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DAWN - Features; February 27, 2008

February 27, 2008


Why is Australia reluctant to tour Pakistan?

By Saad Shafqat

AUSTRALIA’S stated excuse for not touring Pakistan, that its players face risk of death from terrorism, breaks down in the face of logical reasoning.

The truth is that in today’s globalised world, security is an issue everywhere. Terrorist bombs went off in London during Australia’s tour of England in 2005, yet the Ashes went on as if nothing had happened. In the United States these days, there are now almost weekly reports of some crazed individual senselessly gunning down innocent victims before taking his own life. These tragedies are no different from suicide bombings, yet you will never hear Australians refusing to visit America because of security fears.

It makes no sense to single out Pakistan. Since 9/11, teams from virtually every Test-playing country — England, New Zealand, West Indies, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe — have toured Pakistan, with none of the players ever coming to any harm.

The only team that hasn’t visited is Australia. In late 2002, when Australia’s last tour of Pakistan was scheduled, the visitors insisted on playing outside Pakistan and the matches took place in Colombo and Sharjah.

Experts invoke the notion of risk to explain the supposedly greater dangers lurking in a country like Pakistan. Yet today’s reality is that you could become a victim anywhere. Ask those who lost loved ones in 9/11 or 7/7.

Even if you try to assess security risk dispassionately, you cannot get very far, because the subject has become shrouded in hysteria and fear-mongering. In an incisive open letter to the Australian team published on Cricinfo, writer Kamran Abbasi points out that Australians face greater safety threats from activities such as speed driving, swimming in shark-inhabited waters, and extreme sports like kite surfing and rock climbing that they frequently engage in. It is nonsense for Cricket Australia to complain about a cricket tour to Pakistan, where no visiting cricketer has ever suffered from a lapse of safety or security.

The parties who deserve to be applauded in this stand-off are the cricket boards of Pakistan and India. The PCB is offering top-notch security services to the Australians at a level reserved for heads of state. With dignity and self-respect, they have ruled out shifting the series elsewhere. They have also indicated that if Australia still backs out despite these assurances, they will consider it a breach of faith and respond by cancelling Pakistan’s scheduled tour of Australia in 2009.

India’s BCCI, the world’s richest and most influential cricket board, is backing Pakistan completely. They point out that Australia’s tour of Pakistan constitutes a binding contract under the ICC’s Future Tours Programme (FTP), and it should be fulfilled as the host board has provided adequate guarantees.

Sadly, the epidemic of Pakistan-bashing currently rife in the media isn’t helping matters. Labels such as ‘failed state’, ‘benighted country’, and ‘world’s most dangerous nation’ do not inspire any confidence in Pakistan nor, naturally, do highly visible events such as political assassinations and suicide bombings.

Journalists and opinion-makers should rightly view the situation in the context of today’s globalised terror risks, but it is difficult to ask international media to show common sense when Pakistan’s own media are foremost in creating the frenzy.

The reality behind the canard of safety and security is that Australia have never liked coming here to begin with. Cricket may be a global family, but Pakistan is its poor relative, living in a poor, rough neighbourhood. As with any poor neighbourhood, the place struggles with its reputation. So rich relatives like Australia, nestled in material comforts and stable circumstances, have been loath to visit.

Pick any cricket autobiography from Australia, New Zealand or England, and it will make a point to complain about the drudgery of touring Pakistan. The playing conditions are alien, and there are no bars or nightlife to liven up the evenings. That the cricket can provide intense and satisfying competition doesn’t seem to enter the equation.

Yet cricket and hospitality are among the things that Pakistanis hold most dear. Cricket Australia must realise that cancelling their tour of Pakistan will hurt the game deeply. Pakistan are likely to then pull out of their next trip to Australia, effectively ending cricket links between the two nations. With no power to enforce binding obligations, the ICC’s sacrosanct FTP will descend into anarchy.

The latest news coming out of Kuala Lumpur, where officials of Cricket Australia and PCB met on the sidelines of an ICC gathering, suggests that good sense may finally prevail. Australia have tentatively agreed to tour Pakistan for three Tests and five ODIs beginning from March 29.

Pakistan’s recent peaceful exercise in democracy — fair and free elections that have upturned the ruling power structure — has doubtless contributed to Australia’s rising sense of comfort. So, too, has the PCB’s firm stand and unequivocal reassurance. Make no mistake, however, that the formidable clout of the Indian cricket board has also played its part.

It remains to be seen if all the top Australian players will agree to tour Pakistan, although this is a secondary concern. Even if their star cricketers decide to opt out, Cricket Australia can offer those spots to promising players with greater drive and hunger to make their mark. They should take their cue from Stuart MacGill, an excellent leg-spinner who has struggled to find a foothold in the Australian team, who had already conveyed his willingness to tour Pakistan weeks ago.

These days, with market pressures, umpiring troubles, and rogue cricket leagues, the game of cricket is already wobbling from controversy and uncertainty. It doesn’t need Cricket Australia to make things even worse.

© DAWN Media Group , 2008