The great game at the ends of the earth

There is little prospect of Pakistan returning home any time soon to a country which has suffered more than 7,000 terrorist incidents since 2006.

IT hasn’t gathered many headlines in Ireland, but the remarkable series of matches played by Pakistan’s exiled cricket team on English turf this summer could carry huge ramifications for international sport, and world peace, over the next nine months.

Pakistan is one of the great cricket nations, producing some of the most thrilling players in the history of the game. They invented reverse swing which is now the decisive weapon in pace bowling attacks, and one of their former heroes, 1992 World Cup captain Imran Khan, is an outspoken political activist and spokesman, albeit of a party started by himself and consisting of one MP.

Pakistan have not been able to play at home since the deadly grenade and rocket attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in 2009 as players and match officials travelled by coach to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, capital of the Punjab.

This was the first terrorist strike against a national sports team since the massacre of Israeli athletes by Black September in 1972 in Munich. Since then we have witnessed another fatal assault, this time against the Togo football team just before the African Cup of Nations in January. Pakistan have become a touring club, playing their fixtures in Dubai and then this summer against Australia and England at “neutral” venues such as Edgbaston in Birmingham, Headingley in Yorkshire and Lord’s in London where they have attracted large and enthusiastic crowds, and earned their first victory over the Baggy Green Caps in more than a decade.

There is little prospect of them returning home any time soon to a country which has suffered more than 7,000 terrorist incidents since 2006 and where the influential English language Daily Times says from its offices in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore: “International cricket is no longer possible in Pakistan. The question here is of the survival of Pakistan, not of cricket.”

Next winter, between February and April, the cricket World Cup is scheduled for the sub-continent. Pakistan was originally selected as one of the hosts but the matches are now to be divided between India, Sri Lanka, and at Dhaka in Bangladesh, the seventh most densely populated country in the world which was known, until 1971, as East Pakistan.

Into this febrile atmosphere will be stepping Ireland, the best performing associate team of the International Cricket Conference since the last World Cup. Their place was claimed by dint of beating Canada in the 2009 qualifying tournament in South Africa. Their Group B will include England and India.

While the competition promises to be spectacular, to the north there is a team which will be watching rather than participating. And home for them is a place which is equally as dangerous as Pakistan, with which it is often compared as a “failing state.”

Afghanistan do not play their matches in Kabul, or Jalalabad, or Kandahar, partly because of security and partly because in the wreckage of their country they cannot provide an international standard pitch. Their home ground is in the Sharjah Stadium in the United Arab Emirates.

Their sport is one of the few that is given the blessing of the Taliban, both when they held power in the country, and since they have been leading the insurgency against Hamid Karzai and the ISAF.

The Afghans’ match experience included a game against Ireland where they achieved their highest-ever team score (147-2) and their narrowly unsuccessful campaign to qualify for 2011 has been captured in a documentary “Out of the Ashes” which premiered at last month’s Edinburgh international film festival and will be shown on the BBC Storyville series later this year.

Assisting with this project was stage and film director Sam Mendes who said: “Sport and art bring countries together, when everything else seems to be pushing them apart. ‘Out of the Ashes’ puts a human face to a nation that many have turned their back on. I was moved by the story and very taken by the vivid characters.”

The most memorable of them is the team’s coach, Taj Malik, filmed as he leads his team from the first round of the World Cup qualifiers in 2008 against sides such as Japan and Nepal until his eventual, and heartbreaking, replacement by an old pro parachuted in from Pakistan, ex-player Kabir Khan.

Khan propels his squad, some of whom first played the game in the dust and rubble of refugee camps, to a winner-takes-all encounter against Canada. They lose. That’s sport.

But it’s a different kind of Great Game that has been played across the crudely delineated tribal boundaries of Afghanistan for the past two centuries. Firstly by imperial powers such as Britain and Russia, more recently by hard-eyed religious fundamentalists.

Next winter’s cricket World Cup will get underway at more or less the same time that the United States starts making its withdrawal of troops to give President Obama a much-needed popularity boost before mid-term elections.

Last week Imran Khan was touring England, telling anyone who cares to listen that terrorists will attack Britain in revenge for invading Afghanistan. Meanwhile the world’s greatest-ever spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan took his 800th Test wicket and reflected, perhaps, that it was a milestone that he may never have reached had the Lahore “commandos” got their way. There will be a feast of sport early next spring in Asia. It’s their favoured game, but will the Taliban, and their supporters, stop to watch?



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