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Players' security still a concern

Last updated on: January 23, 2004 11:51 IST

The Pakistan Cricket Board is keen on hosting a Test against India in Peshawar," reveals a member of the PCB, speaking to rediff.com on condition of anonymity.

Nothing to scare you until you learn that Peshawar is considered one of the most frightening places on earth. Just recently senior Taliban leaders met to discuss strategy less than 20 miles away from the Pakistan city.

Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, is linked to Kabul by a highway over the Khyber Pass. It was not accorded a match during the South Africa series last October.

Karachi is another venue where Pakistan wants India to play. Again South Africa refused to play in the port city last year. It was here that a blast in the Pearl Continental hotel forced New Zealand to call off its tour hours before the second Test was due to begin on May 8, 2002.

These incidents appear to have slipped under the radar of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which for now is focused entirely on getting the proposed tour of Pakistan in March through.

A Pakistani national holds up a posterThere is little doubt that an India-Pakistan Test series is potentially the most exciting encounter on a cricket field. Add to that the fact that the two teams have not played each other in Pakistan since 1989 and you have sponsors, fans and television channels salivating. 

Rajiv Shukla, member of the Rajya Sabha and chairman of the BCCI's Communication and Co-ordination Committee, played a key role in getting the go-ahead for the series from the central government. He told this correspondent that the ministry of external affairs will send a team of experts to Pakistan and review the security situation before arriving at any decision.

"Once the itinerary is chalked out and the venues decided, the Board and home ministry will assess the PCB's security plan," Shukla told rediff.com

The Pakistan Cricket Board for its part is running a 'Pakistan is safe' campaign, with its spin doctors countering the security threat issue by pointing to the August 25, 2003 twin blasts in Mumbai before the New Zealand series.

"The Indian media is trying to create a feeling that Pakistan is not safe, but when we (the PCB) are guaranteeing their (the cricketers) safety, why is there any sort of reluctance? The BCCI assured the New Zealand Cricket Board of its safety after the bomb blasts and it was accepted. This is no different," the PCB official told rediff.com

"Didn't we come to India despite Hindu fundamentalists destroying the Ferozeshah Kotla pitch in 1999?" he asked

Pakistan Information Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed was critical of the Indian media. "Why are you trying to play up the security issue and build tension between the two countries? This tour will pass off peacefully like any other tour."

On being reminded about the threat to the players in the light of the dual assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf last month, Rashid argued that the murderous attempts on the Pakistani leader's life and playing cricket were two different issues.

"The Indian team will be given security we accord to a head of state," he told rediff.com in a telephone conversation from Islamabad. "They will have commandos and security guards around them, round the clock. When they travel, all traffic will be stopped on the streets. Their hotels will be guarded and the players will not be allowed to move about anywhere. They have to inform their security before even stepping out of their rooms."

In such conditions, can the Indian team concentrate on playing cricket? 

It is this concern that prompted the Indian players, after the second assassination attempt on Musharraf, to ask for a review of the security for the tour.

Contrary to media reports, the players did not ask for the tour to be cancelled, but only asked for a security review.

The senior players have decided to send a letter to BCCI President Jagmohan Dalmiya, asking for assurances on their security.

For the junior players, there is no option but to go along with what the Board wants.

"I don't have a choice but to say yes to the tour (if I am selected). If I don't go it may be curtains for my career. I hope though that the tour does not take place. It is too risky out there," a young India cricketer told rediff.com  

A PCB spokesperson says three Test teams and 13 junior teams have visited Pakistan in the last two years, and the tours have gone off peacefully. 

Former Test opener Saeed Anwar believes we now live in an insecure world, and Pakistan is just as unsafe as any other country in the world.

"Whatever you hear and see in Pakistan is through tinted eyes," he told rediff.com "Here the people are waiting to see Indian heroes come and battle it out with our team. I think it is time to just live with terrorism in this world. Didn't India and Pakistan form a combined team and play in Sri Lanka when Australia and the West Indies decided against playing their World Cup games in 1996? Why can't we continue that spirit?"  

After 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and terrorist attacks within Pakistan, the Pakistan cricket team has played much of its cricket at neutral venues. 

When PCB CEO Rameez Raja visited India last September for the ICC meeting, he denied rumours that the Pakistan board was strapped for finances.

He then told rediff.com that "It (the cancelled tours) didn't hurt us much. We may be wounded, but cricket has suffered the most."

The Indo-Pak match in the World CupHe, however, said if India played Pakistan every now and then, "we will recover all the losses."

With $30 million at stake in the sale of television rights, the PCB is keen they make the India tour count -- the security situation permitting.

When the bomb went off in front of the team hotel in May 2002, the Kiwis ran out to the car park and were stranded there for almost 30 minutes without security, dreading the possibility of another car laden with explosives in the parking area. 

Former New Zealand coach Dennis Aberhart told rediff.com it was the scariest moment of his life. 

"There we were in the car park, without half the team members and not a single cop. It was frightening to look at the cars and wonder if any of them would also go off. It was all very well that we were mocked at for not deciding to go to Nairobi after that incident for the World Cup game. But it is only when you come face to face with death that you understand how precious life is," he said. 

"What has happened has happened," a PCB spokesperson said. "Didn't they come back to play five one-dayers last year? In fact, after the series was over, Chris Cairns praised the security provided and said it was sad that the seniors stayed away."

With Indo-Pak relations improving every week, a terror-free tour is of paramount importance.

Cricket between the two countries will cool tempers, Raja believes. To which, a member of the Indian team responds: "Why should the peace process be fired from our shoulders?"

Image: Dominic Xavier

Faisal Shariff