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"Will you come to Mohali?" Gilani: "Hell Yes. Free ticket to the match FTW!"

The India-Pakistan World Cup semi-final in Mohali, India is in just two days (cricket cup, World Cup, it’s a big cup…), and my Facebook and Twitter feeds are oversaturated with anxiety-riddled , nail-biting discussion about the match. News agencies and leaders alike are gleefully using the term “cricket diplomacy” to describe the well-timed restart of high-level talks between the two countries.

The Express Tribune quoted a government spokesman Sunday who stated, “It was decided in response to the Indian prime minister’s invitation that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will visit India to witness the semi-final cricket match.” On Monday, Prime Minister Gilani (Jadoogar Gilani) further emphasized that his meeting with Indian PM Manmohan Singh during the semifinals will “help improve relations between the two countries,” while the Indian High Commission noted Gilani’s presence will have a positive impact on Indo-Pak talks.

But will it?

I’ve written a number of posts on this blog about sports diplomacy, most recently highlighting the efforts by tennis players Aisam ul-Haq Qureshi and Rohann Bopanna, i.e., the Indo-Pak Express, who showed how sports can transcend boundaries and bring countries together. Last fall, Qureshi told Sports Illustrated,

Obviously we have to look at the bigger picture. Nelson Mandela, Arthur Ashe, all those big legends: Definitely you can change people’s minds through sports. Football does that; there’s no reason tennis can’t do it. Our combination is very rare and we’re getting all this publicity and hype. And I feel like we can use it to change peoples’ minds. Minds are changing anyway. Every time Indians and Pakistanis come and support us, minds are changing.

Do I believe that sports can act as a tool of diplomacy? Most definitely. But there’s a reason why it’s considered a form of citizen diplomacy. This can in turn have some influence on state actors at the top, but its major impact is on breaking barriers and transcending boundaries between people. Despite constant stalls and obstacles in the Indo-Pak peace process, we have seen grassroots efforts take rather positive steps in recent years, from Indo-Pak school exchanges and dialogues (see Citizens Archive of Pakistan), to media initiatives like Aman ki Asha, and Pakistan/Bollywood crossovers.

But it is interesting when state leaders use such tools of diplomacy as a supposed part of their high-level talks. In 2005, Singh invited former President Musharraf to India for a cricket series, telling lawmakers in a speech at the Indian Parliament, “Nothing brings the people of the subcontinent together more than our love for cricket and Bollywood.” In 1987, General Zia ul-Haq also attended a test match between India and Pakistan in Jaipur – “a visit that apparently helped cool a flare-up in tensions,” noted the NY Times.

This time around, though, I’m skeptical how goodwill gestures will amount to more than just gestures. The problems between India and Pakistan are complex, to say the least, and the trust deficit, particularly after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 is wide. Yes, Pakistan freed an Indian national, Gopal Das, who was in a Pakistani prison for 27 years as an alleged spy, as an another goodwill gesture before the match Wednesday, but the two states have to get through talks about the Mumbai attacks and India’s alleged presence in Balochistan. Cricket may be an ice-breaker, but it is unlikely that these issues and distrust will be resolved this time around. According to Al Jazeera English, “some Pakistanis are said to be sceptical that Singh is simply playing to his domestic audience and trying to distract from a string of corruption scandals that have effectively paralysed the Congress-led government.”

For now, here’s to a good match between the two countries. Thoughts on state relations can be left in the comment section.

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Reuters: Sun Salutation?!

It’s Pakistan Day today, and the Pakistan cricket team just defeated West Indies by 10 wickets to reach the World Cup semi-finals.

Kind of poetic, no?

The match took place amid tremendous Bangladeshi support in Mirpur, a fact that was surprising for some given the history between the two countries. But my friend Tafsir, who was leaving the stadium post-match, told me, “Before  the Bangladesh cricket team became big, everyone here supported Pakistan, especially when Imran Khan, Inzamam ul-Haq, Waqar Younis, and Wasim Akram were playing. So it’s logical that the Bangladeshis are supporting Pakistan now.”

Pakistan has so far played all of their games in Sri Lanka, receiving an equally warm response among fans in that country despite the horrific attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009. Shahid Afridi, the Pakistan team captain more fondly known as Boom Boom Afridi and less fondly known as Very-Obvious-Ball-Biter, told media outlets,

It was beginning to feel like we were playing at home [in Sri Lanka]. But I’m sure that Bangladesh will be a similar story. The crowd there supports the Pakistan team and they will be backing us now that their own team is not playing in the quarterfinals. The conditions in Mirpur, will be home-like, I’m sure.

