Saturday, March 7, 2009

In terror's shadow

March 08, 2009

Back in December 2008, former Pakistan cricket captain-turned-politician Imran Khan had come out and condemned the Board for Cricket Control in India (BCCI) for cancelling India’s tour to Pakistan. Khan had said that no terrorist would dare attack cricketers. In fact, his exact words were, “No one would ever dare attack a visiting cricketer because cricket is so loved in Pakistan. The entire nation would turn against the perpetrators.”

But the attack on the bus ferrying the Sri Lankan team to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore puts that notion to rest. And to his credit, Khan has come out and said that he was wrong in thinking along those lines, as has now been proven. The bigger question is, however, how do these attacks alter the fate of cricket and other sports in the subcontinent?

India is not a stranger to such activities. Sri Lanka has had its own set of problems to deal with for almost three decades now. And the recent situation in Bangladesh has not been too rosy. According to former Indian cricketer Syed Kirmani, things will not be the same for the next couple of years. “Visiting countries will think more than twice before touring the subcontinent, especially Pakistan.” Most experts believe that we can forget about any cricketing action in Pakistan in the near future.

Sri Lanka were the first team in the last 14 months to tour Pakistan. It was Australia who took the initiative, cancelling their tour in March 2008. Then, India refused to play there in the aftermath of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. The Champions Trophy, which was scheduled to happen later this year in Pakistan, has already been postponed, while New Zealand, who were supposed to tour, have cancelled.

Another former cricketer Chetan Chauhan is of the opinion that not only cricket but other sports, too, stand to suffer. “No one would want to put their lives at risk at the cost of sport. It’s not bigger than your life.”

It’s not only Pakistan which stands to suffer. Severe doubts were raised over the second edition of the Indian Premier League as well, although the doubts were mainly due to the tournament clashing with general elections. It still remains to be seen how the organisers manage to juggle the IPL schedule. Even if those hassles are overcome, there is the question of how many foreign players will turn up. “I think a majority of them will come to play in the IPL,” says a confident Kirmani.

Australian cricketers like Brett Lee, Michael Hussey and Nathan Bracken have already stated that the terror attacks won’t deter them from playing in the IPL. But the likes of Daniel Vettori and a few English players have expressed reservations about playing.

Then there is the question of hosting the 2011 cricket World Cup, to be jointly hosted by the four countries. Chauhan says that things should be better in the next couple of years in terms of security, but he still thinks that Pakistan hosting the tournament is extremely unlikely. The ICC has refused to be drawn on the World Cup issue, saying it’s way too early to talk.

India, of course, is a powerhouse in the cricketing world, and in the past we have seen foreign teams touring despite the fear of terror attacks. The subcontinent generates about 70 per cent of the ICC’s revenue and spectator interest is also unmatched.

“There is huge money riding on cricket in the subcontinent, especially India. So, I don’t see too many tours being cancelled in India,” says a former BCCI official.

There has been talk about Pakistan playing countries at a neutral venue, something which it has done in the past as well. “Cricket won’t be the same in Pakistan and I think in the subcontinent as well,” says Kirmani. Teams have been sceptical about touring Sri Lanka as well, and these attacks will cast even more doubt in their minds, says Kirmani.

In the past, we have seen the subcontinent survive terror onslaughts, and cricket has carried on. But this time it’s different. This time, cricket has been directly targetted. It remains to be seen how the sport does emerge from this onslaught.

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