Britons lose cricket match, win hearts in North Waziristan

Updated 22 Sep 2017


A UK Media XI batsman is bowled out as Pakistan XI wicketkeeper Yasir Hameed looks on during the match on Thursday.—AFP
A UK Media XI batsman is bowled out as Pakistan XI wicketkeeper Yasir Hameed looks on during the match on Thursday.—AFP

MIRAMSHAH: In an event marked by considerable sporting enthusiasm, a UK cricket team clashed with a side comprising former Pakistan greats on Thursday and though the visitors lost the entertaining T20 game in Miramshah, they won the hearts of locals who came to watch the match in large numbers.

The British team was led by Daily Mail journalist Peter Oborne while the Pakistani XI included ex-star players Inzimamul Haq, Shahid Afridi, Kamran Akmal, Umar Gul, Junaid Khan and Yasir Hameed.

Despite the game being organised at short notice, a crowd of thousands of tribesmen and schoolboys gathered to watch the match at the recently constructed Younis Khan stadium.

Pakistan XI defeat UK Media XI in the army-organised Peace Cup T20 match

“The army told us that a Pakistan team was playing a UK team so we wanted to come,” said Malik Usman from Razmak. He said people reached the game using their own transport although other people from Razmak said some buses were provided by the military.

A day of pomp and ceremony was presided over by Peshawar Corps Commander Lt Gen Nazir Butt and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra. National anthems were played, flags waved and dances performed. The best seats were occupied by military officers and tribal leaders ordered by rank whilst in the stands the crowd was organised into the towns they came from.

The match was arranged by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), which flew the UK team from Chitral to Miramshah by helicopter. International and Pakistani journalists were brought in to cover the event. Military personnel secured the stadium and PTV Sport televised the match.

The ISPR director general said in a tweet on Wednesday: “Cricket in NWA. Pak XI plays UK Media XI on 21 Sep 17. Live telecast from Miramshah. Peace & prosperity is our destiny.”

After the match on Thursday, he tweeted: “Peace wins at NWA. COAS thx PCB, PscZalmi, teams, media, admns & brave Pakistanis of NWA/FATA for successful conduct of historic event.”

A few years ago people visiting a stadium in North Waziristan would have been more likely to see a beheading rather than a game of cricket. And when the crowd in the Younis Khan stadium looked up at a drone above their heads they could see it was a PTV camera rather than an American hellfire.

“This place used to be the hub of global terror inside Pakistan and out,” said Lt Gen Butt. “A few years ago the children could not go to school. Today they have an opportunity to study and secure their future.”

For the UK side the match was a big step up. Some of the team are more used to village or club cricket rather than playing on the international stage. “It is a surreal experience for a club cricketer to find himself being flown in by helicopter and then playing with international stars,” said opening UK batsman Crispin Blunt who is a Conservative Member of the British parliament and former chair of the Foreign Affairs select committee.

“Talking to military officers here one appreciates the scale of the 2014-2016 military campaign and their satisfaction in the stability that’s followed,” he said. “However a local tribal leader told me that there are still problems with basic issues such as drinking water and reconstruction following the very substantial displacement of the local population during the military operation.”

The UK side has had a patchy record on its tour of Pakistan. Out of 10 games the team has played in Lahore, Muzzafarabad and the Chitral Valley it has lost 8, won 1 and tied 1. Its single victory was against Sargodha University earlier this month.

Ever since the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore international teams have been reluctant to play in Pakistan. The UK tour comes at a time when Pakistan is hoping to persuade the world’s cricketing authorities that it is able to host international teams and keep them safe. It follows a successful ICC Series earlier this month in which a World XI played a set of three matches in Lahore this month.

The spectacular Younis Khan stadium lies on the outskirts of Miramshah. The crowds could see arid mountain ranges climbing into the bright sky beyond the stands. The circular pitch with a top quality wicket has been constructed to a high standard. The state of the art pavilion has medical rooms, player’s lounges and viewing galleries.

The cricket pitch is an example of the extensive development work the army has undertaken in North Waziristan. The roads in both North and South Waziristan, although largely empty, are now amongst the best in the country. Villages destroyed in the conflict between the army and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan have been rebuilt with schools and marketplaces constructed. But local residents say substantial numbers have not yet returned.

According to military officers, 92 per cent of people who were displaced during the military campaign are now back in their villages. And they say more will follow when the weather gets cooler. But some of the people watching the cricket disagreed with those numbers. Malik Aziz Dawar of Miramshah said: “60% to 70% have returned.”

“The others will come back but it will take some time because many people put their children in schools and colleges when they were IDPs (internally displaced persons) and they don’t want to disturb their education.”

“It’s been a great, exciting, historic day with British and Pakistani flags flying side by side. And it is wonderful that peace has returned to Waziristan,” said UK captain Peter Oborne. “But as well as honouring that we must remember all the civilians who died to make this peace possible.”

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2017