Smiley, happy gunmen

Apparently, eight out of ten office workers head for exactly the same toilet cubicle year after year when nature calls. There is comfort in familiarity.

Dubai airport can count amongst the many offices frequented by international cricket’s top umpires and administrators because, thanks to Emirates airways sponsorship and the tax benefits granted to the ICC which persuaded them to move their headquarters to the desert city, Dubai has become cricket’s hub.

Most tours to the subcontinent also involve a stopover in Dubai and, given that South Africa have been on well over a dozen in as many years, Dubai airport no longer has the effect of intimidation on me than it has on most first or second-time visitors.

So there I was, sitting in the same cubicle I’d used many times before, planning my next couple of hours before the connecting flight to Karachi. Coffee here, sandwich there, check out the latest but unaffordable clubs. Except for this time, it felt different.

Apparently there were 4000 troops assigned to guard Graeme Smith’s team on their tour of Pakistan. Apparently, the players were to be confined to their hotels under armed guard. It was difficult to believe while still in Dubai, but it was equally hard not to be disturbed by the prospect that it was all true.

Perhaps cricket should be played for the sake of the match fees, world rankings and the ICC’s Future Tours programme, maybe that is what the game has become all about. But it did seem sad. The first time I toured Pakistan we visited the Khyber Pass on the Afghanistan border, shopped for leather jackets in markets and drank mint tea while watching silk carpets being handwoven.

We weren’t transported from a hotel under armed guard in a military cavalcade and shepherded into a sparse stadium covered in soldiers wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying machine guns.

Anyway, job done in Dubai and it was onto the plane for Karachi.

The military presence was certainly there on arrival but it was 4.30am and I had chosen to travel by myself, 24 hours behind the
players, so there was none of the commotion associated with the team. The drive to the hotel was uneventful but the arrival was certainly different to what I experienced years ago.

My bags were passed through (yet another!) x-ray machine rigged up outside the grand entrance to the excellent Sheraton Towers and I was ever-so politely whisked with a hand-held metal detector. This new greeting ritual was conducted by magnificently dressed, large doormen with proudly groomed, bristling moustaches. They smiled with deep warmth, almost apologetically, given the machinery accompanying their tradition.

Later that morning, when the sun was up, the full extent of the barbed wire barricades and military personnel become apparent. So did it feel like a prison? Were my worst fears realized, had the sport of cricket become something to be played before a gallery of life-taking weaponry?

No. Not yet anyway. Not here in Karachi. There have been riots in Islamabad in recent days and the country’s presidential elections on October 6th are certainly creating tensions, but the very early signs of this tour are hopeful.

After all, what is the PCB and the Pakistan government to do when nervous cricketers complain about the ‘threat’ to them? If they do nothing then the threat remains. If they provide a modest security unity then they are accused of being complacent and not taking the threat seriously. And if they provide a small army then people say ‘there’s obviously one hell of a problem – we shouldn’t be here.’

The real test, if you’ll excuse the pun, will be the test match. If the stadium is empty, as it was during the warm-up match, and if the lack of people is down to the intimidation of the troops and their ‘exclusive’ security methods, then it will seem very peculiar indeed.

Of course, the PCB will still benefit from the income generated by the televising of the matches on their soil, but if it’s all about money then why not just play a bunch of Twenty20 matches and a couple of Test matches in some remote corner of the country which can be vacuum-packed into a security bubble. What’s the point in moving from Karachi to Lahore and Multan? It would save a heap in transport and production costs.

The South African players feel perfectly safe in their hotel, as I do in mine. The only fear is the fear of the uncontrollable, the fear of the ‘suicide bomber’ so terrifyingly televised by the major networks. So to alleviate this fear, the Pakistanis lay on an army to prevent the million-to-one chance of someone wanting to jump on the Proteas’ bus with a bomb strapped to his chest.
Fair enough. Unfortunate, but understandable.

Pakistan is so keen for the cricket to go ahead and so keen for its visitors to be happy and share their country, that they have brought the market to the people rather than take them there. In the lobby of our five-star hotels are honoured (and no doubt extensively x-rayed) traders with tables of handicraft, leather jackets and silk carpets.

It certainly isn’t ‘the same thing’, but at least they’re trying.

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