YOU know something incredible has happened when a player who spent his entire career previously refusing to tour the country finally describes the experience of playing in Pakistan as ‘magical’. Shane Watson was one of 39 foreign players who came to Karachi for the final leg of the PSL. It was a remarkable achievement, but that it took place despite a war almost breaking out and broadcasters pulling out was unbelievable. Credit to the PCB in particular, as well as all others involved in pulling off this feat.
Now that we are done with the praise, now that Quetta Gladiator’s highly deserved, symbolically rich victory has been celebrated, let’s take a moment to reassess what all this has meant. Because, along with all the exciting cricket, the staging of the PSL in Pakistan was also perhaps one the most powerful symbolic plays recently made by the state.
The use of cricket for political symbolism is not new. I have previously noted that the most exciting tour possible for Pakistan fans — a visit by the Indian team — has almost always taken place under military rule and blocked during democratic spells. But the current deployment of cricket as a strategic asset of sorts is a response to a different political challenge.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this was in a (since deleted) tweet by Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari reacting to the massacre of 50 Muslims in Christchurch. The minister immediately questioned if the attack would lead to cricket bans for New Zealand. It was shocking to see cricket as the first concern in reaction to the attack, but it makes sense in a certain light — the belief that Pakistan was unfairly punished via cricket’s absence following the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore, when terrorist attacks in other countries haven’t led to suspension of sporting events.
The staging of the PSL in Pakistan was perhaps one the most powerful plays recently made by the state.
To be clear, there never has been a ban on Pakistan either. Rather, teams have expressed fears about touring here, which is understandable given that cricketers were specifically targeted in 2009, and that Pakistan saw significantly more sustained violence than most places. Regardless, with terrorism truly a global scourge, some have felt that these concerns are indicative of us being singled out.
Consequently, there has been a recent drive to showcase Pakistan hosting cricket matches as a symbol of stability. The 2015 tour by the Zimbabwean team was a success, but the remarkable levels of security required underscored the fact that things were still unsafe. These measures went up a gear the following year with the PSL2 final in Lahore. Announced after the tournament began, it was a widely unpopular move among the foreign players, and arguably cost Quetta the title as their team was shorn of all its stars. The final was held despite a bomb attack in Lahore less than a month before, and another suspicious blast taking place soon after.
The insistence on proving Pakistan as safe for cricket in the midst of such attacks suggested a desire not born of love for the sport but, rather, to make a statement. The next two seasons also saw matches hosted in Pakistan, at a time when general violence was lower. But isn’t it more important to actually secure Pakistan for all its citizens, rather than trying to arrange a symbol of things being secure? While much has undoubtedly changed, many Pakistanis are still hesitant to visit parts of their own country. Even now, extremists are busy rebranding themselves. Even now, a woman wrongly accused of blasphemy has to be kept in hiding because of the threat of riots. Even now, attacks against security personnel take place in former Fata and Balochistan.
As Karachi prepared to host this year’s final, one government official erected a billboard claiming cricket was more important than life or death. I will chalk that down to a poor grasp of the language, but the actions of the state in preparation for cricket tours in Lahore and Karachi over the past few years have certainly shown a willingness to put the matches above citizens’ needs. Streets are hastily ripped up and repaved just for the final, new lampposts go up, but no great effort is made at providing alternative traffic routes, and important parts of the city are effectively paralysed. Things have improved with each subsequent event, but it appears that the state responds more to the needs of cricket matches over of those of its citizens.
There is no doubt that cricket brings a lot of joy and unity to this society. There is no doubt that it provides much-needed hope, a crucial escape, a source of pride. But cricket left Pakistan because Pakistan was not safe for Pakistanis. Why are we so insistent on centring public discourse on security around bringing it back instead of making the country safe for all citizens?
The answer to this question appears to be a desire to pretend that the war ripping this society apart is over. The worst of the violence has passed, but the scourge of extremism and radicalisation hasn’t gone away, and militancy continues to burn many parts of the country. It is the responsibility of the state to prioritise security and safety across the country, rather than securing one city enough to host a match. Pakistanis love cricket, and they are tired of the misery of war and violence. But it is cynical to manipulate these emotions and use cricket as a whitewashing of ongoing security and extremism issues.
During the final, one of the announcers exhorted the crowd to shout various slogans in order to prove (the frankly unprovable) fact that “Pakistan was the most peace-loving nation in the world”. If this is the utopia that we wish to live in, then we need to realise that success will come through confronting reality rather than hiding behind symbols.
The writer is a freelance columnist and has previously worked with ESPNcricinfo, Islamabad United and the PSL.