Fearless cricketers needed to lead nervous nellies to Pakistan

2008-08-15 00:00

If at all possible, the sporting show must go on. All things remaining equal, cricketers must put aside their fears and go to Pakistan to play in the Champion’s Trophy, due to take place between September 12 and 26. Withdrawal must be a last resort, not a first option. Anyone waiting for perfect calm to shave will grow a long beard. Always, there is some disturbance in the volatile group countries that dominate this game. It might be xenophobia, religious conflict, political turmoil, violent protests, crime waves , health worries or goodness knows what.

Cricket is no longer the game of the village green. It belongs not to blacksmiths but to businessmen, and sometimes politicians.

If every horror caused the cancellation of sporting events, then hardly any could take place.

After all, the safest thing to do is nothing at all. But then the spirit withers. A 19-year-old boy buys a motorbike. Must teenagers be held back? Life itself is dangerous. And nowadays every alarm echoes around the planet. Georgia, Darfur, East Timor – they have all become familiar names and their troubles are shared. A single picture conveys a nation. The sensation becomes commonplace. Meanwhile, daily life grinds along. Anyone visiting Ireland in the 1970s will confirm that it was overwhelmingly safe. But to the outside world it seemed a place of bitterness and bombs.

It’s not going to be easy to persuade mollycoddled cricketers to go to Pakistan. Although it has settled down since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it is hardly a haven of tranquility.

Seeking vengeance for raids on its strongholds, the Taliban have renewed their attacks on the establishment. In the last few days, suicide bombers have blown up an air force bus near Peshawar (where Wasim Akram once saw a street trader shoot a nearby dog by way of proving the accuracy of his rifles) and killed civilians in Lahore, one of the two cities scheduled to stage matches. As a result, Australia has closed its consular offices in Lahore and Karachi. Strong travel warnings have been issued. But officials always err on the side of caution.

Inevitably, these recent outrages have increased the likelihood of cricketers raised in quieter locations withdrawing from the tournament. Yet, as servants of the game, they must not lightly let it down. Apart from anything else, reluctant travelers will be accused of having double standards. Some of them were happy to visit India a few months ago and to stay after bombs exploded. Shane Warne, Graeme Smith and Shane Watson ignored the devastation to take the Rajasthan Royalists to glory, though their state experienced the worst of it.

Did the rich rewards influence their decision? Or did they realise that it was not as risky on the ground as it seemed in the papers? Perhaps, too, they became aware that cricketers have never been targets in that region. At any rate they stayed put, stoical as the smoke cleared. Have their voices now been heard urging colleagues to keep their nerves?

Alas, cricket, or at any rate its First World countries, has often seemed timid. On the inevitable advice of a security company, New Zealand refused to go to Kenya in 2003, a decision that cost them a place in the later stages of the World Cup. Sri Lanka went to Nairobi and returned with sore egos and safe bodies. South Africa abandoned a tour of Sri Lanka after a bomb exploded in a street, and never mind that schools from hereabouts were desperate to stay, or that numerous sportsmen from around the world were arriving as they departed. At one stage, senior players did no want to go to Pakistan after a bomb went off in an empty warehouse in Karachi — never mind that it was a gangland gesture.

But the Australians have been the worst offenders, twice declining to play in Sri Lanka and more recently refusing to go to Pakistan. Since it occurred close to election time, the Pakistani withdrawal was defensible, but the others were craven capitulations. Meanwhile, bolder teams picked up the slack and emerged unscathed

Now these same players are prepared to go to Colombo in the event of the Champion’s Trophy being switched to its alternative venue. Yet Sri Lanka is subject to the same travel warnings as Pakistan. It, too, has its conflicts and its extremists and its threats. Maybe the players are not so much fearful as taking the chance to pick and choose.

Cricketers are becoming soft; fast bowling has been killed off, batsmen have been given helmets and gaga pitches. It’s starting to show.

At least the South Africans have become more rounded. They were in Pakistan amid the worst of the election violence and completed the tour. Perhaps Smith and company can show leadership again by expressing their willingness to play in Pakistan, thereby setting an example to the nervous nellies.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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