This year in February, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) held its Pakistan Super League (PSL) 20-20 men’s cricket festival in the UAE with a million-dollar budget. Big players from all over the cricket world took part. The purpose was persuading international players to play in Pakistan. Chairman of the PCB Executive Board, Najam Sethi, declared the next PSL final would be played at Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore.
Foreign teams had declined to play in Pakistan after a Sri Lankan side was attacked by terrorists in Lahore in 2009. In May 2002, a New Zealand team abandoned its Pakistan tour after a suicide bomber tried to kill them in Karachi. Fear spread in the cricket world; but Pakistan was successful in persuading Sri Lanka to visit in March 2009. The team was subjected in Lahore to a TV-covered attack by terrorists from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, still active across Pakistan.
It’s interesting Sethi didn’t suggest Karachi but Lahore. It could be that Karachi is more troubled than Lahore today. But the planning behind the 2009 attack had been done by the mastermind of 9/11, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. This fact keeps the IMF team away, holding meetings with Pakistan’s finance minister in the UAE.
But Pakistan needs to open up to cricket. Its cricketers are remarkably talented. The PCB must persuade the world of cricket that it is safe to visit Pakistan. Sadly, the non-cricket-playing world of politics isn’t happy about how Pakistan has dealt with its homegrown enemy, with a global al Qaeda and Islamic State nexus.
Twelve terrorists attacked the Sri Lankans, outside Gaddafi Stadium, with rockets, hand grenades and Kalashnikovs. The attack lasted 25 minutes before the terrorists escaped, without the kidnap they’d planned, injuring six team members, killing seven police personnel. The late Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, said, “The attack was carried out by the same people who executed the Mumbai attacks.” Taseer knew what he was saying because Lashkar was taken by al Qaeda in 1996 and Lashkar-e-Taiba was “connected”, dating back to Hafiz Saeed’s Saudi days. Taseer was killed by a “blasphemy” fanatic in 2011. His son was later kidnapped from Lahore and taken to Afghanistan, without security institutions having a clue.
Before her assassination, Benazir Bhutto revealed the attack on her Karachi procession in 2007 was carried out by “Abdul Rehman Sindhi, an al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant”. She was killed in December 2007, al Qaeda declaring “an American asset” had been disposed of.
Pakistan doesn’t punish its terrorists — but aspires to normality in the cricket world. In 2015, a Zimbabwe side visited Lahore, returning safely. The security was the toughest anyone had ever seen. But negative publicity will stand in the way of making Gaddafi Stadium the venue of PSL when the world realises Hafiz Saeed has led Eid prayers there for eight years. Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, rescued a dangerously undermined state with his Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the Taliban. Pakistan’s National Action Plan — ironically shortened to NAP — has yet to be implemented fully by Pakistan while its friends abroad join India to ask for a number of terrorists on the UN list, still swaggering around in the country just because they can curse India better than anyone else.
The good augury is, amidst bilateral tension, writers in India and Pakistan advise returning to normalcy. Cricket benefits both sides. Given the current overheated phase, cricketers won’t be safe playing cross-border cricket in India or Pakistan. But the game can be rescued if the two states cool down a bit. Cricket can heal; it shouldn’t be killed with the ugly bludgeon of nationalism.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Cure By Cricket’)