Sultan M Hali
DOMESTIC sports fixtures had vanished from Pakistan because of the scourge of terrorism. Terrorists were targeting public places with impunity; hospitals, educational institutions, sports grounds and commercial centers where congregations of people offered lucrative targets. While thousands of people were martyred in the terrorist attacks, loss of property and business concerns further crippled the economy. The people of Pakistan, who love sports, were starved for local matches since sports meets were avoided owing to the threat of terror attacks. Cricket is a craze in Pakistan but the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) was constrained to organize international matches in the UAE, since foreign teams refused to come to Pakistan after the Sri Lankan team was targeted in a terror attack at Lahore in 2009. The standard of the players suffered too because domestic playing conditions were not conducive to the grooming of cricket. The local sports industry and allied commercial enterprises too suffered in the absence of sporting events.
PCB had been endeavouring to organize Pakistan Super League (PSL) matches but with the local milieu not being conducive to holding matches on home grounds due to terror attacks, they were held in third countries. PSL is a professional Twenty20 cricket league, founded on 9 September 2015 with five teams and now comprises six teams. Instead of operating as an association of independently owned teams, the league is a single entity in which each franchise is owned and controlled by investors. The PSL season runs between the months of February and March, with each team playing matches in double round robin format; the top four teams with the best record qualify for the playoffs and culminates in the championship game, the PSL Cup Final. With some brave foreign teams like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh visiting Pakistan, the confidence of the foreign participants was restored and PSL V, held in 2020 had all local venues. The finals of PSL in 2017 onwards were held in Pakistan amidst tight security. Cricket fans in Pakistan were delighted when PSL V was inaugurated amidst fanfare. People thronged in thousands to witness the tournament and despite stringent security checks, people were keen to witness live matches at the stadiums. This scribe had the opportunity earlier this year to Australia and witness the Australian Big Bash League (BBL) matches. Like Pakistanis, Australians love their cricket and it was thrilling to witness matches played in local stadiums in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, etc with full capacity even on weekdays.
It was heartening to find PSL matches being played in local stadiums, and besides Lahore and Karachi, Islamabad and Multan also hosting fixtures. The successful hosting of PSL and other sporting events like the International Kabaddi World Cup and Squash tournaments, is ample evidence that Pakistan is a safe country for sports and tourism. It is unfortunate that the advent of Coronavirus, COVID-19 constrained the last few matches and spectators were asked to stay away because of the fear of contracting the deadly virus, while PCB postponed the semifinals and Final match. Internationally too in Europe, USA and Australia, major sports tournaments were cancelled owing to COVID-19. Hopefully this is a temporary phase and the outbreak will be contained.
Pakistan is a peace- and fun-loving society which shuns extremism and terrorism. Sporting events are a great redeemer to mould the society into a healthy and pacific mass. Sports not only build camaraderie and promotes healthy competition but also provides welcome entertainment. The history of Pakistan is replete with many triumphs to its credit in sports and was regarded as a potent sporting nation. Be it Cricket, Squash, Snooker, Hockey or Athletics, Pakistan has won laurels. However, decades of war against terrorism and corrupt political environment has led to a decay in this field. Cricket which has been kept alive by Pakistan by playing home series abroad is now slowly returning back home. The Armed Forces of Pakistan, backed by the people and guided by subsequent governments, need to be applauded for having pulled Pakistan from the brink and having defeated the two decades onset of terrorism. Organizing successful PSL matches, devoid of terror attacks speaks volumes for contributing to the security conditions returning to normal and sports coming back in the country. Initially, the Armed Forces contributed to ensuring the safety of the players and spectators at the PSL events but now local law enforcing agencies have regained the confidence and capacity to maintain security.
Being embroiled in effects of terrorism and the prolonged war in neighbouring Afghanistan and the advent of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), marred Pakistan’s image. Its detractors led a propaganda war, claiming that Pakistan was a safe haven for terrorists. The elimination of Al Qaeda Chief Osama bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad in 2011 did not help matters. Pakistan was in fact a victim of terrorism. The harbingers of terror attacks martyred nearly a hundred thousand Pakistanis. Blaming Pakistan for harbouring terrorists was tantamount to putting salt on the wounds. The successful organization of PSL clearly depicts how a peace and sport loving nation has been the victim of negative image. The flooded stadiums with people from all tiers of society have joined hands to relay a silent message to the world that Pakistan has always been a sporting nation and still is. The inclusion of international players in PSL also highlights how much Pakistanis adore their presence and accepts them as ambassadors of Pakistan.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.