The last minute, unilateral cancellation of the cricket series in Pakistan by New Zealand Cricket Board on 17 September without any advance intimation has outraged cricket-crazy Pakistanis and stunned cricket-commenting players across the ICC world.
The fact that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern so blithely rejected Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s plea to reconsider her decision to pull out the Black Caps from Islamabad without providing a shred of evidence to corroborate the alleged terrorist threat, except to say that “Five Eyes” – an Intel Group representing NZ, Australia, USA, UK and Canada – had sourced the threat, has added insult to injury.
However, four days after the event (on 22 September), NZ Interpol revealed that it received an email on 18 September (a day after the tour was cancelled) from a certain “HamzaAfridixxx” purporting to represent a terrorist organisation that was threatening an attack on the NZ team.
The Pakistan government insists there was no credible threat and its safety protocols at “Presidential level” of state security were firmly in place. Its investigations into the email in question trace it to sources in India and link it with a “5th Generation War” campaign in the Indian media to “alert” the visiting teams to “threats” from terrorists in order to deter them from visiting Pakistan, thereby hurting its efforts to project a soft image abroad.
Unfortunately, the announcement by the England and Wales Cricket Board to cancel short tours of their men’s and women’s national teams next month to Pakistan for the sake of the “physical and mental health” of their players is mealy-mouthed and hypocritical. The Pakistan national team recently toured both New Zealand and the UK amidst the most suffocating covid-restrictions to enable both hosts to benefit financially from their participation. Some reciprocal support and decency should have been forthcoming at the very least.
The waters have been muddied by “Ehsanullah Ehsan”, ex spokesman of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, who had earlier declared on his Facebook page that there was a credible threat from the TTP. He has stuck to his guns after the Pakistan government claimed his Facebook page was fake. Unfortunately, two “threat advisories” of the Punjab government days before the match on 17 September noting security threats to the NZ series have come to light, lending some weight to the fear of the visitors.
Since the ‘Five Eyes’ Intel hasn’t been shared, we can only presume that NZ read the various public pronouncements on the media and thought better to be safe than sorry in the event of any actual attack. Certainly, PM Ardern would have been hauled over the coals at home if the Black Caps had come in harms way.
The Pakistan Cricket Board’s anguish and frustration can be understood. Since 2009 when a terrorist attack in Lahore on the Sri Lanka team led to a refusal by international cricket teams to tour Pakistan, a whole generation of cricket crazies has grown up without the joy and excitement of watching their icons in action at home, in the process depriving the PCB of a significant source of funds for developing cricket infrastructure. A breakthrough was made from 2015-2018 when Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, ICC Eleven and the West Indies were persuaded to come and play in Lahore and Karachi. Incremental successes were notched up every year until the prospect of full-fledged top-team tours was within grasp. Now we must begin from scratch again.
It need not have been this way at all. If NZ had shared intel in time, or postponed the matches by a few days pending further investigations, we might have been able to prove the authenticity or otherwise of the threat, enabling us to continue the matches or cancel them without acrimony. The decision of the ECB is even more infuriating. The excuse they have made makes a mockery of the rules and rigours of the sporting game. It betrays a lack of decent reciprocity and overdose of arrogant unaccountability. Both decisions have naturally evoked bitter memories of colonialism and racism among Pakistanis and triggered conspiracy theories involving Big Three injustice and Indian hegemony at the ICC.
The PCB’s response has been delivered more in bitter anger than in calm deliberation. It had worked hard to bring NZ and ECB on board, with Australia, South Africa and West Indies to follow. But its new chairman had barely assumed office when he was suddenly faced with this extraordinary challenge. The pressure from the public and government to slide into shrill nationalist mode overwhelmed the PCB and forced it to announce some unrealistic counter-measures (make an Asian Bloc, compete with the Big Three in terms of monetary benefits and inducements, etc.) to protect its “dignity and honour”. It might more profitably have focused on immediately reaching out to the ECB to delay its decision pending further investigations and talks in London since the British tour was weeks away. Loss of pragmatic sporting initiative to fiery nationalist politics is never a good strategy in such situations, however emotionally satisfying it may be.
In the short term, the PCB has its job cut out for it. It must approach the ICC and the two errant Boards to redress these complaints. There should be solid and credible reasons for pulling out from touring commitments like this. Both the NZ and ECB should commit to bigger Pakistan tours as soon as possible without fear or favour and accept our responsibility for their security and welfare as we do theirs when we tour overseas. And Australia and others to follow should be reassured about their forthcoming visits.
Prime Minister Imran Khan is reported to have given a motivating lecture to our players focused on aggressive and confident strategies next month in the World Cup. Winning is the best revenge, argues Ramiz Raja. Truer words haven’t been spoken. It would be wonderful if we could crown roaring success on the field with quiet dignity and honour off it because that would expose the blundering arrogance of the Big Three and pave the way for the return of international cricket to Pakistan for which we have waited so long.