December 26, 2008 11:11 pm

Testing times for Pakistani cricket

For some time Pakistani cricket has been obeying every sub-clause of Murphy’s Law, which states that pretty much everything that could go wrong has done precisely that.

The scars left by the match-fixing scandal of the mid-1990s remain deep. Terrorist attacks have confirmed Lahore and Karachi as the game’s least desirable destinations. Bob Woolmer, the highly respected national coach, was found dead in his hotel room shortly after a shock loss to Ireland at last year’s World Cup. The investigation into his death, in which foul play was at first wrongly suspected, led to wild conjecture and further distress. Almost inevitably his successor, Geoff Lawson, the seventh coach in a decade, did not remain in post too long.

Furthermore, there was the ball-tampering allegations in a match at The Oval, London, against England in 2006 that prompted a sit-down strike by the Pakistan team and Test cricket’s first forfeiture of a match.

Again the reverberations have been long, loud and damaging, to cricket as a whole and Pakistan’s self-image in particular. One of the umpires, the Australian Darrell Hair, was stood down from Tests but his correct, if hasty and inflexible, decision to suspend play and award England victory was overruled this year. The International Cricket Council declared the match a draw but even now the MCC, the guardian of the game’s laws, is protesting that the original result should stand.

Threaded through it all was the Mohammad Asif saga. Repeatedly found guilty of drug offences – though some verdicts were quashed on appeal – Pakistan’s finest young fast bowler was suspended from all cricket in August pending his appeal against a ban for taking the steroid nandrolone while playing in the Indian Premier League. The appeal hearing is scheduled for January 24 in London.

Earlier this month television viewers witnessed an emotional public apology. “I have committed mistake after mistake and for that I apologise to the nation,” said a tearful Asif. “I have disregarded the green Pakistan blazer but I promise that if I get the next chance I will be a totally changed player.”

Blessed as they are with the talents of Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan, Shoaib Akhtar and Shahid Afridi, the national team have the wherewithal to apply a modicum of balm to these seemingly unending sores. Yet even getting on the field has encountered constant obstacles. Security concerns have prompted Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies to cancel tours to Pakistan in the past year, and a one-day series against the West Indies was relocated to Abu Dhabi. Their most recent Test was in India last December.

Nor is there any imminent prospect of improvement. India this week cancelled their planned tour of Pakistan during January and February. The decision was not surprising given how the perennially fragile peace between the two nations had been shaken by the terrorist atrocities in Mumbai last month. Many Indians blame the Pakistan government for failing to control the terrorists and even accuse it of complicity.

Zaheer Abbas, the former Pakistan captain, captured the mood of despair when asked about the consequences of a cancellation. “We will be like orphans,” he said. “The Asian countries should stand united in this hour of need and continue playing bilateral series.”

This view had been echoed before India’s cancellation announcement by another former captain, Javed Miandad, recently appointed director-general of the national board. “Cricket will bridge the gap between the two nations,” he told the Hindustan Times. “Pakistan has gone through the same ordeal. This is the right time to complement each other.”

Giles Clarke, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, has offered to stage India-Pakistan games in Britain but talk of neutral venues drew only scorn from Zaheer. “How can we inspire youngsters in our country if we play at a neutral venue?”

India, who were due to play three Tests, five one-dayers and a Twenty20 international, have not ruled out the possibility of playing in a neutral venue but no arrangements have been made for such a possibility. The Pakistan Cricket Board, which stands to lose a substantial sum in broadcasting fees and other income as a result of the cancellation, has reacted by asking Sri Lanka to provide replacement opposition. A request has been made to play three Tests, three limited-overs games and a Twenty20 international.

India, in spite of the Mumbai attacks and the renewed political tension with Pakistan, had its incentives to tour too. With the terrorist attacks now threatening its staging of the Commonwealth Games and the Cricket World Cup in 2011, compassion and goodwill were not the only causes for which captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his teammates were being urged to board that aircraft.

“If India understand the frustration of being an outcast and the joy that comes with acceptance, then they have a responsibility to tour Pakistan,” argued Cricinfo’s Suresh Menon.

“In principle at least India must accept that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

The decision not to tour, although understandable, also stands in stark contrast to England’s decision to return to India this month to play two Tests, having returned home briefly after the Mumbai attacks.

Terrorism may not have stopped international cricket in India but it is in danger of doing so in Pakistan. The lifeblood of the game in one of its leading nations is in serious peril.

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