Najam Sethi, chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board’s executive committee – and by extension the Pakistan Cricket Board and, by further extension, Pakistan as a nation – has been campaigning for the final of the Pakistan Super League to be held in Lahore.
That match is now less than a week away: This Sunday. At some stage between now and then, a final word will be out – Lahore or, failing that, Dubai. Sethi and Co. could still swing things.
The question is: Why?
It’s easy to see and understand where Sethi & Co is coming from. Terrorism and security concerns. No touring teams (barely). PCB’s finances hit. The country’s very passionate cricket fans deprived. And, crucially, the country’s image – that could do with some untarnishing. Proving that a big cricket event can be hosted within its borders of the country, in one of the big cities, would be a big step in that direction.
When Sethi announced it, and through his campaign since, one wondered what the point was. How many overseas cricketers would actually make the trip? Expectedly, the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations, and commonsense too, suggested that they stay away.
When we caught up with Tony Irish, the FICA executive chairman, in early January, he had said, “In the past, the consistent advice from the security experts has been that risks to foreign players and teams of playing in Pakistan are excessive and unmanageable.”
The last few days have only made it worse. In an Express Tribune blog last week, Muhammad Mustafa Moeen called the security situation in the country “the worst it has been in years and nobody can deny the fact that Pakistan is possibly vulnerable to more attacks in the near future”. It doesn’t matter if it’s Lahore or Karachi or Islamabad, or whether the army and the government will move heaven and earth to ensure a smooth PSL final. Would you be willing to play cricket in an obviously unsafe environment? Are a few extra bucks worth it?
Yet, Sethi has come out almost every single day over the last many days, on TV, in articles, on social media, with Giles Clarke – almost like the gallant captain of a sinking ship, fighting a battle he probably can’t win.
Sethi is a much-respected man with an admirable body of work in journalism, politics and publishing. But in his latest avatar, as the chairman of the PCB and the PSL, he might have bitten off more than he can chew. However, the man is sticking it out and giving it his all.
But … to what end? If things had been quiet in Pakistan of late and the overseas players of the two teams that qualify for the final had agreed to make the quick trip, that would have been a different matter. How different, though?
Question 1: If the original plan of flying in and flying out the players had been pulled off – and say they still pull it off somehow – what will it prove? Only that the entire might of the establishment in Pakistan can ensure a few hours of trouble-free cricket. Not enough to convince another country to send their cricket team across for a week or two, which is obviously the end aim.
Question 2: Assuming that doesn’t happen, and a final is hosted with only locals and a handful of non-Pakistanis (maybe), which is what Sethi has been booming on about, what – again – will it prove? The way I see it, it will be more of the same. There is enough cricket played in the country anyway. Once the overseas recruits go out, the PSL final could well look like Karachi Blues v Karachi Whites playing the final of the 2016 edition of the National T20 Cup at Multan Cricket Stadium. What, really, will change?
Nothing, and that’s the problem. And the shame.
Pakistan needs cricket. Pakistan deserves cricket. But things are what they are.
In this month alone, on February 13, a suicide bombing in Lahore killed and injured around 100 people. On February 16, in Sehwan, a historic city close to Hyderabad (the Pakistan one), there was another suicide bombing inside a shrine when a post-prayer ritual was being carried out – reports said close to 100 people were killed and around 300 injured. The South Asia Terrorism Portal lists nine other blasts in Pakistan this month, with 19 listed as dead and 55 injured, many seriously. The list doesn’t include the last incident on February – another blast in Lahore (called a gas cylinder accident by Punjab’s law minister), around 40 people killed or injured. In another report, the Pakistani army claims to have killed around 100 terrorists in the past few days.
To put it mildly, the country isn’t cricket friendly right now. Much as supporters of the game there and outsiders – like your blogger – with an abiding interest in, and even love for, cricket and cricketers from Pakistan would want it to be different. Please – I am not trying to sit in India and demonise Pakistan. Those of us who live in this part of the world are almost inured to this sort of violence at some level. India is hardly trouble free. Yet I say that the threat perception in travelling to Pakistan is not misplaced.
Hosting the PSL final in Lahore under the circumstances, by some means or another, will achieve little or nothing for Pakistan or their cricket.