Pakistan – back in the game!
The stadiums are all full. Some of the game’s hottest stars are giving their best. The crowds are ecstatic. Centuries are flowing and hat tricks are being scored. Cricket is back in Pakistan and suddenly it feels like the good old times when balls and bats ruled, not bombs and bullets. It’s not difficult to miss the coincidence that a former sportsman is the Prime Minister of the country – indeed it was his cricket heroics, including captaining Pakistan to its only one-day international (ODI) world cup victory, that launched his second career in politics. Imran Khan may be far from the best Prime Minister Pakistan has had, but at least he is the first cricketer in the world to be elected one!
Few things unite a socio-culturally pluralistic Pakistan with its usually divisive polity like cricket. The young and old, the rich and poor and men and women alike exhibit high literacy of the game and keenly follow the fortunes of Pakistani and international stars.
And why not-- it’s about the only game the country excels in globally. It has been world champion in two formats of the game – ODIs and TwentyTwenty (T20) and has been a finalist in another two. Pakistan is currently Number 1 in a list of over 80 countries in the current T20 ranking issued by the International Cricket Council (ICC), sixth in the Top 20 countries in current ODI ranking and seventh among 12 countries in the Test ranking. That’s not all. Pakistan’s swashbuckling Babar Azam is currently ranked as Number 1 among Top 10 T20 batsmen and Imad Wasim fifth among Top 10 bowlers. Babar is also currently Number 3 among Top 10 ODI batsmen and Mohammad Amir Number 7 among Top 10 bowlers. Babar also figures at Number 7 among Top 10 Test batsmen.
And yet, startlingly, most of these heroics have happened outside Pakistan because the country has been in the wilderness in terms of hosting international teams since a bloody attack in 2009 on a bus in Lahore carrying the Sri Lankan team killed six policemen and a driver. Several players were injured while some sustained bullet wounds.
Even in the backdrop of a terrorism-afflicted Pakistan back then, this was an audacious incident with costly consequences. The attack promptly put a stop to the game in cricket-mad Pakistan. The international teams understandably stayed out of potential harm’s way even after Pakistan went on to win the battle against terrorism. Pakistan had to make UAE its ‘home ground’ to play ‘home series’ against top ranked cricketing nations. This meant tens of millions of Pakistanis were deprived of watching their own stars at home. It took several years for Pakistan to convince the game’s international establishment to urge its members to consider the country’s vastly improved security climate and its offer of a head-of-state equivalent security for cricketers and to send a team. In 2015 Zimbabwe, ranked lowly in the list of cricket countries, were finally persuaded to become the first country in five years to play a couple of matches in Pakistan. Then another dry patch. Things finally turned fortuitus in 2017 when Pakistan managed to a build the glitzy Pakistan Super League (PSL) for an annual T20 tournament starring some of the world’s best cricketers from the best teams of the world.
While PSL is not an ICC asset, it has brought dividends for Pakistan. The Pakistan Cricket Board has now successfully held three consecutive annual PSL tournaments in total safety, helping change the minds of some of the boards of cricketing nations to send their national teams. Hence Sri Lanka arrived first in 2017 for a solitary T20 and then in 2019 for two tests, three ODIs and three T20s. Then West Indies sent a team for three T20 games in 2018.
In early 2020, Bangladesh were finally persuaded to send a team for two Tests, three T20 games and one ODI match. Pakistan is now in talks with Australia and South Africa to send teams in 2020-21. While there is no confirmation yet, if these trips do materialize, at least Pakistan’s isolation is over. The icing on the cake is Pakistan sweeping all Test, ODI and Test series at home ground over the past three years and spreading joy among fans. While convincing India to play in Pakistan may be difficult for obvious reasons for now, what persuasive skills can Islamabad employ to bring the remaining ivy league of cricket home? There needs to be greater engagement by Pakistan’s cricket establishment not just with their bilateral cricket counterparts but also with the ICC. Even better would be bilateral diplomatic engagement between foreign ministries to consolidate the game at home with international stars. Pakistan is often at its best when it’s playing cricket!
Pakistan – back in the game!