Rais Ahmedzai is not a citizen of Pakistan but he probably has more reason than most Pakistanis to be depressed about Tuesday’s terrorist attack on a visiting cricket team in the northeastern city of Lahore. “Pakistan gave me the gift of cricket,” says the 24-year old Afghan cricketer. “Without cricket, I don’t know what I would be doing.” For Ahmedzai, being a member of the Afghan national cricket team has afforded him opportunities most people in Afghanistan only dream of: travel, money, glory, and, most importantly, the chance to forge ties among nations whose relations are normally adversarial—what has been called “cricket diplomacy.” All that is now threatened as the shock waves spread from the Lahore bloodshed.
In an attack reminiscent of the brazen terrorist assault in Mumbai, India, last November that left more than 170 people dead, a dozen heavily armed gunmen attacked the convoy of the Sri Lankan national cricket team, killing six Pakistani policemen and injuring seven players and two officials. The players, who had been en route to a test match, were taken to the stadium and airlifted out; the attackers disappeared. As speculation mounted about who was responsible, the similarities to the Mumbai massacre, which Pakistan has acknowledged was partly planned on Pakistani soil, led some to point the finger at homegrown extremists. Others said it could have been the work of the Tamil Tigers. But whoever the perpetrators were, they chose well. Not only did they succeed in raising further questions and concerns about Pakistan’s commitment to security and the fight against terror, they struck in a city that has until now been a relatively safe haven—and at the heart of a game Pakistanis love, one that has been an all-too-rare bright spot in international relations and co-operation in the region.
Cricket in the subcontinent has often been a bridge between enemies. Like hockey’s Canada-Soviet Summit Series in 1972, it has played a leading role in bringing together India and Pakistan even as they have swung periodically between potential military confrontation and tense stalemate. As recently as 2005, then-Pakistani president Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met on the sidelines of a cricket match in India to promote peace between the two nations. “Nothing brings the people of the subcontinent together more than our love for cricket,” Singh announced in a speech at the Indian parliament at the time.
No longer. Pakistan had been set to co-host cricket’s 2011 World Cup, along with India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.With Indian officials calling security in Lahore “hopelessly inadequate,” though, former Pakistani team captain Wasim Akram was one of many acknowledging that was now in jeopardy. “How can you expect foreign teams to come to Pakistan now?” he asked. But while the possible end of cricket as a forum of co-operation may mark a sad day for Indo-Pakistani relations, it represents a setback for other countries as well, notably Afghanistan and its own relations with Pakistan. While Indian and Pakistani cricket ties were well established, the ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan on the cricket pitch have gone severely under-reported. That story has been one of the shining lights emerging from the darkness of Afghanistan’s war-riddled modern history, a classic underdog tale of obstacles overcome with grit and determination, and co-operation from its neighbour to the east. It is a narrative whose positive ending may now be in jeopardy.
A decade ago, if anyone even mentioned Afghan cricket, they would have been the laughingstock of the cricketing community. “Afghans play buzkashi,” cricket snobs around the world might have said derisively, referring to Afghanistan’s national sport in which men on horseback battle to carry a goat carcass over an opposing team’s goal line. “Cricket is too refined a game for them.” What most people didn’t realize at the time was that Afghan refugees living in the impoverished camps of Peshawar on the Pakistani frontier were developing a love for Pakistan’s own national pastime.
Across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime had banned cricket along with any other sport, including buzkashi. Only in Pakistan could Afghan cricketers express their desire to learn the game, as well as showcase their talent for it. Now, since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghan cricketers have risen to the rank of golden boys in the cricketing world, turning heads from Malaysia to Tanzania. Their most recent triumph at the 2009 Division 3 World Cup qualifying tournament in Buenos Aires has propelled them up the world rankings to a level nearly on par with Canada’s own national team.
Not bad for a team that developed in the refugee slums of Peshawar. The Afghan Cricket Federation was formed in exile in Pakistan in 1995. Afghan cricketers played their first official matches representing their country in Pakistan in October 2001—even as Afghanistan was being invaded by the U.S-led coalition that ousted the Taliban. They went 0 for 5 in that five-match tour. In 2004, they stepped onto the world stage, placing a modest sixth at an Asian Cricket Council tournament in Malaysia. Since then, the team has skyrocketed, with at least a top-three finish in every major tournament they have entered, driven, the players say, by a singular goal of reaching the 2011 Cricket World Cup.
It’s been a monumental climb. But all of that is now under threat. Although Afghanistan’s cricket federation has moved its offices to Kabul since the fall of the Taliban, the team still trains in Pakistan because facilities in its own, war-torn country are virtually non-existent. On the day bullets rained down on the Sri Lankan national team in Lahore, Afghanistan’s elite cricketers were in Peshawar, preparing to leave for Lahore the next day. There they were to have their final training camp in preparation for the last hurdle standing in the way of achieving their World Cup dream: the Division 1 and 2 qualifying tournament in South Africa scheduled to start on April 1, a tournament in which they will be competing against 11 other countries, including Canada.
That training camp has now been cancelled, and the team is scrambling to find another location. “So far we haven’t been able to find one,” said national team coach Kadir Khan on Tuesday, hours after the attack in Lahore, pointing out that Afghans have a difficult time getting visas for other countries. “It does affect us. Cricket is a game of practice. It is a subtle game, so if we lose the opportunity to refine the fine points we lose an edge. We will be playing some of the best teams in the world in South Africa, teams that have qualified for the World Cup before, like Canada. Losing world-class facilities where we can train puts a young team like ours at a disadvantage.”
It also weakens the tenuous link between Pakistan and Afghanistan that cricket was in the process of developing. Indeed, the ties that have grown between the two countries through the sport are one of the positive developments in what is an otherwise adversarial relationship dominated by tension over the Taliban’s safe haven in Pakistan. Khan, the Afghan coach, was raised in Peshawar and played for the Pakistani national team from 1993 to 2000. The team has a close relationship with players from Pakistan’s current national squad. “We have a great relationship with them,” says Ahmedzai. “Sometimes they practice with us. We’ve built friendships that are now threatened. It really hurts us now that this has happened.”
It greatly hurt Pakistan as well. If the purpose behind the bloody attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team was to further isolate the country, the attackers may have succeeded, for now. Cricket may have been among the last bridges to the outside world Pakistan had left, given its growing reputation as a birthing ground for violent militants. It was also among the few remaining pillars of national pride in a country desperate for something to turn to for strength and reassurance. Still, there is reason to hope. As terrorists chip away at Pakistan’s last vestiges of self-respect and its international reputation, sportsmen and sports fans in the country may rally. Attacking cricket may backfire on the militants: the pointlessness of such an act against such a treasured symbol of national identity could turn Pakistanis against them, despite the short-term damage it has done. And as for the Afghan cricketers, well, they’ve grown up with adversity. “I’m not worried,” says Ahmedzai. “Mentally we are a very tough team. We will overcome this hurdle.” Based on their track record, no one should count them out just yet.