And it was. Another friend, Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9), an Express 24/7 reporter in Karachi, told me, “The Bangladeshis and the Sri Lankans have shown that they love cricket. It is about human beings more than it is about war and politics…It’s a sign that people can show immense grace and rise above history and conflict.”

If my Twitter feed is any indication, many Pakistan fans, while celebrating the win, took a moment to thank Bangladesh for their support today. Rabayl_M tweeted, “I love Pakistan and I can still be deeply apologetic about what happened in 1971 because of us. I’m sorry Bangladesh.” Another Twitter friend, Bolshevik, echoed, “Hats off to the people of #Bangladesh. Phenomenal support despite #Pakistan’s #1971 chutyapey and lack of apology. Amaar shonar Bangla! :-)”

Sure, it’s just a sports tournament. But if the World Cup has taught us anything, it’s how sports can really give us some perspective, and truly transcend boundaries.

Here’s to a great performance in the semi-finals, Pakistan. Many thanks to Bangladesh for their amazing support (what up to my mother country!). And Happy Pakistan Day, [here is my think-positive-thoughts post from Pakistan Day last year].

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From News of the World (left to right): Bowler Asif, skipper Butt, bowler Amir, keeper Akmal

For many of us who grew up in Pakistan, our childhoods were filled with memories of cricket blaring on the television, children playing the sport on the street, even the Howzat popsicles Wall’s promoted in conjunction with major sporting matches. Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, and Waqar Younis are all icons, not just in the cricketing world, but among all Pakistanis. We are a country that bleeds for cricket. So you can imagine the outrage that has been generated from the latest spot-fixing scandal, in which several members of the Pakistan national cricket team allegedly took bribes for rigging a match against England. Below, Shaheryar Mirza, a reporter with Express 24/7 and a self-confessed cricket fanatic, delves into the scandal below:

On Sunday, The News of the World broke a sensational story, reporting that a cricket fixer, Mazhar Majeed,  accepted  £150,000 pounds for allegedly directing Pakistani bowlers Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif to deliver three ‘no-balls’ at specific junctures during the final test match against England at Lords.  Hidden-camera footage shows Mazhar Majeed accepting money from a reporter posing as a member of  a ‘Far East gambling cartel’ and players Umar Amin and Wahab Riaz taking jackets lined with cash from Majeed, apparently in return for having done his bidding.  The News of the World’s video dossier also shows Majeed bragging that he bribed the players to deliver those no-balls at that precise time.

The players at the center of the controversy are Salman Butt (Captain) Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir. A total of seven players are suspected to be a part of the fix (two could be Umar Amin and Wahab Riaz as they also appear in video footage), though Butt and Akmal are said to be the ‘kingpins’ of the scam. Video footage of the bowlers delivering no-balls exactly when Majeed said they would is the smoking gun, particularly since Amir’s no ball is so blatant and exaggerated and bowlers rarely ever miss the mark by that much a margin.

In the worst-case scenario, Pakistan’s players will be found guilty of spot-fixing and the investigations will lead to greater information on match-fixing and other such misconduct by Pakistan’s players and the offenders will be banned – for life.  The Pakistan Cricket Board, (PCB) which has also come under fire and has been held responsible for this embarrassment, could choose to make an example of the players to let themselves off the hook. Calls for the PCB to be dissolved can be heard on every channel in the country.

Pakistani players have had little credibility since the match-fixing scandals of the 1990’s and the Pakistan Cricket Board has always been accused of being soft on offenders.  That reputation will be more deeply entrenched among Pakistani fans and followers of the sport around the world. Like all scandals, the outrage will intensify as the scandal unfolds, but after punishment is meted out, it will slowly fade to the back of people’s minds and Pakistani players will continue to perform through a haze of suspicion, as they done have over the last decade.

However, the biggest casualty of this scandal will undoubtedly be Mohammad Amir. The teenage strike bowler is arguably the biggest find for Pakistani bowling since Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Not only does he have immense natural talent, he has ability years beyond his experience. Amir is also blessed to be born with a high cricket I.Q., for lack of a better term. Fans of Pakistan cricket will be torn between feelings of betrayal and the desire to see Mohammad Amir fulfill his potential as a legend of Pakistani bowling.

That is where the toughest question arises out of this scandal; should Mohammad Amir be banned for life if he is found guilty? The heart says no. Despite how embarrassing and filthy it is to cheat at Test level, and that too at Lords, the Mecca of cricket, a lifetime ban would be disproportionate. To make an example out of him would be understandable, but not justified. This is a first-time offense for Amir and he is not guilty of fixing an entire match. At the end of the day, he is an eighteen-year-old kid and could not have been complicit in a scam of this proportion without senior players leading him into it.

