Cricket in Pakistan: The game of perceptions

Perception continues to exist that Pakistan is a fundamentally unsafe country where attacks on Westerners are inevitable

Mary Hunter
Pakistan vs England was the most popular search on Google in Pakistan. Photo: PCB/File.
Pakistan vs England was the most popular search on Google in Pakistan. Photo: PCB/File.
  • Perception continues to exist that it is a fundamentally unsafe country in which attacks on Westerners are inevitable.
  • There is a sustained effort by India to mire Pakistan by giving the impression that it is stirring up unrest in the region.
  • It is a slap in the face to Pakistan if they travelled in the face of a real threat but England won’t travel in the face of a perceived threat.

On the day when New Zealand was to play cricket against Pakistan in Rawalpindi, it was announced on the New Zealand Cricket (NZC) website that the tour would be abandoned. It stated that “following an escalation in the New Zealand Government threat levels for Pakistan, and advice from NZC security advisors on the ground, it has been decided the BLACKCAPS will not continue with the tour.”

The chief executive of NZC acknowledged that this news would be disappointing but that it was the right decision to make: “I understand this will be a blow for the PCB, who have been wonderful hosts, but player safety is paramount and we believe this is the only responsible option.”

In an official statement, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) stated that it and the “Pakistan Government made foolproof security arrangements for all visiting teams. We have assured the New Zealand Cricket of the same. The Pakistan Prime Minister spoke personally to the Prime Minister of New Zealand and informed her that we have one of the best intelligence systems in the world and that no security threat of any kind exists for the visiting team.”

Though Pakistan has not recently witnessed attacks on foreign cricket teams, it has historically. On March 3, 2009, there was a terror attack against the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore which led to the deaths of several police officers and civilians. Eight members of the Sri Lankan team were injured.

According to a BBC article published shortly after the attacks, “Pakistan invited Sri Lanka to tour only after India's cricket team pulled out of a scheduled cricket tour on security grounds, following the Mumbai attacks.” 

In November 2008, there were a series of coordinated attacks in Mumbai carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba which left at least 174 people dead. The perception was thus that militant groups with bases in Pakistan were responsible for attacks within India, incriminating Pakistanis in attacks within and outside of Pakistan.

In response to the attack against the Sri Lankan team in 2009, the president of the International Cricket Council (ICC), David Morgan, had stated: "Quite clearly Pakistan is not a country where we can send cricket teams, officials and supporters in the immediate future... Having said that, Pakistan is an extremely important member of the International Cricket Council. It has produced some of the world's greatest cricketers and still has a strong team. The ICC's policy is that it must not become isolated."

This issue of isolation remains today, however. As feared by commentators across Pakistani social media, the decision of the New Zealand cricket team to abandon their tour on security grounds has had a snowball effect. England have abandoned their matches and it is anticipated that Australia will do the same.

An official statement by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) confirmed that the board has “reluctantly decided to withdraw both teams from the October trip.” In a possible attempt to soften the blow, the statement clarified that the matches to be played by the England men and the women’s team in Pakistan in October were “additional... warm-up games.” This is no consolation to the PCB nor to cricket fans the world over.

Though the impetus behind England’s abandonment was not on security grounds, the ECB suggested that it was because of the potential pressures that “concerns about travelling to the region” could have on the players who have already endured “a long period of operating in restricted COVID environments.”

This decision has been poorly received in Pakistan and understandably so. Firstly, it is not only the England team that has been operating under the pressure caused by the pandemic. Pakistan’s national team had travelled to England to play a series of One Day Internationals (ODIs) and T20 matches. Despite strict COVID protocols, the series offered some escapism to English and Pakistani cricket fans while the virus had, and continued to, cause misery around the world.

