Hope is hit out the park
Cricket is Pakistan’s life and soul, writes Kamila Shamsie. But after the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket side in Lahore, these lie in tatters
On a bright morning in March 2004 I heard a cheer so loud it drowned out all conversation in the stands of Karachi’s National Stadium.
I immediately looked to the field, thinking the cricketers must have walked on to warm up before the game started.
Only cricketers could draw that kind of cheer from such a heterogeneous Pakistani crowd. But the field was empty, and for explanation I had to turn towards the entry to the stands, where a large group of spectators had just walked in, carrying the largest Indian flag I’d ever seen.
The cheers for those Indian spectators and their flags went on throughout the day, and when the nail-biting game ended in an Indian victory, every Pakistani still left smiling. “Cricket won today,” someone told me. “The nation won today,” said someone else.
When anyone claims cricket is “just a game”, I always point to that bright Karachi day and try to explain the euphoria that raced through the stands, the sense of history pausing in its tired, war-mongering steps and considering another route.
Observers, national and international, correctly analysed that the cheers for the Indians revealed the deep desire of “the average Pakistani” (a term synonymous with “cricket fan”) for the governments of both nations to put aside their jingoism and bellicose posturing.
But there was something else at play in Karachi that day. The citizens of that bloodied, resilient city were sending a message to cricket boards worldwide that had long deemed Karachi too unsafe to play in, often scheduling tours that excluded the National Stadium. It was: “Come and play here; we’re not terrorists.”
Pakistan is not a country that attracts international audiences and participants from the world of arts and culture. So all my life, cricket has been the only truly high-profile opportunity for the world to see televised images of Pakistan that are not about politics or terrorism—or, increasingly, the grim overlap between the two.
Cricket is front and centre, heart and soul, of Pakistan’s “alternative narrative”, the story that isn’t about destruction and terror, but about all the aspects of life in Pakistan worth celebrating and also, just as crucially, about all the aspects as unremarkable and harmless as a ball tapped to mid-on for no run in the last session of a dead rubber.
With the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore, that alternative narrative lies so wounded it’s hard to imagine how it can recover.
How can we ask anyone to visit us if even cricketers aren’t safe? How can we feel safe ourselves when we have seen one of our most glorious cricket pitches turned into a helipad for the army to airlift players out to safety?
The attack on the Sri Lankan players and their security detail is not an isolated horror, nor is it the worst thing to happen to Pakistan in the past few months. The bombing of girls’ schools, the attack on civilians by the armed forces in their failed attempts to curb militancy, the defence of “honour killings” by members of the government—all these crimes speak profoundly to the rot in the system.
But the reason so many of us are knocked sideways by this attack is that the terrorists have reached into that place we always thought of as a refuge, where Pakistan could compete with the best in the world, where we had space to believe that a man running in to throw a red sphere at another man holding a piece of wood was the most vital matter confronting the nation.
“Perhaps, if we try desperately for a silver lining, we can say ...,” one of my friends ventured, before her voice trailed off into gloomy silence.
But I knew the end of her sentence. “If a group attacks cricket the whole nation will turn against them. So if people believe it was the Taliban or the Lashkar-e-Taiba ...”
But the sadder truth at the heart of Pakistan’s psyche is that we have been made so cynical, so mistrustful of the world that there is unlikely to be agreement about who sent the gunmen. The government is already saying the attack was meant to destroy Pakistan’s international reputation (which every Pakistani recognises as code for “India did it”).
And if the Taliban or the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba or any other group is blamed, many will say cricket is so loved that the attack is just a set-up to harden public opposition to those groups and justify any action the government takes against them.
A few weeks ago in Karachi I was being interviewed on a talk show.
“What are the three things you want for Pakistan?” my host asked.
“Get rid of the Taliban. Overhaul the political system so we don’t see any of the old faces again and, please, find someone willing to come here for a cricket tour.” As of yesterday, I have to take that last hope off the table.
First Karachi, then the world
The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan’s cultural capital, Lahore, bears all the hallmarks of the terrorists behind the Mumbai offensive: the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Twelve men carrying machine guns leapt out of rickshaws, carrying rocket launchers and wearing backpacks. They proceeded to spray bullets into the convoy, which was en route to the city’s Gaddafi stadium.
It was an audacious attack and, like the Mumbai tragedy, planned to cause mayhem and grab headlines. Not since the Munich Olympics have athletes been specifically targeted.
Lashkar-e-Taiba is a hardline Islamist organisation founded in 1986 as a jihadi group aimed at bombing the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Following its success, Pakistan’s army armed and sheltered the outfit, redirecting it to target the Indian army in the disputed region of Kashmir. It was there that it developed its trademark fidayeen suicide squads.
Western intelligence agencies have warned that Lashkar has global ambitions. The United States became alarmed when a Lashkar leader turned up in Baghdad in 2004. After the Mumbai attack the computer belonging to Lashkar’s communications chief revealed a document listing more than 320 cities on a global hit list.
Although Pakistan’s government has cracked down on Lashkar and arrested some of its leaders, the group continues to run hospitals, schools, seminaries, newspapers and charity organisations throughout Pakistan.—Randeep Ramesh,