Why New Zealand had to withdraw

The vitriolic response to the NZ cricket team calling off its tour of Pakistan is misplaced and goes beyond mere disappointment.

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When New Zealand – typically viewed as the “best and fairest” of international cricket teams – cancelled their tour of Pakistan for security reasons on the eve of the first of eight limited overs matches, they could have scarcely prepared themselves for the widespread vitriol that followed. In a sign of the current hyper-politicised and nationalistic state of global affairs, many prominent figures within Pakistan cricket posited that the withdrawal was driven by politics, rather than player safety. Those responses have merely further soured relations, pouring fuel on the fire of geopolitical strain that the game already faces and raising the risk of further repercussions.

Pakistan has long been starved of international cricket, ever since the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team bus which saw 6 Sri Lankan cricketers injured and two civilians killed.

Pakistan’s people are blameless, and yet its cricket fans are helpless, even as their talismanic leader Babar Azam looms as one of the greatest to ever play the game. Imagine Indian fans being largely deprived of the opportunity to see Virat Kohli in action at the highest level; or Australian fans missing out on viewing Steve Smith in the flesh but for fleeting moments in the Big Bash League.

And yet this is the plight that has been faced by passionate Pakistan fans on and off since the horrific 2009 attack by jihadist militant organisation, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

It is natural in those circumstances for Pakistan to feel wronged and isolated, particularly as neighbouring India’s fortunes have – over almost exactly the same period, since the inaugural IPL in 2008 – lurched wildly in the opposite direction, both on the field and off it.

Yet the response by many current and former Pakistani players to New Zealand’s withdrawal has been misplaced and goes beyond mere disappointment.

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First came the conspiracy theories, with the likes of Wasim Akram, Ahmad Shahzad and Azhar Mahmood all hinting that there was more to the withdrawal than met the eye. Some Pakistan-based columnists even went as far as to pointedly blame India for the cancelled tour, which both undermines the independence of the New Zealand government (which provided the fateful security advice to the New Zealand side) and holds no foundation in reality.

At its core, New Zealand Cricket – ultimately, an employer – had no choice but to send home its players (its employees) once its government had conveyed intelligence of a targeted and credible threat against the side. It would have quite possibly been an unprecedented step for a national sporting team to go against the security advice of its government.

It is worth noting that the New Zealand side had already gone ahead with the tour despite some of the players receiving death threats in the lead-up to the tour, making clear that New Zealand’s government, and much less so its players, were not jumping at shadows.

Then came the false equivalencies. Former Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik questioned why, when teams such as Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Bangladesh were able to tour Pakistan in recent times, New Zealand did not complete their tour as planned. Others queried why New Zealand found it safe to train in the lead-up to the match, but chose to withdraw at the last minute from actually playing the match.

The excruciatingly obvious counter-argument is that safety necessarily has a temporal element. The fact that other teams toured safely does not mean that safety is guaranteed for future touring sides. Similarly, New Zealand clearly chose to tour and train in Pakistan on the basis of the best then-available security advice, which was subsequently updated on the eve of the match, as the risk equation had changed.

If anything, New Zealand’s decision to tour demonstrates its willingness and keenness to play cricket in Pakistan; if it had no intention of doing so, it would have been a much cheaper and safer exercise if it did not arrive in Pakistan in the first place.

Finally, came the jingoistic war cries – that Pakistan’s security arrangements and intelligence were of the “highest order” and that Pakistan is one of the “safest places” in the world to play cricket (Akram) and that the players have full faith in Pakistan’s intelligence services, which are their “pride and always will be” (Azam) and that the threat was a “HOAX” (Shahid Afridi).

These patriotic rallying calls too, miss the mark. There is no need to comment on their accuracy; that is largely irrelevant. At its core is the fact that all countries will do and direct as they see fit to protect their citizens. Those who overtly praise and believe in Pakistan’s security intelligence service should recognise, rather than undermine, New Zealand Cricket’s respect for its own.

Pakistan certainly deserves better, but New Zealand does, too.

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Ritam Mitra
Ritam Mitra
Ritam is an award-winning journalist and lawyer based in Sydney. Ritam writes on domestic and global politics, human rights and social justice, and sport.

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