28 Jan 2010
Cricket: A Dangerous Game
Once seen as a gentleman’s sport, cricket today has become a serious security concern, thanks to growing terrorist attacks in South Asia, Sudeshna Sarkar writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Sudeshna Sarkar for ISN
When the game of cricket was invented in the 16th century, it was regarded as a gentleman’s sport and a metaphor for chivalrous behavior. But when megabuck multinational companies began invading the pitch with sponsorship offers, the spirit of commercialization overtook the spirit of gallantry, and the seedy side of the game was exposed most notably when South African cricket icon Hansie Cronje was banned for life from playing in 2000 after admitting he was involved in match fixing.
Now there is an even darker factor inextricably bound with the game: terrorism.
Diplomacy and terrorism up to bat
The latest manifestation of the cricket-terrorism link occurred this month, ahead of the Indian Premier League (IPL) matches that kick off in India in March. It has put South Asian neighbors - particularly cricket and nuclear arms rivals India and Pakistan - at loggerheads once again, stoking the tension that had flared up after terror attacks in India’s commerce capital Mumbai in November 2008 in which over 170 people were killed.
The IPL, a three-year-old fixture that brings together cricketers from all over the world, begins with an ‘auction’ in which team owners bid for players. At the auction on 19 January, to the shock of the cricket community, none of the teams made an offer for the 11 Pakistani cricketers available, though the line-up included ace players like Shahid Afridi, an all-rounder who had played in the first edition of the tournament.
The exclusion is linked to the Mumbai attacks, which India says were blueprinted in Pakistan with the support of Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Two earlier terror attacks targeting the same city in 1993 and 2003 are also believed to have links to Pakistan. Consequently, there was a strong possibility that the two ultra-nationalist parties that dominate Mumbai - the Shiv Sena of powerful trade union leader Bal Thackeray and the Maharshtra Navnirman Samiti of his nephew Raj Thackeray - would try to disrupt the matches there. The fear of violence and even attacks on Pakistani players led to the bidders passing them over.
But the maneuver to pre-empt domestic violence has triggered a fresh diplomatic standoff between the two countries.
Pakistan Sports Minister Ijaz Jakhrani flayed the incident according to local media reports: “The way India behaved with us is highly condemnable. We will give a befitting reply. When there is a question of Pakistan's pride, we all are united.”
The issue was also taken up by Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who said the exclusion was an insult to the Pakistani players and indicated that India was not serious about the peace process. "India or any other country that does not give respect to Pakistan will be treated the same way by us," Malik told Pakistani television stations. “If there is a desire to improve Indo-Pakistan friendship, respect should be given to Pakistani sportspersons.”
While angry crowds burnt effigies of IPL chief Lalit Modi in Pakistan, its National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza termed the exclusion a conspiracy and announced that, in protest, Islamabad would not send a parliamentary delegation to India. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party has also announced a boycott of official visits to New Delhi and demanded a ban on Indian films in Pakistan.
The diplomatic offensive forced India’s External Affairs Ministry to issue a rejoinder, distancing the government from the IPL, which is a private organization.
“Blaming the government for the absence of Pakistani players from the next edition of IPL is unfortunate," the statement said. “The participation or absence of Pakistani cricketers in a commercial event of the nature of IPL is, thus, a matter not within the purview of the government. Pakistan should introspect on the reasons which have put a strain on relations between India and Pakistan, and have adversely impacted on peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”
The message was reinforced by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, who told the Indian media, “[The] government has nothing to do with IPL, on selection of players and various exercises that are connected with it. So, Pakistan will have to draw a line between where the government of India is connected and where government of India is an actor.”
Symptoms and causes
Ironically, while their diplomatic ties worsen, cricket in both India and Pakistan has been the victim of terrorism.
In 2009, the IPL had to be shifted from India to South Africa after the Mumbai siege caused security concerns, heightened by fears of domestic violence since India was holding elections around the same time.
Islamabad, for its part, suffered when in 2009, for the first time in the history of cricket, gunmen attacked a visiting team in Lahore, killing eight people.
On 3 March 2009, about a dozen terrorists, wearing body armor and armed with rifles and rocket launchers, attacked a bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers and officials near the Gaddafi Sports Stadium in Lahore, triggering international condemnation.
The Lankan team was immediately recalled home, while Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksha cut short his state visit abroad to return to Colombo. Subsequently, Pakistan lost the right to co-host the World Cup series in 2011 and the ICC Champions Trophy tournament, the second-most important cricketing event after the World Cup, was shifted to South Africa from Pakistan.
In addition, New Zealand called off its Pakistan tour scheduled for the end of 2009, reviving the dark memories of 2002 when it had done the same thing after a bomb attack in Karachi killed 13 people.
It was Justin Vaughan, New Zealand Cricket's chief executive, who voiced the fears of the cricket community that it had now become a specific target of terrorist attacks.
“It's very frightening that for the first time a cricket team is what appears to be the specific target of terrorist action,” Vaughan said according to media reports. “That's never happened before - previously all the incidents have been about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is a very different proposition and … a very frightening one for world cricket.”
Sudeshna Sarkar is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Nepal.
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