Mar 5, 2009

Is it stumps for cricket at home?

By Zaffar Abbas
As if the mindless terror attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers was not depressing enough, reading the British newspapers or talking to people in London made life even more miserable. But then the state of the shock the cricketing world is in over the incident perhaps cannot be described more aptly than by assessing the prevailing atmosphere in the world’s cricketing hub, the UK.
Of course it’s no comparison to the reaction in Sri Lanka, whose test players escaped from the jaws of death in Lahore. It's also different from the response of the tens of millions of cricket-lovers in Pakistan, who are not sure if they would ever watch another test match in one of the Pakistani stadiums ever.
Sadly, Londoners are not just appalled by the idea of a terrorist attack on cricket players; many of them seem to be in a state of mourning as if the incident signals the demise of the game itself.
Just walk into a cafĂ©, or a book-store or any other shop, and if there is a cluster of people, particularly Englishmen, they are found discussing the fate of cricket, and Pakistan, in the aftermath of the Lahore incident. And the manner in which British newspapers have covered the story, it’s quite obvious this debate may go on for a considerable period of time.
In fact, Tuesday’s episode has taken the debate to the next level, where direct questions are being raised about the survival of Pakistan as a functional state.
There is not a single newspaper that has not treated the incident as its main news story. The Independent has the first six pages, back page and editorial page, dedicated to the story, with a combo of four pictures with the lead story titled: ‘We’re at war’. The screaming headline of the back-page article the cricket correspondent Stephen Brenkley reads: ‘The day of tragedy that changes cricket forever’.
The Guardian also has a number of pages dedicated to various aspects of the story, and its fallout on the game, and Pakistan’s relations with the rest of the world. It also has a detailed article by author William Dalrymple titled ‘Pakistan’s descent into chaos’. His thrust is that, ‘a volatile mix of US-led military action in the tribal areas and the government’s misguided fostering of jihadi groups threatens the stability of the entire region’.
But perhaps the most damning assessment in The Guardian is by Simon Tisdall. Building on the argument about how the world has started to view Pakistan, Tisdall writes: ‘The audacious attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket players as they traveled through Lahore has underscored fears that politically fractured, economically destitute, and militarily challenged Pakistan, if not already a failed state, is heading rapidly towards the pariah status of international outcast’.
The dominating thrust of a number of articles in ‘The Times’ and ‘Financial Times’ is also not very different, with the former dedicating the whole page one to the main story with banner headline saying: ‘sports in the line of fire as terrorists switch tactics’.
Of course, there are a few articles that try to generate some hope by arguing the case for Pakistan. Based on the comments of the Sri Lankan officials, an Independent story says: ‘cowardly attack will not affect Pakistan relations’. The editorial is even more focused as its advice is: ‘Pakistan must not capitulate to destructive extremism’. But then this view is countered by another article by cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan.
He blames the present government for not providing sufficient security, but also insists the country’s drift into chaos and anarchy is mainly because of its participation in the ‘war on terror’. His advice is that the only way to arrest the deterioration in lawlessness is by pulling out from the operations against Islamic radicals.
It’s true that some of stuff that has appeared in the British papers in relations to the Lahore incident also takes an extreme view. Some are detached from the ground reality as it exists in Pakistan and its surroundings, and a few, including William Dalrymple’s lengthy article, have a number of inaccuracies. But what seems to have drawn the attention of a whole lot of people in Britain and many other countries, particularly where cricket is a popular sport, is the manner in which terrorists in Pakistan are now not even prepared to spare innocent sportsmen.
That is what makes the Lahore episode more tragic than many more dastardly incidents of recent past. And that is why the oft repeated argument about Pakistan’s gradual slide towards becoming a failed state is now gaining more currency than ever.
Many analysts argue that there is still time for Islamabad to salvage the situation. But in order to do so, the government will require a real consensus to deal with the issue of religious extremism and terrorism. However, the manner in which the present government has mishandled one issue after another, isolating one section of society after another, suggests that instead of addressing some of the fundamental issues with maturity, it too was on suicidal mission of its own.

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