Sport: Pakistan cricket caught in Taliban web

Something has gone awry with the state of cricket in Pakistan. The national cricket team has not played a home game since 2007, and touring teams refuse to play there. The gentleman’s game of cricket is being hacked.

Why? Terrorists.

What we knew last year, the majority of terrorist attacks was taking place in the north-west Peshawar region, on the border, away from most of the major cricket playing cities, like Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. But from what I understand, after reviewing new data from the Institute for Conflict Management, the province of Punjab – capital city is Lahore – is emerging as a jihadi hub.

Consider this.

There were 78 terrorist attacks in Punjab during 2008. While that figure may not sound alarming – compared to other parts of Pakistan – there is also a rise of militant groups and conflict and visiting cricket teams are refusing to play until the situation has been resolved. On a national level the figures are even more staggering. In 2003 there were 140 terrorist attacks recorded on civilians. Last year that figure rose to 2307 civilians. According to the Institute for Conflict Management data, Pakistan was already being viewed as a place of instability and widespread strife by 2003. Last year was considered the worst year on recorded for casualties.  But as the data suggests these figures are only what is released by the government. Imagine what the real figures for civilian casualties really are?

Cricket to Pakistani’s is what hockey is to Canadians, and what English Premier League means to Britain. It’s embedded in their culture from a young age. With only a handful of official ovals within each province, playing cricket on the streets and inside alleyways throughout every corner and pocket of the country with a wooden bat and a tennis ball is the norm in Pakistan. For a country that boasts 650 million cricket fans, the sport is a big deal to them. But, Pakistan is at war. It is being threatened by a worsening insurgency by Islamic extremists which is affecting civilian life, which has forced more than two million people from their homes.

And now it seems to be seeping into the gentleman’s game of cricket at national and domestic levels.

Former national bowler, Fazl-e-Akbar Durrani who now plays domestic cricket in northern Pakistan, did not show up for a cricket match late last year. To get to the match, he had to travel from Balochistan, through the Chagai and Toba Kakar mountain ranges to the western part of Punjab and pass through the Khojak Tunnel. What should have been a routine drive down the gravel-laden 3.9km tunnel was anything but routine . When he arrived at the rickety toll gates he knew immediately that something was wrong. It was heavily guarded by the Taliban, bearing rifles and handguns. He was not hurt or injured but it took him three days to pass through the gates.

He spent four days at the bridge. He missed his game of cricket.

Former Pakistani coach, Geoff Lawson,  who lived in Lahore for 15 months saw first hand how the Taliban had affected his troops.  Lawson admitted players were often stopped unexpectedly on rural highways by a Taliban presence just trying to get to training, but conceded that was part of the parcel in a war-torn country. He also learned one of his players, Umar Gul, carries a handgun with him when at home – which Lawson said was “quite normal” – but also owned five AK-47 machine guns and a family cannon for Taliban-related emergencies.

Touring teams continue to cancel games of cricket in Pakistan as they fear for their safety; Pakistan has not played a home match since 2007 and is now playing at neutral venues like Bangladesh and England to avoid a repeat of the Sri Lankan terrorist attack. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is feeling the pinch financially with no international cricket being played in the country and funds at the domestic and grassroots level of cricket are now diminishing.

Nadeem Sarwar, a spokesperson for the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB)  said the board has recorded a 51.2 million loss since teams started canceling their tours. He believes certain parts of Pakistan are safe for playing cricket – a view not shared by many.

“We are hoping to have international teams back playing cricket here in Pakistan within the next two years,” said Sarwar.

“But we are at war. This situation needs to be resolved before that happens.”

Interviews were conducted for this piece with Geoff Lawson, former Pakistani coach and Australian bowler and Nadeem Sarwar, a spokesperson for the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).

Statistics were taken from Institute for Conflict Management.

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