Ahsan Raza shone brightest at Gaddafi. In a recent The Times column, Michael Atherton recounted how an ICC handbook and match referee Chris Broad’s help saved Raza’s life after he took two bullets during the harrowing attack in Lahore on March 3, 2009. Raza was the reserve umpire in that Test between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. He recovered from coma and eight years down the line, as international cricket finally returned to Pakistan, he was one of the on-field umpires in the opening game of the T20 series between the World XI and the hosts. Raza personified courage and resilience. Pakistan cricket also embraced those qualities to survive and stay strong during exile.
To paraphrase Paul Simon, for nine years, Pakistan had been walking along a restless dream; in front of empty stands at venues in the UAE, which became their cricket’s adopted home following the 2009 terrorist attack. The ‘sound of silence’ is probably the worst thing for a performer or a group of performers. Pakistan cricketers had to make peace with the home game vacuum. Azhar Ali scored a triple hundred in Dubai against West Indies in 2016. Misbah-ul-Haq’s joint-fastest Test hundred came at Abu Dhabi against Australia in 2014. Shoaib Malik hit a career-best 245 against England in 2015. Only a handful stood up and applauded. During a recent interview with The Indian Express, the legendary Zaheer Abbas spoke about how the present generation of Pakistan cricketers missed the hero worship because they couldn’t play in front of their home fans. The side still climbed to the No. 1 spot in the ICC Test rankings for a brief period and, three months back, won the Champions Trophy. Those fantastic achievements had been testimony to the talent available in Pakistan cricket.
That Pakistan couldn’t host a home game for the past nine years was not any outsider’s fault. They just faced the consequences of the terrorist attack on the Sri Lanka national cricket team. Foreign sides refused to travel because of security reasons. And these three T20 matches are just a baby step towards normality. A lot still needs to be done to fully restore the confidence of overseas cricketers and before Pakistan starts hosting full bilateral series. But the door is now ajar and the upcoming short series against Sri Lanka and West Indies in October and November, respectively, would be another step forward.
Political differences aside, India and Pakistan had always been close friends on the cricket front. The two Asian cricket super powers joined hands after the 1983 World Cup to dismantle the Anglo-Australian hegemony in the ICC. In 1987, they jointly hosted the World Cup to break England’s stranglehold on the quadrennial showpiece. A strong Asian bloc was formed that started to rule world cricket. The Indian cricket board always stood by its Pakistani counterpart at the global body. The 26/11 Mumbai attacks changed that. The Indian government put a blanket ban on cricket ties with Pakistan. No bilateral series with India and the home game void could have crippled Pakistan cricket.
There’s a school of thought that cricket/sport should be kept away from politics. During a recent conversation with this correspondent, a former India captain stressed on the resumption of bilateral cricket ties between the subcontinental neighbours. “This Indian team is doing very well at present. But so far, they haven’t been tested at all. A series (at a neutral venue) with Pakistan would determine who the Asian champions are. We are doing bilateral trade with Pakistan, cultural exchanges have been happening. So why not cricket?” the ex-captain argued.
Easier said than done. Sport to some extent is inseparable from politics. South Africa’s prolonged apartheid ban was the biggest case in point. It’s not a dull logic that to resume bilateral cricket series with India, the Pakistan government will have to rebuild political trust.
But cricket builds bridges and maybe the World XI tour will take Pakistan towards a better tomorrow. “Pakistan is an unavoidable part of the international cricket community and the Pakistani people are very passionate about the game. The ICC is very serious about reviving international cricket in the country and we are happy the first step has been taken with the World XI tour,” ICC chief executive David Richardson said at a press conference in Lahore a few days ago, adding, “The intention would be to bring more PSL (Pakistan Super League) matches to Pakistan and also to bring Full Member countries to tour Pakistan; not a World XI tour.”
The ICC reportedly has made a $1.1-million investment on security for cricket in Pakistan over the next three years and the Pakistan Cricket Board chairman, Najam Sethi, spoke about following a gradual process. “Right now, we are compelled to play only in Lahore, but obviously with time we will schedule matches at other Test venues like Karachi, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi and Multan.”
The World XI tour highlighted an improvement in the security situation. But Pakistan as a country always walks a security tightrope. A lot will depend on the feedback from the World XI players to their respective cricket boards. International cricket’s full-scale revival in Pakistan would be great news for the game, but that still appears a fair distance away. Zaheer Abbas asserted that whatever the situation, Pakistani kids would play cricket “in parks, gullies and mohallas”. That’s heartening, which also ensures a steady flow of young talent.