Women usually don’t dance and sing publicly in Pakistan but on Tuesday evening in Lahore hundreds of women were singing and dancing publicly in the Qaddafi Stadium. They were celebrating the return of international cricket to Pakistan after eight very long and very arid years. As the World XI and Pakistan played their first of three matches, many offered prayers and thanksgiving to God. It was as if they had actually defeated the fear of terrorism that has been an integral part of the Pakistani psyche for years and years.
In their unadulterated joy, there was a tinge of anger as well as sadness. Many Pakistanis believe that the presence of 14 famous international players from 7 different countries in Lahore is, really, a defeat not only for the Board of Cricket Control in India or the Narendra Modi government which has laid down the very tough condition of an end to terrorism before any people-to-people ties can be resumed, but also for the people of India.
India was supposed to be the bigger democratic neighbour and therefore was supposed to have understood the travails that the people of Pakistan have faced these past several decades. But the Indian people went along with the Modi’s government unofficial ban on cricketing ties with Pakistan. It hurt even more because Pakistanis remembered how Lahore had opened up their hearts in 2004 when India had last played here.
Former Pakistan cricket captain Amir Sohail has repeatedly said that return of International Cricket is a defeat of India.One can disagree with this poisonous perception but look into the hearts and minds of many Pakistanis and you can see that this poison spread a little more each time India refused to play cricket in Pakistan despite several agreements.
International cricket died a sudden death when the Sri Lanka cricket team was attacked in Lahore in March 2009.Many countries, including India, shunned Pakistan after that attack. Indians and Pakistanis disagree on many, many issues but the thing is, they love to play cricket with each other. You only had to watch the final of the Champions Trophy in England earlier this summer to see that home truth in action.
Unfortunately, India agreed to play with Pakistan in several multilateral events but successive Indian governments refused to play cricket inside Pakistan invoking the “fear of terrorism card”.
Very, very slowly that changed. Zimbabwe agreed to come to Pakistan in 2015 but this short series in Lahore failed to attract other foreign cricket teams. This year the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) decided to hold some matches of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) in Lahore. But only a few weeks before the PSL matches a suicide bomber attacked a procession in Lahore in which many people were killed, including some high police officials. That conclusively put an end to whatever enthusiasm had been generated by Zimbabwe’s end of isolation in 2015.
Many analysts feared that the terrorists had succeeded in tolling the death- knell of the PSL but the Pakistan Cricket Board refused to surrender. The schedule of PSL matches was soon announced in Lahore. This time the civilian government and military authorities joined hands and extended their full support to the PCB. Several foreign players who represented a variety of teams in Dubai and Sharjah during the PSL refused to come to Pakistan. Some, though, took the risk, among them Darren Sammy of the West Indies.
Sammy came to Pakistan and played the PSL final. His team lost but he won the hearts and minds of Pakistanis. He became a darling, a hero, a people’s champion. Moreover, ICC officials were carefully observing security measures taken by the Pakistanis during the PSL final.They seemed satisfied. In retrospect it seems it was a matter of time before they agreed to send a World XI to Pakistan.
South African player Faf du Plessis is leading the World XI team. He seems fully satisfied with the security arrangements. He seems very hopeful that the South African cricket team will visit Pakistan next year. The Pakistan Cricket Board recently convinced Sri Lankans to play a T-20 cricket match in Lahore. They will be here at the end of October in Lahore, as will West Indies. The driest, most arid years are over. Pakistan’s isolation in international cricket has come to an end. After a long, long spell of summer, the rains are finally here.
The Pakistan Cricket Board is making preparations for matches not only in Lahore and Karachi but also in Miranshah.This small town is the headquarters of the North Waziristan Tribal Agency where the Pakistan Army launched a successful operation against militants in 2014. The Army built a big sports complex in Miranshah, including a state of the art Younis Khan Cricket Stadium. Imagine if an international match is played in Miranshah, it will be the biggest ever defeat of terrorism in Pakistan after 9/11. Many Pakistanis believe that they are successfully fighting terrorism through cricket.
Certainly, Lahore has come to a halt these days. Many business centres and hotels around the Qaddafi stadium have been closed for security reasons. Many educational institutions, including the premier FC College University is also shut, having postponed its annual exams for a few days, even as its enormous playground has been turned into a parking lot. Thousands of police and intelligence officials have been seconded to security duty for more than 18 hours a day. Former cricket star Shoaib Akhtar told me that credit must go to PCB chief Najam Sethi, Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif and Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Sethi has especially thanked Bajwa for providing full support to the PCB for the success of this great event. Army spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor was personally present in the Stadium during the Tuesday match to encourage the players. Many people missed cricket legend Imran Khan in this event. Pakistan won its only World Cup under his captaincy in 1992. But Imran was in England and didn’t congratulate the Pakistanis not even once, not even with a tweet, for their fortitude in bearing with this isolation, especially now that it had ended.
I spoke to Pakistani captain Sarfraz Ahmad about the return of international cricket. He was jubilant. He said “you will see at least three foreign teams visiting Pakistan in next few months. My Indian friends should get rid of their stubbornness and also come here, play Cricket with us. If it is difficult for them, at least congratulate us publicly.” I asked him if he agreed that the return of international Cricket was the defeat of India?”
Sarfraz chose his words carefully. “India is playing with us in all ICC events. Mark my words, tomorrow or day after tomorrow India will definitely come and play in Pakistan. Then why this politics today? Let’s play, in India and in Pakistan, and jointly defeat the fear of terrorism.”