This is ultimately a failure of the PCB to adequately chaperone Amir and shield him from people like Majeed who have preyed on much more experienced and knowing players in the past. Those senior players like Salman Butt, Kamran Akmal and Mohammad Asif are all responsible for this if it turns out to be true. A lifetime ban for all three of the previously mentioned players would be justified and Mohammad Asif, in fact, would deserve such a punishment as it is obvious he has not learned from his past mistakes. While Salman Butt and Kamran Akmal may also be first-time offenders, one is the captain and the other is a senior player in the squad. Make examples of them. Not Mohammad Amir.

‘Match fixing’ where the entire outcome of the match is pre-determined and ‘fancy-fixing’ where certain scores by a batsmen or a specific number of runs within a certain amount of overs are predetermined, plague the game and every country that plays the sport. In numerous conversations I’ve had with reporters who have covered cricket for over two decades, fixing is mentioned casually as a fact in their conversations about the sport. Some insiders say that match-fixing has gone down to the extent of their knowledge, but it is still frequent and reaches the highest levels of cricket, including cricket boards.

The players and boards are still just pawns of a much greater game being played by gambling syndicates. The amount of money at stake in cricket has skyrocketed with India netting the greatest profits from the sport and as a result also plays host to the biggest gambling syndicates. Mazhar Majeed, the man at the center of the controversy, expressed that he deals with ‘an Indian party’. These gambling syndicates must be investigated all over the world. As long as they can readily get access to players, fixing will continue to plague the game. In an ideal world, honest players would be the greatest protection against this, but sport has proven time and again that people do cheat for the right price.

I run the risk of sounding like an apologist calling for Mohammad Amir to be excused for embarrassing the entire nation. But in my defense, I would rather see action taken against gambling syndicates. The first rule of journalism and also in crime-fighting is ‘follow the money’. The money lies with the syndicates as does the highest form of accountability. Give a lifetime ban to the three senior players I mentioned earlier. Dissolve the wretched and systematically corrupt Pakistan Cricket Board while you’re at it. Mohammad Amir should not be made an example for the Pakistan Cricket Board’s failure to prevent and punish fixing in the past. Do punish Amir, but the calls for a life-long ban are unfair. Mohammad Amir is a rare player who has the potential to give back immeasurably to international cricket for a decade to come. He could certainly give back much more than he would have taken away by bowling those two no-balls.

The contribution is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of CHUP. If you would like to contribute a piece to CHUP, please email Kalsoom at changinguppakistan[at]gmail[dot]com. Pieces should be no longer than 800 words please. For past contributions, click here.

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As we approach 2010, blogs and media agencies everywhere are compiling their lists of the past year and decade – the best music, movies, political events, scandals, the list goes on. Rather than give you a somber top 10 for Pakistan, I wanted to list some of the funniest and most memorable quotes of the year:

  1. From RehmanMalik.com, “A welcome massage by Mr. A. Rehman Malik – Minister for Interior.” (Just in case you don’t feel relaxed when you’re in Pakistan.)
  2. Columnist Nadeem Paracha defines Imran Khan as, “A man who still thinks the Taliban is a brand name for a series of chubby, cuddly teddy bears.” (Funny because it’s true.)
  3. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, “Excellency you are not a simple politician but a political magician and I am deeply impressed by your way of governance.”  (Hey, Jadoogar. Harry Potter called. He wants his wand back.)
  4. Lollywood’s sweetheart Meera, exclaiming, “Oh no jaani no, I work for people day and night, for poor people.” (Poor Meera, she can be such a layer.)
  5. A GEO Television reporter, after meeting Tehreek-e-Taliban head Hakimullah Mehsud, said, “Hakimullah is a lively man. He told us he could give us two gifts. One was the Humvee military vehicle that his fighters had captured during a recent raid in Khyber Agency on an Afghanistan-bound supply convoy for Nato forces. The other was a jeep that his men had snatched from UN employees in Khyber Agency.” (I mean. What a gentleman.)
  6. The Pakistan Cricket Board’s TMI press release: “The medical board has reported that Shoaib Akhtar was suffering from genital viral warts, and electrofulguration was done on May 12, 2009.” (Shoaib Akhtar was itching to get back on the field after that procedure.)
  7. AQ Khan wants us to know more about his special interest in the Makrani people: “Makrani children are extremely cute…They looked very much like African pikaninis with dark curly hair and shiny eyes.” (He also wants us to pray for divine intervention, visit Timbuktu, and continue reading his “Random Thoughts” column.)
  8. In response to whether Rehman Malik will be arrested after the National Reconciliation Ordinance was declared null and void, PM Gilani told reporters, “Interior Minister arrests people. So who can arrest him?” (Details, shmetails.)
  9. President Obama, in an interview to Dawn this summer, “Oh, keema … daal … You name it, I can cook it. And so I have a great affinity for Pakistani culture and the great Urdu poets.”  Dawn: “You read Urdu poetry?” Obama: “Absolutely.” (I also can play concertos blind-folded while plucking a banjo with my toes.)
  10. Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi: “I would like them to remember me as the craziest cricketer that ever played for Pakistan.” (Boom Boom, Afridi.)

