On a kife-edge

2009-03-06 00:00

IT is not just Pakistan cricket that has been wounded by the attack on the Sri Lankan players in Lahore.

The entire cricket family has been hurt. It will not be whole again until law and order is restored in Pakistan and the threat posed to world security by terrorists is reduced to manageable proportions.

This could be a very long time. The next World Cup is scheduled to be held on the subcontinent, but following the Mumbai attacks by Pakistani-based terrorists, can that tournament be safely held anywhere with borders contiguous to Pakistan?

The ICC cannot ignore that Pakistan is perilously close to becoming a failed state. The Taliban is in de facto control of northern Pakistan and large swathes of other parts of the country. The government of Pakistan has a tenuous hold at best over those regions not controlled by the Taliban. Law and order cannot be said to exist in any major city or town.

Last year, the police were shown to be totally ineffectual when Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister of the country, was assassinated. There is no reason to expect that they would be any more successful looking after visiting cricket teams. No sane cricketer would agree to tour Pakistan in present circumstances.

It would be a mistake to assume that high-profile cricket matches in India will not receive the same kind of unwelcome attention dispersed on Tuesday to the Sri Lankans. The message is clear: cricketers are not only unsafe on the subcontinent, they have become targets. In the light of this week’s attack in Lahore, would the England cricketers have been so willing to return to India after the Mumbai incidents?

It may be that some cricketers will be willing to risk body and soul to play in next month’s IPL tournament, but those with an ounce of intelligence will realise a pay packet of easy money may not be worth the risk. The war being waged by Islamic fundamentalists has overflowed national borders across the world and it would seem that any emblem of the west has become a target irrespective of its locality.

This is the real problem now confronting the ICC. Cricket has always been the most easily disturbed of all sports. The sheer length of cricket matches, particularly Test matches, makes protecting them hugely expensive.

If international matches cannot be played in India, the financial lifeblood of the game is at risk. In no time the game and its players will join all those for whom the world at present is a grim struggle for survival.

But are those countries outside of the subcontinent any safer? Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean are relatively free from the predations of terrorists but what of the rest? One hopes that South Africa could be bracketed with those three countries but how much confidence do we have that cells of Islamic terrorists do not exist within our borders and, if they do, to what extent are our own security forces sharp enough to foil any terrorist activity?

What of England, the home of cricket and a host of other sports? Although England exports hordes of cricket and rugby fans to various parts of the world thus enhancing the visited economies another more sinister export also flows out of that country. England, according to the CIA, is now among the world’s most prolific suppliers of Islamic extremists.

So serious has this problem become that, according to Tim Shipman, the Washington correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, a senior former CIA officer who still freelances for the agency says “Britain is an Islamic swamp.” As far as the United States is concerned, Britain is not part of the Islamic problem — it is the problem. Bruce Riedel, who has just been appointed to head up Obama’s Afghan strategy, says the million or so Pakistanis living in Britain are regarded by the CIA as the biggest single threat to international security.

The US believes that if there is to be a repeat of 9/11, it will be carried out by British Muslim terrorists. This sobering assessment needs to be considered by the ICC before it can honestly declare that Britain is safer for cricketers than any of the subcontinent countries.

The harsh reality facing the ICC is that, at the highest level, cricket has a very small family. It cannot afford to move ahead as an international sport without the active playing and financial support of the subcontinent countries. It would be unwise to wipe one of them, Pakistan, off the cricket map without considering the dangers facing international cricket in England and elsewhere.

The world in general and cricket in particular has entered a period of dangerous uncertainty. The events in Pakistan cannot be dismissed as a little local difficulty. The ICC has always been reluctant to engage the players in the form of their international association, but in times like this the game cannot be carried forward without full and frank discussions of the dangers facing all the game’s stakeholders.

Cricket will continue, but the cost of the game in certain parts of the world must now embrace security arrangements more comprehensive than anything the ICC has hitherto contemplated. Because sponsorship and other revenues of the game are under threat, this added burden will be heavily felt.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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