Pakistan: Still Reeling from Cricket Terrorism

It lasted barely a half hour and yet its impact continues to span a subcontinent almost a year later. On Mar. 3, 2009, 12 militants with guns, grenades, and rocket launchers attacked a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team to a match at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium in Pakistan. Six Pakistani policemen escorting the team and two civilians were killed while seven Sri Lankan players and an assistant coach were injured. Various reports blamed different groups: al-Qaeda, local Taliban, Sri Lanka's LTTE Tamil rebels, and even India's spy agency. It may never be clear why this happened or what forces were involved.

Three points are certain. Terrorism-stricken, cricket-obsessed Pakistan has lost significant revenue, a central piece of its national identity, and any chance of improving its often-prickly relations with neighboring India through "cricket diplomacy." In this sense, Pakistan continues to suffer cricket terrorism's horrible effects, economically, sociologically, and politically.

Since the terrorist attacks, no foreign teams have competed in Pakistan. Most recently, South Africa decided not to tour Pakistan in October and November because of security concerns. Although Pakistan has tried to make the best of the situation by offering to host its "home" matches on neutral territory in the United Arab Emirates—as it did against New Zealand in October 2009—this brings a significant financial loss to Pakistani cricket.

Pakistan has lost millions of dollars in revenue for its cricket industry since the 2009 terrorist attacks. The Pakistan Cricket Board earns money from matches held in the country, with the money going to the team, renovation work on stadiums, and more generally, to the future of Pakistani cricket. Local channels earn significant fees to televise these matches: One estimate suggests that matches between India and Pakistan can generate as much as one billion viewers.

cricket: a Pakistani national unifier

A month after the attack on the Sri Lankan team, the International Cricket Council relieved Pakistan of co-hosting duty for any 2011 World Cup games, a move that the PCB said cost it over $10 million. In December, just after the anniversary of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and nine months after the cricket attack, PCB Chairman Ijaz Butt revealed that the cancellation of India's 2009 tour to Pakistan brought more than $47 million in losses. This included $40 million for TV rights, $5 million from sponsorship rights, and $2 million from gate money. Overall, Pakistan has evidently lost more than $125 million as other national teams have refused to tour. Almost a year since the attacks, the economic cost of cricket terrorism has likely grown beyond lost profits. Jobs may have been lost in the lucrative cricket industry.

Cricket terrorism has also hurt the identity of a country that has so often been unified only by the sport. Farzana Shaikh's book, Making Sense of Pakistan, (2009, C Hurst & Co. Publishers) addresses the issue of Pakistan's confused identity and complicated relationship with Islam. Perhaps on some level, cricket has acted as a positive national unifier in a country that has so often struggled to unite on other issues—politics, economics, religion, and the very notion of what it means to be "Pakistani."

In May 2009, Pakistan was at a low point following the Taliban's violent takeover of Swat, a district in the North West Frontier Province, leading to the country's worst refugee crisis in six decades. Weeks later, in June, Pakistan's World Twenty20 Cricket win at Lords in London—its first world title victory since 1992—came as a welcome, euphoric reprieve. In Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, there were elaborate fireworks. Thousands of young men celebrated in the streets, chanting "Pakistan Zindabad" ("Long Live Pakistan"), despite the country's disarray. Love of cricket appeared to cut across social classes, ethnicities, religious sects, political parties, and all issues of contention. We seemed united as Pakistanis.

Pakistani players apparently snubbed

Today even cricket has abandoned Pakistan and the individual fan can no longer watch his or her national team play at home. Pakistanis wake up to news of suicide bombings, U.S. drone strikes, political clashes, sectarian violence, inflation, sugar crises, power shortages. It's a bleak picture, to say the least. What will unite Pakistanis now?

Cricket terrorism has impacted geopolitics as well, hindering Pakistan's relations with historic rival India. Since Pakistan-based terrorists attacked Mumbai in November 2008, the Indo-Pakistani peace process has stepped back. Tension now appears to have bled into the world of cricket with the perceived snubbing of Pakistani players from the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world's richest, privately run Twenty20 cricket tournament. On Jan. 19, no Pakistani player was bought by the eight Indian clubs during an auction for the third edition of the league, which runs from Mar. 12 to Apr. 25.

The response in Pakistan has been angry. In the past cricket played a role in improving relations between India and Pakistan, which have fought three bloody wars since partition in 1947. Now, Pakistani teams in other sports have threatened to cancel upcoming games against India, effigies of IPL Chief Lalit Modi have been burned in various cities, and Indian politicians have been lambasted. It seems cricket can no longer be used as a diplomatic tool.

contacts via the arts, at least

The term "cricket diplomacy" was coined in 1987, when Pakistani President General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq went to Jaipur, India, for a match at which he met with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, apparently pulling their countries back from the edge of war over Kashmir. Similarly in 2005, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf traveled to New Delhi for a match as a guest of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which was perceived to be a significant step forward in relations between the two countries. But today, and at least for the next few years, cricket diplomacy appears to be exhausted. Although India and Pakistan are expected to resume bilateral talks later this month—for the first time since the Mumbai attacks—both governments will likely carry on verbal skirmishing.

Meanwhile there should be continued focus on other commonalities between India and Pakistan. Consider the arts, for instance: the Jaipur Literary Festival, in its fifth year, has openly supported Pakistani literature. At the Jan. 21-25 event, there were appearances by such notable Pakistani authors as Ali Sethi (Wish Maker, 2009, Hamish Hamilton) and H. M. Naqvi (Home Boy, 2009, Shaye Areheart Books). The leading media houses of India and Pakistan, respectively the Times of India and Jang Group, recently joined forces to report on common cultural ties between the two countries. "Aman ki Asha: Destination Peace," as the initiative is known, will at least help change negative perceptions of "the other" on each side of the border.

What does the future hold for a cricket-starved and terrorism-stricken Pakistan? Potentially there will be more loss of revenue for the business of cricket. Tensions with India will continue to experience ebbs and flows. Longer-term, what will become of Pakistan's identity, already quite fragile, without cricket as a frequent national unifier?

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