For the international community, Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its tribal areas are a cocktail of terror. What perhaps gets ignored, or overlooked, is how often this regional belt has produced famous sportsmen, known today across the sporting world for their skill.
One wonders why sports were never made part of the National Action Plan, initiated after the tragedy at the Army Public School in December 2014. After all, sports are an effective means to combat terrorism as well as to nurture people to people contact.
The recent announcement by the Federation for International Cricketers’ Association, recommending international cricketers to avoid travelling to Pakistan, is a big blow to the country’s efforts. With Pakistan waging a war against militants and sacrificing over 50,000 people, the global sporting community should play its part and end its unofficial boycott of Pakistan. The association should encourage, not discourage, international stars to participate in the second edition of the Pakistan Super League T20 tournament, the final of which is expected to be played in Lahore.
Cricket diplomacy has proven to be an important political tool. In the past, it helped reduce a war pitch between rivals India and Pakistan. And it is primarily for this reason that it is taken hostage by India to further its foreign policy agenda.
Sports, if made part of the anti-terror strategy, could help engage the youngsters in Pakistan and provide a healthy outlet. It could be effective in reducing sectarian, ethnic and political divisions. Unfortunately, sports have never been a priority of any government. Paradoxically, Karachi’s Lyari area has produced boxers and footballers of world fame, some of whom later become involved with gangs or in the drug trade. The Peoples Stadium, located in Lyari, was once host to a killing field, when one gang kicked around the decapitated heads of its rival faction.
Cricket players, regarded as heroes, lit up the faces of students at the Army Public School when Shahid Afridi, Younis Khan, Umer Gul, Junaid Khan and others visited. An even better example of the fervor is Imran Khan, who today is the most popular leader for the Pashtoons due to his cricket background. When he first entered politics, Khan would avoid talking about his days on the field, but he soon realized that was one reason people flocked to see him. Now, his World Cup 1992 victory is broadcasted on large screens during his political rallies.
Had previous governments, including that of retired General Pervez Musharraf, Asif Ali Zardari or Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent even a small amount on promoting cricket at the grass root level, therefore in school and colleges, it would have played an important role in combating terrorism.
Pakistan’s stadiums are now empty. Its people are desperate to bring cricket back home. International sports associations are not helping by isolating the country and its players.
The 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team was a one-time incident. Cricket has not been threatened thereafter. In fact, there are hints that the attack had much to do with Sri Lankan’s own war against the militant group of Tamil Tigers rather than Pakistan’s instability.
Our civil and military leadership must formulate the policy of promoting sports locally. Here are some suggestions from where it can start:
(1) Cricket, hockey and other sports should be re-introduced in school and colleges across Pakistan. Regular inter-school and college competitions should be held.
(2) Create a special sports department in the government and private sector.
(3) Rolling media coverage to promote individual sports.
(4) Allow players, other than cricketers, to go abroad to increase exposure.
(5) Pakistan must take this matter to the international forum, including the United Nations, to make sports a part of its war against terrorism.
Looking back, Pakistan was once at the top in the sporting world. It had ranked and celebrated players in squash, hockey and cricket. Today, not much of that legacy is left. We are struggling. Our athletes have never seen darker days. It’s time the prime minister, the army chief and the parliament sit up and take notice.
To build a terrorism-resistant community, Pakistan needs sportsmen as much as soldiers.