In the grand scheme of things, cricket remains a pastime but there are moments when it becomes incredibly important. New Zealand’s cancellation of Pakistan tour, announced from their camp situated in Rawalpindi on Friday, was that moment. The subtext of Pakistan’s cricket woes is marred by security threats and fixing scandals. But for a battle hardened nation that has played cricket in exile for a decade and yet produced world beating performances, cricket is not just a matter of life and death. It is slightly more important than that. New Zealand cancelling the tour minutes before the toss felt like a punch in the gut to millions of Pakistanis.
Should New Zealand have backed out?
Strictly speaking, the New Zealand government reserved the right to recall their cricketing team whenever they wish. The players’ security is of paramount importance and remains incontestable. However, the threat level cited by New Zealand decision makers was vague. New Zealand’s refusal to share the threat and its origins with Pakistani counterparts is disappointing, to put it mildly.
Backing out unilaterally — despite assurances from the highest levels of Pakistani government — signals lack of trust and sportsmanship. More so, Pakistan extended every courtesy possible from its security apparatus. It had arranged Presidential level security and obtained security clearance from experts sent by New Zealand cricket authorities. Having ensured an all encompassing security passage, Pakistan had done its part. The preceding successful tours by South Africa, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Pakistan Super League (PSL) demonstrate the effectiveness of those arrangements.
Moreover, security of New Zealand players was of equal importance for the Pakistan government, if not higher. The security agencies could not afford a repeat of the 2009 attack on Sri Lankan cricket and the consequent humiliation that would have ensued. It is in light of this that New Zealand’s unilateral departure from the series stings and appears unjustified.
All things considered, this didn’t necessitate a unilateral withdrawal. Pakistan’s top brass and security agencies have demonstrated readiness, capability and agility to ensure a safe cricketing environment.
Pakistan’s uncompromising efforts merited a reciprocation in form of trust and sportsmanship by the New Zealand cricket board and government, but none of that materialised. Emancipation of cricket in Pakistan deserves unflinching commitment from top test playing nations. But the opposite happened. In testing circumstances during the 7/7 London bombings, Australian cricket team continued to duel England for the Ashes. Pakistan toured India in 98/99 despite RSS warning of consequences.
The geopolitics element
The government’s response to NZ team’s decision, like that of many commentators, was that it was an international conspiracy to discredit Pakistan. Since the precise nature of this conspiracy is unknown, one can only speculate about the ‘geopolitics’ of it. From an intelligence standpoint, it is entirely possible that our hostile neighbour fed or leaked information to New Zealand which led to a cancellation. There remains likelihood that this was done in response to Pakistan’s theatrics and muscle flexing in Afghanistan. After all, inter agency wars spiral into all kinds of trouble. If precedent were to guide us, this seems a higher likelihood, given attempts to sabotage Pakistan’s domestic security and reputation in the past.
Pakistan’s uncompromising efforts merited a reciprocation in form of trust and sportsmanship by the New Zealand cricket board and government, but none of that materialised.
In reality, all of that remains conjecture. No evidence or indication, other than the actual cancellation has come to light. A source close to high quarters in Rawalpindi remains adamant this blow could’ve been struck by an adversary on the international affairs chessboard.
Did we fall prey to our own situation?
In this moment of despair for cricket fans and millions of Pakistanis, it is important to be self critical. In the run up to this series, the region has been jolted by Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. This has emboldened Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the extremist variant of Taliban in Afghanistan. In the last month alone, there have been several attacks on security personnel and civilians in Quetta, Peshawar and Waziristan. In strategic warfare, there are no accidents and it is clearer that the TTP aims to dismantle the semblance of normalcy Pakistan has attained recently.
Despite the casualties, Pakistan’s security elite continue to champion an amnesty for the TTP. The terror laden environment was possibly one major factor that compounded worries over security threats.
The security atmosphere had been less than ideal while the Kiwis were practicing. In light of this, the threat notification rolled out by the office of AIG Rawalpindi worsened the matter. The notification dated, 13TH September, a mere three days ago titled ‘threat advisory regarding tour of New Zealand Cricket team & Chehlum of Imam Hussain’ seems to have sealed the fate of New Zealand tour. Once again, it is crucial to see this from New Zealand’s vantage point.
While the notification may seem ordinary to the common Pakistani, its impact might have been humongous on the New Zealand government’s risk assessment. The New Zealand decision makers and cricketers are not desensitised to routine security alerts, which have been the norm inside our borders. The combination of a visibly unstable security landscape and threat alert directly linked to the New Zealand team is potent enough to spark fears in any visiting entourage.
All things considered, this didn’t necessitate a unilateral withdrawal. Pakistan’s top brass and security agencies have demonstrated readiness, capability and agility to ensure a safe cricketing environment. Their track record has been fool proof in that regard.
Unfortunately, last ditch efforts by the Prime Minister bore no fruit either. The tour may have ended prematurely but the responsibility to make visitors and potential visitors feel safe rests on Pakistan Cricket Board and government’s shoulders. Only this time, they must do a better job.