Cricket as counter-terror op

In an interview on a Granada Television chat-show in 1981, Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly pointedly remarked, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death… I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” If Shankly were alive to watch Sunday’s PSL final, he’d have a completely new perspective on his own words.

While Shankly had inherited a wretched Liverpool squad, and an Anfield in complete disarray, when he took over the club in 1959, it’s still not quite the same as players being the focal point of 10,000 security personnel, under constant surveillance of Army helicopters, permanently sandwiched in between multi-layered security, with the spotlight on them in the heart of a war-zone.

On Sunday, 30,000 people actually did put their lives on the line to watch a match, just so they could get more of the sport in the future. That redefines matter of life and death and much more serious.

We also jam-packed the Gaddafi Stadium in 2015, a day after it was confirmed that a suicide bombing had targeted that very arena, when Zimbabwe became the first Test playing nation to tour Pakistan in six years.

We’d probably fill up Gaddafi Stadium if ISIS were camped inside the National Hockey Stadium next door. The same is true for cricket stadia in Karachi, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Quetta, or anywhere else in the country.

If cricket is our religion, these arenas are the worship places. You don’t stop praying, just because mosques, churches and temples are being bombed.

This is perhaps why the state might be unconsciously – and yet unabashedly – using cricket as a counter-terror strategy. For, ideological unity does more to overcome terror than any number of military operations. And in that regard the Pakistan Super League has achieved more than Zarb-e-Azb and National Action Plan combined.

We as a nation mightn’t truly value human life, rally together for universal rights or address the Islamist bigotry within that fuels jihadism. But we do, after eight years in exile, stand united against anything that takes cricket away from us. We might even be willing to introspect, and fix things, if that enables Australia or South Africa touring Pakistan in the future.

That is why the dhamaal at the PSL closing ceremony – a couple of weeks after the Sehwan blast, wherein bid’ah and kufr reverberated as apologia – carried defiant symbolism. ‘Ali Maula Ali’ echoing inside Gaddafi Stadium would’ve enraged the jihadists – and a few of our parliamentarians as well.

As far as symbolism goes, there was the team from Peshawar being crowned the champions of Pakistan amidst anti-Pashtun profiling and forced eviction of Afghan refugees. Quetta, the perpetual underdog, in cricket and beyond, was the other finalist in the match being played in Lahore – the very nerve centre of the status quo.

And yet, the batting of both the sides was spearheaded by a man from Lahore and the stadium in Punjab’s capital was brimming over with yellow Zalmi shirts. Finally, in our support for our favourite PSL franchises, we might have learned to celebrate our differences.

That image with SSG berets worn by Darren Sammy – the worthy Man of the Match, whose 28 off 11 was the least of his achievements on the day – and his overseas teammates, perfectly illustrated their role on the given day. They were both the safeguarded and the safeguarders – protected from any present mishap, and protectors of Pakistan cricket’s future.

Let’s not forget it wasn’t the $50,000, the treatment as heads of state, or state institution’s vows, that convinced Zalmi’s foreign contingent to come to Lahore. As was reiterated by Sammy and Dawid Malan during the post-match conference, it was the brotherhood and solidarity instilled in Zalmi by the two Pashtuns, the two Afridis, that compelled West Indians and Englishmen to stand up for Pakistan.

Peshawar Zalmi, or at least its idea, needs to become the microcosm for Pakistan.

But let’s not get carried away, even if that might be the most natural thing to do after Sunday. The PSL final being held in Lahore, does not prove that Pakistan is safe to host international cricket – quite the contrary. But it did underscore that Pakistanis are willing to take on terrorism – even if their leaders aren’t.

Actually defeating terrorism, however, would require a lot more than attending cricket matches. The festive diversity on display needs to be extended to our ideas of religion and nationalism. We need extrapolation of everything that we invested in the PSL.

If Lahoris can support the team from Peshawar, Punjabis should unite to quell bigotry against Pashtuns. If a Karachiite can don the Quetta colours, Muslims should join fellow Hindus in spreading the colors of Holi. And if PSL and IPL can glue cricket fans from across the border, Pakistan and India can learn to coexist as well.

This, in all probability, is idealistic nonsense. But then again we saw on Sunday the lengths to which we can go for cricket. Maybe it will make us unlearn our bigotry as well.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a former member of staffHe can be reached at Follow him on Twitter

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