RAWALPINDI: It was like an explosion, the impact so huge that it now jeopardises the immediate future of international cricket in Pakistan.
New Zealand’s eagerly-anticipated tour of Pakistan came to an abrupt halt on Friday, roughly 25 minutes before the opening ball of the first of three One-day Internationals was to be delivered at the Pindi Cricket Stadium at 2:30pm. The reason: Security concerns expressed by the New Zealand government.But contrary to all expectations and against the run of play, the cancellation of tour — that also included a five-match Twenty International series in Lahore — the first by the Black Caps to this country in nearly 18 years has left many questions unanswered, while it cast grave doubts on England men’s team schedule visit to Rawalpindi for two Twenty20 Internationals in October prior to the T20 World Cup, which starts in Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Newly-appointed PCB chairman Ramiz Raja, a former Pakistan captain, said on Twitter they would approach the International Cricket Council (ICC) over what transpired on a “crazy day”.
Until the time PCB issued an official version of the exact situation, the electronic media aired speculation-filled reports of two unnamed New Zealand players overnight contracting Covid-19 as the reason behind no action while both teams and the match officials stayed put at their hotel in the safe environment bio-secure bubble.
“The New Zealand cricket board informed us that they had been alerted to some security alert and have unilaterally decided to postpone the series,” the PCB said in its news release. “PCB and Government of Pakistan made fool proof security arrangements for all visiting teams. We have assured the New Zealand cricket board of the same.
“The Prime Minister [Imran Khan] spoke personally to the Prime Minister of New Zealand [Jacinda Ardern] and informed her that we have one of the best Intelligence systems in the world and that no security threat of any kind exists for the visiting team.“The security officials with the NZ team have been satisfied with security arrangements made by the government throughout their stay here. While PCB was willing to continue the scheduled matches, cricket lovers in Pakistan and world over will be disappointed by this last minute withdrawal,” the board further stated.
The scenes were thus set for a smooth-flowing series long beforehand. The preparations of this tour were done in advance when New Zealand Cricket (NZC) engaged a renowned firm of security experts — which included Reg Dickason who had a regular to Pakistan on behalf of several cricket boards for pre-tour checks — who gave the clearance after a thorough recce of all venues in Lahore and the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
After arriving in the federal capital last Saturday from their previous port of call — Bangladesh — the visiting cricketers had nets at the match venue for three days without any hindrance or fear to prepare for Friday’s series opener.As per norms on match days, teams usually arrive at the ground two hours before start of play. Everything seemed normal when one took a cursory look around the arena at noon; the sets of stumps were placed at respective ends of the 22-yard playing surface along with the official television broadcaster’s apparatus known as the ‘stump mic’ also put in.
In the meantime, around 4,500 fans who had braved the steamy weather on a hazy morning, were waiting to be ushered inside the premises and onto the newly-introduced chairs.
But luck never sided with them when NZC issued a media release after considerable delay which read: “The side was to play Pakistan this evening [New Zealand time] in the first of three ODIs in Rawalpindi, before moving to Lahore for a five-match T20 series. However, following an escalation in the New Zealand Government threat levels for Pakistan, and advice from NZC security advisors on the ground, it has been decided the BLACKCAPS will not continue with the tour. Arrangements are now being made for the team’s departure. But NZC will not comment on the details of the security threat nor the updated arrangements for the departing squad.”
NZC chief executive David White said it was simply not possible to continue with the tour given the advice he was receiving. “I understand this will be a blow for the PCB, who have been wonderful hosts, but player safety is paramount and we believe this is the only responsible option.”
New Zealand Cricket Players Association chief executive Heath Mills echoed White’s sentiments.
“We’ve been across this process throughout and are fully supportive of the decision,” Mills said. “The players are in good hands; they’re safe — and everyone’s acting in their best interests.”
This isn’t the first instance of a New Zealand team abruptly refusing to tour the country. They had pulled out of a planned visit in 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks after the squad had already landed in Hong Kong on their way to Pakistan.
Subsequently, that series eventually took place in April/May 2002. However, tragedy then cut that tour on the first morning of the second and final Test in Karachi; that game was immediately cancelled when a car bomb near the team’s hotel killed 11 French engineers along with three other people just as the both teams were preparing to head off to the National Stadium.
Pakistan captain Babar Azam summed up the sentiments in the country where fans have been starved of live action involving top teams.
“Extremely disappointed on the abrupt postponement of the (NZ) series, which could have brought the smiles back for millions of Pakistan cricket fans,” tweeted the batsman.
Former Pakistan fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar tweeted: “NZ just killed Pakistan cricket.”While the scheduled standalone bilateral white-ball series stands now firmly cancelled, the clouds of uncertainty over the fate of scheduled series during this home season remain over the horizon.
The England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) announced on Friday that they are monitoring the development and would only reach a definite verdict in the 24-48 hours. Apart from the Eoin Morgan-led side, England women will be touring Pakistan for two T20 matches — to be played on the same dates as the men’s fixture — and three One-day Internationals, which are also due to be staged in Rawalpindi.
“We are liaising with our security team who are on the ground in Pakistan to fully understand the situation,” the England Cricket Board said, adding a decision would be made in the next 24-48 hours.
The West Indies are set to visit these shores in December before Pakistan host Australia for the first time on their soil after a gap of more than 24 years next February and March after holding the seventh edition of the Pakistan Super League.
Besides all these, the PCB have highly ambitious plans to host at least six ICC events in the next eight-year cycle if the game’s governing body approves.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2021