After extensive deliberations with input from the security services and consultation with the prime minister, the Punjab government has given the go ahead for the Pakistan Super League (PSL) T20 cricket final to be held in Lahore on March 5, 2017.
Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has justified the difficult decision as being “in the national interest”. Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Shahryar Khan and PSL chief Najam Sethi have welcomed the decision. However, while the announcement has been met by the cricket-mad public with unalloyed joy and enthusiasm, the development also has its fair share of critics. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief and former cricket World Cup winning captain Imran Khan characterised the decision as “madness” and “a terrible idea”, given the security risks involved.
A number of famous ex-cricketers too have chimed in to criticise the high-risk decision. Imran Khan fears that if, God forbid, something happens on the day, we may have to say goodbye to the already suspended visits of foreign cricket teams since the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team for the foreseeable future. Government ministers have rounded on Imran Khan, invoking patriotism to castigate him. It may be recalled that CoAS General Qamar Bajwa had put his weight behind holding the PSL final in Lahore despite the February 13 blast in front of the Punjab Assembly.
Convergence between the military and the civilian government to send out a message that Pakistan will not be cowed by the terrorists led to the decision to hold the final in Lahore. While this objective is laudable, the high degree of risk involved cannot simply be wished away. One of the attractions of the PSL is the presence of internationally renowned foreign players.
At the moment, literally on the eve of the event, terrible uncertainty surrounds their willingness to travel to and play in Lahore from the UAE where the preliminary rounds of the tournament have been played like last year. Although Najam Sethi has asserted that depending on which two teams qualify for the final, and whether some foreign players agree to come to Lahore or not, the PCB has chalked out a list of replacement players who are willing, the list released to the media of these replacement players suggests that their presence, with due respect, is hardly likely to set the Gaddafi Stadium on fire. A depreciated final in Lahore, whatever its political import, may not serve the objective of inducing enough confidence in the state of affairs and security for cricket in Pakistan to encourage foreign teams to consider playing here. And, God forbid, if any incident occurs during the match, that prospect will simply disappear over the visible horizon.
The terrorists seek to deny the public space for cultural and sporting events so that normal life is shown to be disrupted. They have carried out actions such as the 2009 attacks on the Sufi Musical Festival in the Gaddafi Cultural Complex and on the Sri Lankan cricket team precisely to bring about such an outcome. And given the seriousness of the demonstrated threat, they succeeded.
The Sufi Musical Festival was resurrected this year after eight years at the same venue, but was fortunate to have been staged just before the rash of terrorist attacks experienced throughout the country in recent days. The Lahore Eat Festival in Jilani Park had to be postponed from February to March for security considerations. The Lahore Literary Festival had to be moved from the Alhamra Cultural Complex on The Mall to a private hotel and truncated to just one day from three for similar reasons. While the authorities are pulling out all the stops to ensure security for the PSL final, there is no such thing as ‘foolproof’ security.
Would it not have been more appropriate to host the final in Karachi as this city has been cleansed of terrorists and criminals to a much larger extent than any other place in the country? It would have also served to allay the general perception about the prime minister of being solely focused on the Punjab in general and Lahore in particular. Let us hope, for the sake of Pakistan cricket as much as the country, that all goes well on March 5 in Lahore. But the high risk concerns will continue to give us sleepless nights till then.