International cricket is returning to Pakistan. Or at least a made-up version of it. Pakistan will be playing a World XI of pretty top-of-the-line current stars – Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, Tamim Iqbal, Thisara Perera, Morne Morkel, Samuel Badree, Grant Elliott, George Bailey, Imran Tahir and others – in Lahore, their ‘real home’ for a change, this week, and that is cause for great joy for many, and not just in Pakistan.
Many in that impressive line-up have never been to the country; some have only ever known the playing fields of Sharjah-Dubai-Abu Dhabi as ‘Pakistan’, where they have played bilateral tours or been involved in the Pakistan Super League. Some, like Amla and Paul Collingwood, have actually played Test cricket in Pakistan, while Tahir was born in Lahore back in March 1979.
Tahir, in fact, even played representative and Under-19 cricket in Pakistan before love – not the lure of money or a better life to start with – took him to England first and then South Africa and then to superstardom.
“It would have definitely been very nice to play in Pakistan. I would have been very happy. In front of all my family and relatives. They would have loved it too. It would have given me a high,” Tahir told Wisden India as recently as April 22 this year, when he was in India for the Indian Premier League.
Just four-and-a-half months on, his wish will come true, all things remaining constant.
In our part of the world, that is not something we take for granted. Terror is an omnipresent pall hovering around us, and our cricket.
Colombo, January 1996; Karachi, May 2002; Mumbai, November 2008; Dhaka, July 2016; Kabul, May 2017 … the list is longer, and has hit the India-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Sri Lanka-Bangladesh circle of strife again and again over the years.
To return to Pakistan. In 2017 alone, the country has seen over 20 terror attacks, big and small. In Lahore itself, on February 13, two senior police officials were among 14 people killed in a blast outside the provincial assembly. Less than two months ago, on July 24, at least 20 people were killed in Lahore in a suicide attack carried out by the Tehreek-i-Taliban.
Not that this sort of thing can be wished away, but … now is not the time to brood, not for the cricket fan.
It is a time to hope for what might be, what can be.
“This is a very big thing. We need your prayers and we will open the doors and international teams will come. Pray that we keep our security solid.” – Najam Sethi
Sethi must take a lion’s share of the credit for overseas cricketers coming to Pakistan. Against what many – including this blogger – thought was better judgement, Sethi took the bull by the horns and brought the Pakistan Super League 2017 final to Lahore. There were moments when he appeared desperate and beleaguered, but he pulled it off in the end. He convinced Sammy and Marlon Samuels, Dawid Malan and Chris Jordan, and others to fly in and fly out of Lahore but definitely appear at Gaddafi Stadium that night of March 5.
Yes, he had the backing, the complete support, of the government of Pakistan, and that made the difference in the end. That support continues to be in place for the World XI games.
On Sunday, Malik Mohammad Khan, a spokesperson for the government of Punjab province, was quoted as saying by AFP that authorities were providing “foolproof security for the World XI with a big contingent of security officials deployed”. The report added that parts of the city near the stadium will be cordoned off, with shops and restaurants around the venue to be shut for the duration of the series while spectators will have to pass through multiple security checkpoints.
And Sethi is someone that the world cricket community trusts now. Everyone understands that peace may not be everlasting, but that Pakistan – as a people – will do what it takes to make sure this series goes well. Equally, everyone understands the significance and symbolism of playing in Pakistan.
“Of course the players are getting paid [very handsomely] but if no one felt safe, no one would be going.” – Grant Elliott, World XI player
“There’s a deeper meaning to this tour and the players will really embrace the spirit with which the Independence Cup will be played.” – Andy Flower, World XI coach
The people of Pakistan crave both peace and cricket. All that talk of cricket being a religion in India – well, it’s no different in Pakistan. Which is why India and Pakistan must play bilateral cricket again, as soon as is politically and diplomatically possible. In India, maybe. Perhaps in Pakistan. But certainly in neutral territory to start with.
This standoff benefits no one but the political powers that be in the two countries. One wishes there were an Indian or two in that World XI squad. Unfortunately, the time is probably not right for that yet. But, someday, it might be. Like it was in 2004 and 2006, when the Indians went across for full series – few Indians who were there then will deny that it was an experience to cherish, to treasure, to save for the grandchildren. When the Pakistanis crossed over in 2005 and 2007, one hopes they went back with similar memories too.
For the moment, though, if people in Pakistan are hoping for one of those nights out at the Gaddafi like in the good old days, it’s upon them. This isn’t Pakistan v Australia or Pakistan v Sri Lanka or Pakistan v South Africa, but it is Pakistan v a team of big overseas cricketers and they will take it. And they will hope it’s fun and amicable and disturbance-free.
They must pray for it to be so, like Sethi says, and so must we, people who love cricket. A return to the times when Imran Khan and Javed Miandad and Zaheer Abbas strutted their stuff, or when Wasim Akram and Inzamam-ul-Haq and Saeed Anwar held sway all the way from Lahore to Karachi to Peshawar to Faisalabad.
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It’s more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers,” said Nelson Mandela, one of the finest of men, one of the greatest of leaders. He proved it in the post-apartheid years.
Terror can’t be allowed to kill cricket in one of the places it most belongs to – #CricketIsComingBackHome, after all. If Sethi & Co, with big, big thanks to the International Cricket Council and the men who have gotten together to form the World XI, can give this five-day story a happy ending, the world of sport will be the winner. Just see how much everybody – almost everybody – wants cricket to return to the country, to play cricket in the country. It’s that important.
And for the average Pakistani? The shadow of terror forgotten for a little while at least, and there will be new hope: Pakistan might become a part of the cricket calendar again. That’s the end objective, isn’t it, all things remaining constant?
Pakistan needs cricket and cricket needs Pakistan; Pakistan deserves cricket and cricket deserves Pakistan. And this series will help bring the twain together. It will. It must.