Saturday, 7 March 2009

Cricketers become terrorist targets

Cricket will never be quite the same again, especially in the Indian sub-continent, following the attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore, on 3 March 2009, by suspected Islamist gunmen. For Pakistan, the incident is almost certainly bound to deter international teams from visiting the country, at least for the short to medium term, until the general security situation in the country improves. Only Sri Lanka was prepared to take the risk, to support a fellow South Asian country affected by terrorism; now even they won’t be returning in a hurry after their players narrowly escaped with their lives. It was an incident that many people, including players, commentators, and cricket officials had been dreading, especially after the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. Now that it has happened, we have passed an unprecedented psychological milestone.

The attack happened in a residential area of Lahore in Punjab. Eight people, including six policemen, were killed. Although no group has so far claimed responsibility for the attack, the likely perpetrators of the attack could be Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) – the same group blamed for the Mumbai attacks last year. LeT is headquartered around Lahore and under pressure from the US and India, the Pakistani military has been moving against LeT assets in the country. LeT was originally set up by the Pakistani military to fight Indian rule in Kashmir, but it has since widened its activities. The daring attack on the Sri Lankan team demonstrates the boldness with which many militant groups operate in Pakistan, and the withering writ of the Pakistani state.

Now that cricketers have become targets for terrorists, it is important that security is dramatically stepped up for them. New security arrangements must ensure their safety at hotels, city roads and cricket grounds. Perhaps the distinctive team bus may have to be abandoned, and players transported in bomb proof cars. The Lahore attacks demonstrated at least a moderate level of planning by the terrorists, so every aspect of a cricket match including transport, accommodation and the play must be reviewed. The Indian Home Minister, P Chidambaram, has been going out of his way to ensure that cricket will be safe in India. In a recent press conference he said, "I want cricket to be played in India. Nobody needs to worry about safety while playing in India."

In India cricket is more than just a sport, it is a national obsession. It is played in almost every nook and cranny, and followed by hundreds of millions of cricket fans. It is one of the few sports that Indians have actually been able to do well at the international level, relying more on guile and skill rather than sheer physical strength. The game is also a great unifying force in a large and diverse country, bringing together players from different regions and rendering insignificant the everyday divisions of language, religion, class and caste. It may have been brought to India by the British, but today India is the powerhouse of international cricket, contributing up to 80% of world cricket’s revenue.

Already questions have been raised about this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL) and the World Cup in 2011. Organisers of the IPL, who could lose up to £300 million if the tournament is cancelled, are adamant the tournament will go ahead, although the timetable may be altered so that matches do not clash with polling days in India’s upcoming general elections. Some foreign players, who are yet to sign binding contracts, may decide to pull out of the tournament. There’s no doubt security for the tournament presents a tough challenge, and so it is important that the government and the organisers work together collectively if they want the tournament to be safe.

This is not the end of cricket in the sub-continent by any means. It is far too popular for that to happen. Teams may well avoid Pakistan for the coming years but, like in the past, matches can be played in UAE, Malaysia and other places which are considered safer. For a country that has consistently denied terrorism emanating from within its borders, the only silver lining in the Lahore attack is that the humiliation of not hosting cricket matches at home may finally force the general public and establishment to recognise that they have a problem.

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