It was a day after my birthday, and I remember it as clearly as yesterday. On March 3, 2009, in Lahore, 12 gunmen attacked the convoy of the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team en route to the Gaddafi Stadium.
The deadly attack ended with six policemen and two civilians dead. Six Sri Lankan players, two staff members, and one reserve umpire were injured. The audacious act of terror unleashed an air of fear and gloom not just in Pakistan but also shocked the entire cricket-playing world.
The reasons were myriad. To have heavily armed terrorists wreak havoc in broad daylight in one of the poshest residential and commercial areas of Lahore, and kill and injure so many people was enough to send a wave of dread throughout Pakistan.
In addition, this was an attack, ostensibly to inflict maximum damage, on the visiting team of the sport highly followed and loved in Pakistan. The Sri Lankan cricket team, despite being a sporting rival, has always been much admired in the country, and on top of that, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, two SAARC nations, have always enjoyed a very warm relationship. Pakistan and Sri Lanka remained friends, but March 9, 2009 initiated the darkest phase of international cricket in Pakistan.
Pakistan thus became a persona non grata as a cricketing host, and while it may have had tremendous financial repercussions, the moral and emotional impact of this ostracising has been nothing less than a nightmare. The UAE became the neutral ground for Pakistan to play its international games, and Pakistani spectators of cricket the most popular sport in the country in terms of stadium and televised viewing remained deprived of cricket. Australia had refused to visit Pakistan after 9/11, and India pulled out citing security reasons after the horrific 2008 Mumbai attacks. The Sri Lankan team stepped in, and the response to their sporting largesse was what nightmares are made of.
The next blow, though not unexpected, was the International Cricket Councils cancellation of the holding of 2009 Champions Trophy in Pakistan. Security concerns were the cited reason. The scenario remained immovable for six years. And as most cricket playing nations hosted single and multi-team tournaments, Pakistan remained merely a guest. International cricket in Pakistan became comatose, some gleefully terming it as the death of cricket here.
Acts of terrorism have wreaked havoc in Pakistan in the last decade or more, and more than 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed. Nothing seems to give, but since the devastating terror attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014, there has been a renewed resolve to stand together as a nation for categorical elimination of terrorist activities.
And while Pakistan is still under attack, there is an eagerness to work on altering the global perception vis-à-vis the real Pakistan, the Pakistan of 99.99 per cent Pakistanis who are normal, regular people. And while there are the obvious mediums of mainstream and social media, there is an unparalleled dynamism to sporting events, and thats where cricket comes in. Despite its limited popularity globally, cricket attracts a huge audience in the subcontinent, and therefore, it is no surprise that the Zimbabwe cricket teams tour to Pakistan for a series of two T20s and three One-Day Internationals has evoked tremendous joy in the cricket-loving nation.
It is to the credit of the Zimbabwean government, cricket board and cricket team that the invitation to play a series in Lahore has been accepted. As Shuja Khanzada, Home Minister, Punjab, reiterated to the Guardian: Whatever resources we have available here in Pakistan we will utilise them to ensure a peaceful tour for the Zimbabwean team. Flawless security provided to the visiting African team would be the real test of Pakistan governments resolve to manifest that all visitors are not just our guests but also our responsibility in terms of ensuring their safety. While the regular Pakistani does not go around brandishing assault rifles and grenade launchers, that is the image embedded in the minds of cricket-followers since March 3, 2009. Ergo it is imperative to ensure that the Zimbabwean cricket team is treated with utmost hospitality and warmth, and provided state-of-the art security. This may not be the ideal scenario depressing indeed it is to see so much security on a joyous occasion like a sporting tournament — but until things take a more permanent turn for the better, it is crucial for Pakistan to ensure that all lives are safe, be they of Pakistanis, the foreigners working here, tourists visiting the picturesque northern areas, or sportspersons stepping up when not many are willing to visit a terror-ridden country. With an improved law-enforcement system, and strict legal procedures, curbing of terrorist activities would be a simpler task, and that is what Pakistan needs to do on an emergency footing.
Until then the simple pleasure of viewing the exquisiteness of the turn of a ball be it in hockey, tennis, squash, and at the moment cricket, will be a distant dream. Like replicating the splendour of World Cup 1992.
Mehr Tarar is a columnist based in Pakistan
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.