That familiar feeling of isolation hits Pakistan cricket again

Published on Sep 21, 2021 10:41 PM IST

For nearly a decade since 2009, Pakistan was a no-go zone for cricket. Now it is being shunned again and may have to play the T20 World Cup in October with little preparation.

A security forces personnel is seen in the cricket stadium following the cancellation of cricket series between Pakistan and New Zealand. (Getty)
A security forces personnel is seen in the cricket stadium following the cancellation of cricket series between Pakistan and New Zealand. (Getty)
By, Kolkata

The media advisory from New Zealand Cricket (NZC) reached Indian journalists at 2:15 am on Tuesday. It said the England Cricket Board (ECB) had received “a threatening email related to NZC”, one which was “treated seriously, investigated, and deemed not credible.” Hence, the women’s cricket team’s tour of England would continue. 

Contrast that to NZC’s reaction in Pakistan where it pulled out the men’s team hours before the first One-day International. NZC CEO David White said there was “specific and credible threat” but refused to share information with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). “You can take any decision on the basis of security threat and perception,” was how PCB chairman Ramiz Raja reacted. On Monday, ECB announced that it wouldn’t be travelling to Pakistan either next month with the men's and women’s teams. Cricket Australia is reconsidering next year’s tour and, as a domino effect, the scheduled visit by West Indies too can be hit, said Raja who took charge this month. 

“This Western bloc gets united unfortunately and tries to back each other. Who can we complain to? We thought they were our own but they haven't accepted us as theirs,” said the former Pakistan batter referring to the successive pullouts. PCB’s losses are expected to be between $15 million to $25 million and it is likely to seek compensation. 

In his video message, Raja also said the cancellations were a lesson for Pakistan who had gone out of their way to “accommodate and pamper these sides...from now on, we'll tour only when it serves our interest.” Pakistan toured England last summer when the country was struggling to contain Covid-19 and vaccines hadn’t yet been rolled out - a Sydney Morning Herald report on Tuesday said that tour saved the ECB from losing $526 million - and again this year. They hadn’t shirked from touring New Zealand either after the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings that left 51 people dead and 40 injured. 

So, from playing 12 T20Is to prepare for the World T20, Pakistan could head to the competition next month having played just one, away to West Indies, this term. This was supposed to be a busy season in Pakistan with four teams scheduled to visit. Instead, the former one-day world champions find themselves in the familiar position of being shunned by countries, White’s promise of finding a window next year for the white ball series notwithstanding. 

This would have been New Zealand’s first tour in 18 years. Their captain Tom Latham has spoken of how his counterpart Babar Azam was thrilled about international cricket in Pakistan. England haven’t been there since 2005, Australia last visited in 1998-99 and South Africa finally came visiting earlier this year after a hiatus of thirteen years. India have intermittently paused cricket relations with its neighbours since the 1950s and haven’t been to Pakistan since 2006 with Pakistani players being barred from the cash-rich IPL after 2008. Decades prior to that, former England captain Ian Botham had referred to Pakistan being the “kind of place you send your mother-in-law for a month all expenses paid.” 

So, although the terrorist attack on the Sri Lanka team bus and match officials’ entourage in 2009 led to international cricket being stalled in Pakistan, there have been instances prior such as the bombing of the twin towers in New York in 2001, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and a terror attack in Karachi that had led to games shifting to neutral venues. 

Studies have found that hosting sporting events can get a nation to feel good about and enhance its international standing. “Cricket has been the most popular source of public joy (in Pakistan),” said academics Salman Yousaf and Fahad Laber. In a paper that probed whether international sports boycott act as a social identity threat, Yousaf and Laber said cricket played a “pivotal part in the nation-building process in Pakistan.” 

All that got unhinged after 2009 when Pakistan was forced to move its cricket to UAE, including the first edition of its T20 league in 2016. That meant the country passionate about cricket was denied the in-stadia experience of watching its heroes. 

Baby steps began to be taken in 2015 when Zimbabwe visited, but even that trip was blighted by a terrorist attack. In 2017, Sri Lanka visited Pakistan and with help from the International Cricket Council, the country hosted a World XI led by Faf du Plessis for three T20s. Sri Lanka visited twice in 2019 when a Rawalpindi stadium ring-fenced by heavy security staged the country’s first Test since 2009. Bangladesh played a Test in 2020 and later that year, Zimbabwe came again. PSL had come home in 2017 and foreign cricketers and coaches didn’t shirk from travelling to Pakistan, a point Raja didn’t miss pointing out. 

The build-up to the big 2021-22 domestic season thus had gone smoothly in the only country in the world where the prime minister is a world-cup winning captain. Pakistan had again rolled out the red carpet and a thick security blanket for New Zealand for a tour that would have helped change perceptions about the country. Instead, as John Lennon sang in ‘Isolation’, they were left feeling that “The world is just a little town/Everybody trying to put us down..."

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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