’s game’ stands for. The deep culture of cricket cultivates values of honour, integrity, and mutual respect, and above all, transparency in the field among players. Not too many other sports can claim the softness and cultured conduct of the cricket. That layer seems to be vanishing away. 
Cricketing among playing nations remains bound by prior agreements and scheduling, and it involves huge expenses and expectations of massive incomes to sustain nationwide facilities and to pay the players. Pakistan has suffered big losses and has been doing so for many years. It is in anguish and distressed– but calls for fair play seem to be falling on deaf ears. 

(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @RasulRais)