This spells the end of international cricket in Pakistan

2009-03-03 00:00

TOURING Pakistan was definitely one of the highlights of my cricketing career.

Visiting remote places like Peshawar in the North-West Frontier province, Gurjunwala, Karachi and Lahore provided memories that will stay with me forever.

The events that unfolded yesterday in Lahore, considered by many to be one of the safer cities in Pakistan, will mean that other international cricketers will be deprived of such opportunities and that the passionate Pakistani cricket public will no longer have the chance to host international cricket teams in their troubled country.

On our tour of Pakistan in 1999 bus trips were always adventures. My favourite place to sit was up-front next to the driver where I could see the excitement of the Pakistani streets unfolding.

The throngs of people, cars, animals, bicycles, and motorbikes (often transporting families of four or five) competing for road space and traffic moving in all directions, was chaotic but fascinating.

Police escorts even then were the order of the day. Screaming sirens and flashing blue lights signalled our presence as the police tried their best to clear the roads for the team bus —it was not a speedy process. Our trip from the Pearl Continental Hotel to the Gaddaffi Stadium in Lahore, a short distance as the crow flies, took some time. Police escorts were armed with automatic guns, their fingers hovering near the trigger, but at no time did we feel they would be required to use them or that we were under any threat.

The public in Pakistan are mad about cricket, its very much part of daily life there. Even in the dusty back streets of Lahore you would be sure to find youngsters decked out in “whites” and dusty cricket jerseys, bowling at makeshift stumps. As visitors we were treated like celebrities.

All the average man in the street wanted to do was to welcome us to his country and cheer the bus as it moved on.

I can only imagine the terror of the Sri Lankans as gunmen opened fire on their bus as it made its way from the hotel to the ground and as they witnessed their police escort massacred right in front of them. The thought of the Sri Lankan players being ushered into the stadium and the change rooms our Zimbabwe team used, being transformed into makeshift emergency rooms for the injured players, makes me go cold.

Even with the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan it’s hard for cricketers to believe that they could be targets of terrorism but this is the reality.

The reason for Sri Lanka allowing their players to tour there will be highlighted, but there is no doubt that expressing subcontinental solidarity with the Pakistanis, who are in dire financial straits, will be one of the main ones.

The International Cricket Council’s security team travelled to Pakistan in November and deemed it unsafe to host the Champions Trophy there. This tournament is now due to be played in Sri Lanka in October. The future of the 2011 World Cup to be hosted on the subcontinent also hangs in the balance.

These events have signalled the end of cricket as we know it in Pakistan. It’s absolutely devastating for Pakistan and the cricketing community worldwide. I consider myself very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to experience this interesting country when it was safe to do so.

• Neil Johnson is a former Natal, WP and Zimbabwe all-rounder who lives and coaches in Pietermaritzburg.

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