Cricket – can end myopia

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A recent newspaper report suggests that the Pakistan Cricket Board has hit the jackpot and is set to receive a $16 million cheque in compensation for its inability to stage World Cup matches due to grave security concerns. What is the PCB going to do with this money?

The epicenter of terrorist activities in Pakistan lies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Much has been written about the social & economic backwardness of the area, despite it being home to 2.4% of Pakistanis. The menace of terrorism has uprooted many families from their homes, forcing them to live with the tag of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in shelter camps across the country. Can cricket be part of the solution to tackle their problems?

The former Sri Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara’s recent speech about cricket’s potential “to be more than just a game’ in his country immediately struck a chord. Sri Lanka suffered from a bitter and bloody civil war for almost three decades and Sangakkara contended that their surprise World Cup win in 1996 helped bring the country closer and made it “a shared passion and a force for unity.”

Therein lies the beauty of this great game or of sports in general. The ability of sport to rise above the various ills that plague a society, to bring joy to the people who have suffered immensely, to transcend the barriers a war has placed on an already fractured society. As Michael Messner wrote, “Sport is not an expression of some biological human need, it is a social institution.”

The popularity of the game – and hence its potential to influence the youth – can be gauged by the fact that cricketers are the sole remaining superstars in entertainment-starved modern-day Pakistan. The sport of cricket brings together the aspirations of millions of Pakistanis and the awaam immediately identifies with their heroes.

The terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore resulting in the pariah status of Pakistan on the international cricket calendar should have prompted the PCB to invest heavily in the domestic game. A befitting response to the extremist threat would be to expand it further in areas that have been hit hard by the insurgents. Not only will it help spread the game at the grassroots level and in turn find new talent for the PCB to groom, it will also prompt the youngsters in those areas to channel their energies into something productive and find a positive way of taking ownership of Pakistan as their country.

Who will be the next Umer Gul?

For starters, the PCB can team up with the army-run de-radicalization facilities in Swat where young men poisoned by the dogmatist hatred of the Taliban are being rehabilitated successfully. The PCB can use a part of the $16 million it received from the ICC to provide full-time coaches and equipment to the de-radicalization centers. Surely, if PCB Chairman Ijaz Butt can buy an expensive ticket to fly to New Zealand for a week, just to keep an eye on Shahid Afridi’s body language, then the small matter of lending a proper cricket coach and equipment for a good cause should be no trouble at all.

The PCB can also do a lot to broaden the game at the grass-roots level in the insurgency-hit areas. Funds for bats, balls, nets and pitches can be provided to government schools, or whatever is left of them, which have lots of space but no credible sports programs. Not only will it positively impact the children, who will be provided extra-curricular activities and have a reasonable chance to represent their nation, but also unlock the door to untapped talent to bolster the existing pool of players available at the PCB’s disposal.

New grounds can be built in Swat, Waziristan and other parts of FATA. Talent hunts and coaching camps can be conducted there. A cricketing superstar like Shahid Afridi can be made a cricket ambassador for the tribal agencies (where his ancestral home is) to inspire the vulnerable youth there to choose sport over militancy.

The answer to every problem.

Summer cricket tournaments can be organized in Gilgit-Baltistan and in other parts of the north where the PCB can team up with the tourism authorities to help attract domestic tourists to the area, thereby helping the struggling local economy, in addition to promoting cricket and providing an outlet to the youth to discover their talent.

Cricket has helped Sri Lanka grow closer as a nation and has shown its capacity to be more than just a game. The ground where the leader of the LTTE rebel army, Prabhakaran, used to deliver his annual war speech has been turned into  a cricketing academy where young talent from the troubled Northern areas comes to hone their skills with the help of ex-national cricketers, hired by the Sri Lankan Cricket Board. The coaching program – first initiated in 2009 – has not only helped hundreds of aspiring boys move one step closer to realizing their dream of playing for their country, but has also provided the SLC with an abundance of polished talent in its youth reserves.

There is no reason why the sport of cricket cannot overpower terrorism and economic grievances in Pakistan – no reason why it cannot provide the people in those areas something that they can cherish. The rise of extremism in our country began with one man’s myopic thinking – to counter it the PCB as an institution must end its own myopia.

Drop the guns, raise the bats.

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