According to data released by Johns Hopkins University on September 20, 2021, the UK was 8th worldwide for the highest number of deaths caused by COVID-19, with 135,203 deaths compared to Pakistan’s 27,246. Though not an insignificant number, the Pakistan cricket team would have been forgiven for not wanting to put their lives at risk by travelling to a country that had a death rate of 201.4 compared with Pakistan’s 12.8.

But the Pakistan cricket team travelled to England and played with no serious consequences, besides losing to the England team. It is thus a slap in the face to Pakistan if they travelled in the face of a real threat but England won’t travel in the face of a perceived threat.

Secondly, travel advice for Pakistan given by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) had not changed recently, with the exception of the movement of Pakistan from the red to the amber list with regards to travel under COVID. Thus, concerns that England players allegedly have about travelling to the region do not correspond with official advice. Though Pakistan is not actually becoming more dangerous, the perception continues to exist that it is a fundamentally unsafe country in which attacks on Westerners are inevitable.

The FCDO’s section on terrorism, while acknowledging the risk of terrorism, concedes that the reintroduction of major sporting events in Pakistan has seen “increased security measures” at such events. This should also be put into the larger security context of Pakistan, which the FCDO states has “improved considerably following action by the Pakistan government and security forces.”

Therefore, the milestones that have been achieved by Pakistan for a safer Pakistan are not always acknowledged. The lack of disclosure by the New Zealand government over the alleged security concerns exacerbate the concern among Pakistanis that, no matter the security advancements they make, it will never be good enough to change perceptions.

Such perceptions, unfortunately, extend beyond cricket and terrorism. Pakistan had long remained on the UK’s red travel list, despite the fact that the rate of infection had been lower in Pakistan than in some of the countries on the UK’s amber travel list. Pakistan can thus be forgiven for its fears that decisions relating to sport and health are dictated by misleading preconceptions or political reasoning rather than safety and security considerations.

In a video released on his Twitter page, Christian Turner, the High Commissioner of the UK to Pakistan, stated that the decision to cancel England’s tour was made by the ECB who is independent of the British government. But that “the British High Commission supported the tour; did not advise against it on security grounds; and our travel advice for Pakistan has not changed. I have been a champion of international cricket’s return to Pakistan and will redouble my efforts in advance of England’s Autumn 2022 tour.” 

Given that these are the thoughts of an Englishman living in Pakistan and whose work focuses on the political and security situation therein, there would not appear to be substantial concerns that might exacerbate pressures on the England cricket team.

We cannot know whether the ECB would have cancelled the matches in Pakistan had New Zealand not abandoned their tour first. But the latter would undoubtedly have inspired fear and doubt in the minds of England’s players, which might have been the intention whether the threat was real or invented.

Pakistan’s Information Minister, Fawad Chaudhry, argued that threats to the New Zealand team had originated in India. Pakistani officials and academic institutions have been increasingly unearthing chains of disinformation that are designed to undermine Pakistan’s reputation internationally. One example was the airing of footage on Indian media, which they claimed showed Pakistani jets operating in Afghanistan to provide support against the resistance fighters. In reality, the footage was that of an American jet flying over Wales, but it was powerful enough to confirm the suspicions of some Indian commentators and to sow seeds of doubt within the international community.

Such examples of fake news, coupled with the 15-year-long (and counting) disinformation campaign by India uncovered by the EU DisinfoLab, do suggest that there is a sustained effort by India to mire Pakistan by giving the impression that it is stirring up unrest in the region. If the threat to the New Zealand cricket team was indeed fake, it would play into the pre-existing narrative that Pakistan is at best a “safe haven” for terrorists or, at worst, a terrorist state.

But this narrative and the cancellations of cricket matches harms the people of Pakistan the most. A people are known for their warm, selfless hospitality but also for their undying love for a sport which brings nations and peoples together. For it is them who must bear the brunt of an economy drained of its sporting and tourist income when the perception that Pakistan is, and will always be, inherently unsafe continues to pervade foreign minds.

— The writer is a researcher and is currently undertaking a PhD. She tweets @MaryFloraHunter.