In 1996, Gaddafi Stadium Lahore was the scene of Sri Lankan cricket’s greatest triumph. Beating Australia in the final of the World Cup meant that they had finally gotten rid of their status as cricketing minnows. Not only did they win, but they did so playing exhilarating cricket which won the support of neutrals everywhere.
What added extra spice to the final (not that it needed it), was the fact that earlier in the tournament, Australia had refused to play against Sri Lanka in Colombo because of security concerns.
Ironically, it was Sri Lanka’s history of having to deal with reluctant tourists that influenced their decision to play in Pakistan, when India pulled out of their tour after the Mumbai atrocities.
It was a decision much appreciated by Pakistani cricket fans, which had been starved of cricket for the last couple of years, as foreign countries became increasingly reluctant to visit Pakistan. The biggest humiliation had been the postponement and then cancellation of the Champions Trophy. This would have been the first multi-nation tournament to be held in Pakistan since the 1996 world cup and the first such event to be staged exclusively by Pakistan.
So inevitably the Sri Lankans were on their way to Gaddafi Stadium when their team bus was attacked by terrorists.
Pervez Hoodhboy’s article on the use of Urdu and Islam (not in a good way) to bind Pakistan has been passed around on e-mail and much discussed on the Pakistani blogosphere. However as Ahsan rightly pointed out, it wasn’t just Zia or Zulfiqar Bhutto who started Islamisation. Decisions to use Islam as a means of keeping the country together were taken at independence.
One thing missing from that analysis is the impact of cricket. Although not a deliberate government strategy, this has been an essential part of national identity for at least the last twenty-five years.
Just as Sri Lanka winning the World Cup in 1996 was huge for that war-torn nation, Pakistan winning the previous World Cup in 1992 was equally monumental.
Also, just as India has had a proud tradition of having Muslims and Sikhs in their cricket team, the Pakistani cricket team has shown glimpses of a functioning multi-cultural society somewhere in the future. The leading spinner is a Hindu from Karachi and before he converted to Islam, the best batsman was from a Punjabi Christian family. Younis Khan whose recent appointment as captain was universally applauded, is a Pathan from Karachi.
The cricket team did reflect some of the problems with Pakistani society. People using connections to get their kids through trials; 22 year olds passing themselves of as 18 so that they could play in the national U-19 team; administrative incompetence in developing players and facilities etc. The biggest scourge was match-fixing and the constant speculation that several players were in the pay of bookmakers. However even this had been largely fixed and while the current team isnâ€™t the best, they are thought to be clean.
All of these problems where among those of what you would expect in a developing country. On balance the cricket team was a meritocratic institution and reflected the country in a good light.
This isnâ€™t the end of cricket in Pakistan. The national team will continue overseas tours and will play their â€˜homeâ€™ matches in the Middle East, England and possibly Malaysia. For all you know they may even win the World 20/20 in England this summer.
Amazing as it sounds given the number of attacks in the last two years, this will cause a loss of innocence though. I have to admit I was shocked when I heard the news. Like Kamran Abbasi, all of us who argued that international teams should continue to play in Pakistan, as violence was no more random than in say London have been proven wrong.
Even before this there had been a sense of dissatisfaction with cricket especially in the urban centres. However this was thought to be temporary – given the underlying strength of the game and more cynically, that cricket was still be a lucrative profession in a poor country; I imagine cricket will survive, but its not guaranteed anymore.
Finally, after every one of these attacks I hold out the hope that it will prompt the Pakistani media and â€˜intelligentsiaâ€™ in general to acknowledge the problem of terrorism in Pakistan. Unfortunately it seems that just as before, there will be denial, blame will be placed upon nefarious outside forces for no other reason then India blamed Pakistan for the Mumbai attacks and life will go on. So it goes.
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Filed in: India,Pakistan,South Asia,Sri Lanka