We owe Pakistan a visit | Sunday Observer

We owe Pakistan a visit

It was a sad day for what is still the most popular sport in the country, cricket, when ten top Sri Lankan players opted to pull out of the tour of Pakistan. The tour, Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) has said, will still go ahead at the end of this month, raising more questions than answers.

The cricketers refused citing reported safety concerns. International cricket on a grand scale has not been played in Pakistan since the touring Sri Lankan cricket team was targeted in a terrorist attack while travelling for a test match at the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore in March 2009.

Six members of the Sri Lankan team were wounded in that attack. Six Pakistani policemen and two civilians were killed. Ironically, Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore was also the venue of Sri Lanka’s greatest sporting triumph, the 1996 World Cup victory.

Sri Lanka and Pakistan have had strong ties for decades now. Pakistan always supported Sri Lanka in their battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), even when India didn’t, and provided assistance with military hardware. These ties extended naturally to the cricketing arena.

During the 1996 World Cup campaign, Sri Lanka faced a similar predicament to what Pakistan is facing now. Because of the then ongoing war with the LTTE, Australia and West Indies refused to travel to Sri Lanka to play their matches.

That was when Australian spinner Shane Warne, never popular in Sri Lanka, said that a bomb may explode while he is shopping in Colombo and then Foreign Minister, the irreplaceable Lakshman Kadirgamar famously retorted, “shopping is for sissies”.

In a generous show of solidarity with Sri Lanka, the two traditional rivals, India and Pakistan sent their players led by their respective captains, Mohammad Azharuddin and Wasim Akram, to Colombo to play an exhibition game.

As recently as a few months ago, when Sri Lanka was reeling from the Easter Sunday bomb attacks and a question mark hung over its future as a country hosting international cricket, Pakistan sent its Under-19 team to Sri Lanka, barely a month after the incidents. It was after this that Bangladesh and New Zealand were able to stage their tours to the country.

Therefore, sending a cricket team to Pakistan with our top players would have been the perfect way of saying ‘thank you’ to a country which has always accommodated Sri Lanka’s needs and concerns. While appreciating that player safety is paramount, the refusal by leading players to tour Pakistan when SLC is undertaking the venture however raises issues about the credibility of the players.

This would not be Sri Lanka’s first trip to Pakistan since the Lahore attack. They had played a solitary T20 international there in 2017, also with a weakened squad. But Thisara Perera, who captained the Sri Lanka side in that game - again in Lahore - is now among the players who have refused to travel.

It is understood that SLC has sent its experts to Pakistan to review security arrangements and they were happy with the enhanced security that has been assured. It was on this basis that SLC decided that it was safe for the tour to go ahead. SLC is not the most efficient of organisations but even it would not want to put its greatest asset, its players, at undue risk.

Sports Minister Harin Fernando went so far as to say that if any player had concerns, he would allay them by undertaking the tour with the players. That is indeed a sporting declaration by the Minister and reflects the extent to which SLC was satisfied about player safety in Pakistan.

It is in such a context that players are refusing to play in Pakistan. Among those who have pulled out are the top players in the team including stars such as former skipper Angelo Mathews and Lasith Malinga who only last week covered himself in glory performing a double hat-trick against New Zealand.

The issue at stake is, if these cricketers are contracted with SLC, can they choose when to play and when not to? SLC is their employer. It is satisfied that the security arrangements for the tour are good enough for it to go ahead. In fact, even if the ten players pull out, the tour will still be on track, albeit with different players. So, how come the more senior players are allowed to stay home? Does it mean that there is a lesser value placed on the lives of the players who will replace the ‘stars’? Surely not!

Two cricketers who have opted to stay out of the Pakistan tour, Thisara Perera and Niroshan Dickwella, have in fact requested clearance from SLC to play elsewhere, in the cash-rich Caribbean Premier League (CPL). Thankfully, SLC has had the courage to deny permission to these two cricketers.

It is no secret that SLC has come under heavy criticism in recent years for the way in which its affairs are conducted. It is only a few days ago that Minister Harin Fernando issued a directive banning former SLC boss Thilanga Sumathipala from exercising any powers or holding any office at the SLC pending an inquiry. In our opinion, this directive was long overdue.

SLC has been functioning according to the whims and fancies of a few individuals for many years. When they have been barred from holding office, their get their proxies elected who then do their bidding. It is easier to change the country’s Constitution than to change SLC’s Constitution which allows this to continue.

In such a scenario, where there is lawlessness and a lack of ethics at the top of the institution, it is not surprising that cricketers are trying to take matters into their own hands. That shouldn’t be so. One may be a superstar who has taken more hat-tricks than any other, but no player is greater than the game or the country he represents.

SLC should therefore either decide that the tour is unsafe to proceed with or, if it goes ahead, penalise those who are refusing to tour. Otherwise it is simply not cricket!