Ever since the pandemic began, Pakistani cricketers have played more away games than anyone else. For them, playing at home would have been a huge opportunity to appease their fans but it was not to be. Both New Zealand and England have withdrawn from their respective tours to the country citing security reasons. It is also believed that the New Zealand team received a threat which made them take this difficult decision.
Understandably, PCB chairman Ramiz Raja and captain Babar Azam expressed regret. Raja even urged the Pakistan team to avenge this betrayal during the upcoming T20 World Cup. “We go in the World Cup now and where we had one team in our target -- our neighbours [India], they now add two more teams -- New Zealand and England. So pick up the strength and develop a mindset that we are not going to lose because you didn't do right with us and we will avenge that in the ground,” he said.
While Raja’s comments may seem fair to a cricket fan in Lahore, they do not make sense when looked at from a broader perspective. Taliban has taken over their neighbours Afghanistan. It is no secret that they are being helped by the Pakistan army. In such a volatile environment, no team would want to risk their life and limb for a cricket match.
The wounds inflected on the international cricket community in 2009 are still fresh. On March 3rd, the Sri Lankan team were on their way to reach Lahore’s Gaddafi stadium to play the third day of the second Test. As soon as they were about to arrive at their destination, 12 militants started shooting which killed six Pakistani security officers and two civilians. Six Sri Lankan cricketers – Kumar Sangakkara, Thilan Samaraweera, Chaminda Vaas, Suranga Lakmal, Ajantha Mendis and Tharanga Paranavitana – were injured.
In an interview with Sky Sports’ Michael Atherton, Sangakkara recalled the horror. “We hid in the aisle of the bus, everyone on top of each other really, and then the shooting started. They shot the bus as many times they could, threw grenades, and even fired a rocket launcher. And for some reason, I don’t know why, we all survived. Thilan was injured, I got hit on the shoulder with a lot of shrapnel. Ajantha Mendis was injured. Tharanga Paranavitana gets up bleeding from his chest and collapses saying he’s been shot,” he said.
In the recent past, international cricket has resumed in Pakistan with teams like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and South Africa all playing matches there. Several foreign players have also safely played their T20 tournament – PSL. Pakistan also toured England last year when the pandemic was at its peak. They withstood strict bio-bubbles to help ECB back on its feet and it’s understandable to hope for reciprocity.
What the PCB needs to understand though is that no team has a vendetta against them. Everyone respects Babar Azam’s fluent strokes and Shaheen Afridi’s fiery bouncers. The same cannot be said about their government which is not cracking down on terrorism like they should. Their information minister Fawad Choudhary even blamed India for the cancellation of the series against New Zealand. “The email was sent from an associated device in India using VPN, showing IP address location of Singapore,” he said.
Not one cricketer or administrator spoke about Taliban. Instead of living in a delusional world, PCB should introspect and find viable ways to survive as a cricketing nation. Though they have some attractive players in the form of Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Shaheen Afridi, their performances in the recent past have not been consistent.
The era where people used to fear facing bowlers like Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis is over. Already, players are finding it difficult to stay in bio-bubbles. It’s not fair to expect them to play passionately after receiving legitimate threats. Cricket will suffer, yes. But the losses are not worth risking the lives of several talented cricketers.