Cricket in Pakistan is more than just a game


The crowd around me in Karachi’s National Stadium roars and a joyful cacophony of plastic vuvuzelas dissolves in the Arabian Sea breeze. Ahead of us, 6ft 6in bowling sensation Shaheen Afridi lumbers forward, picking up speed as he tries to shake off not just Australian batter David Warner, but the demons that have plagued Pakistani cricket for years.

It is Australia’s first cricket tour since 1998. A spiral of violence in the country following the 2001 war in neighboring Afghanistan led international parties to boycott it for years over security concerns. A suicide bomb exploded outside the New Zealand hotel in 2002 and gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan bus in 2009.

International cricket has returned in recent years, with teams including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and South Africa, although New Zealand and England canceled tours last year due to alleged threats to Security.

Australia are the first of cricket’s ‘top three’ nations – which include England and India – to visit Pakistan since 2006. It brings more than just relief for the cricket-loving country of more than 200 million inhabitants. This is an opportunity for Pakistan, led by former cricketer Imran Khan, to tell the world that the worst days of destabilizing insurgencies and terrorist massacres that have plagued it for the past two decades are over. .

“A whole generation grew up without coming to the stadium and without watching their heroes. It was a huge loss,” says cricket writer SM Hussain. “This series is a game changer.”

Cricket has remained central to the appeal of Khan, who led Pakistan until winning the 1992 World Cup. Even as double-digit inflation and accusations of mismanagement plague his popularity, voters have nostalgic memories of the prime minister as chief cricketer. “The same cricketer still lives in him,” Safee Ul Hassan, a doctor who attends the game with friends, tells me with a dazed smile. “His political discussions are like those of a cricket captain.”

The tour is an opportunity for new stars like Afridi and hitters Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan to prove themselves. They nearly tasted glory last November, reaching the short format World Cup Twenty20 semi-final after beating rivals India. Australia’s visit also paves the way for England and New Zealand to return later this year.

Pakistan says it gave the Australian team security usually reserved for heads of state. Armed police dressed in black monitor the stadium from nearby buildings and military helicopters are reportedly watching the team bus.

Australia’s arrival in Karachi is also symbolic. The port megacity is the economic engine of Pakistan, but was for years considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. But a crackdown by controversial special forces police has reduced homicides from around 2,000 a year a decade ago to less than 500 last year, according to the local Citizen Police Liaison Committee.

Naveed James, a medical equipment salesman, is bringing his children – Tanisha, 22, and Nathaniel, 15 – to Pakistan after a generational hiatus. “When I was young, I came several times,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve brought my family.”

However, the situation remains tense. Authorities have long been accused of tacitly allowing extremist groups to operate in Pakistan. And while Khan hailed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year, it has emboldened domestic extremists. The number of terrorist attacks jumped 42% in 2021 year on year, according to think tank Pak Institute for Peace Studies. On the first day of play between Pakistan and Australia near the capital Islamabad, an Isis-K suicide bomber massacred more than 60 people at a Shia mosque 100 miles from Peshawar.

A revival of cricket may not be enough to save Khan’s sleeves. Inflation and depleted foreign exchange reserves led to an economic crisis, with opposition parties tabling a new no-confidence motion to sack him. Political analysts expect a close vote this month.

My day on the pitch was disappointing for Pakistan. Afridi and other bowlers struggled to separate the Australian batters, who established a decisive lead that dashed the hosts’ hopes of triumph. Still, the crowd was lively and showed generous enthusiasm for Australia’s achievements, including the century marked by Pakistani-born striker Usman Khawaja. They had waited 24 years for this moment.


Comments are closed.