The above quotes were my personal favorites, but there were plenty more. Write in with your own memorable Pakistan-related quotes of the year in the comments section!

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Reuters: Afridi celebrates after hitting the winning runs.
Reuters: Afridi celebrates after hitting the winning runs.

Today, chants of “Pakistan Zindabad” resounded throughout the country, as Pakistan defeated Sri Lanka by eight wickets to become the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup Champions. It was, as Dawn noted, the first major title Pakistan has won in 17 years, and it comes at a time when the country faces a multitude of burgeoning problems. Pakistan’s team captain Younus Khan told reporters after today’s victory, “We were the underdogs and had less pressure, but we came good in the big games. It’s a credit to the country and to the team…This is a our gift to our nation. Hopefully, it will help cheer them up.” Cricket is the sport Pakistanis bleed for, and the team, [especially Shahid Afridi] are undoubtedly national heroes. Congratulations to Sri Lanka as well for an incredible game! Below, Shaheryar Mirza, a journalist based in Rawalpindi, further discusses today’s victory:

It’s true. A four hour cricket match can raise a nation out of the doldrums of war and economic despair. If only temporarily, the Pakistani nation can unite and bask in its glory on the global stage. In a trip around the streets of Rawalpindi, a microcosm for other cities around the country, there was a zeal and fervor only recently seen at political demonstrations. Only this time, there were song and dance to replace anger and frustration. As Pakistanis waved flags and pulled wheelies on their bikes it was reminiscent of what this country used to look like, and what it should look like more often.

In the last few weeks, Younus Khan has proved that he can raise an unpredictable, isolated yet talented team to the top of the sport. Many may argue that it is just 20/20 cricket and not a One Day or Test Series. But to counter these arguments one can just point back to the time that One Day’s were thought to be an aberration or a passing trend. Under the coaching of Intikhab Alam, Khan managed to extract a performance from the Pakistan cricket team that has not been seen for at least a decade. Pakistan’s last great triumph was at the 1992 World Cup and since their embarrassing loss in 1999 to Australia, the team has never looked the same.

What more can one say but BOOM BOOM. If I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase in the last few weeks I’d be a rich man. Shahid Afridi dazzled the cricketing world with his drifted yet pacy leg spin. Googly’s, the quicker ones, pure leg spin and the flipper, you name it, it was part of Afridi’s bowling arsenal. As cricket commentators would put it, he bamboozled the batsmen in this tournament and made many a top order batsman look amateurish. Through the first few matches, Afridi struggled to find form with the bat until his promotion up the order. The captain told him to play his natural game and Afridi’s natural game is exactly what makes his fans love him, but it is also his greatest weakness. Fortunately, once he was promoted, the cries of BOOM BOOM from the crowd were justified by the bat.

Afridi displayed a previously un-witnessed maturity, patience and class to his approach between the wickets. Gone was Afridi’s trademark: close-your-eyes, swing and just pray. He played deft cuts, quick singles and doubles and built his innings like a master batsmen. Yet he still managed to entertain the crowd with big hits, and with the crowd already on his side he could do no wrong. Afridi’s performance cannot be mentioned without highlighting the running catch he took against New Zealand to dismiss Scott Styris and what seemed to be a turning point in the match and Pakistan’s T20 campaign.

It would also be unfair to go on without highlighting Umar Gul’s effect on the tournament. Gul’s 12 wickets in five matches with a record-breaking performance of 5 for 6 were truly phenomenal. Batsmen seemed defeated before they even faced him. His reputation built during the first few matches preceded him, and in cricket, mental advantage is key to winning the battle between bat and ball. Gul managed to get the ball to start reversing by the 12th over, a feat apparently never seen by most of the cricketers participating in this tournament. Gul showed that it was his skill and superior bowling action that achieved the reverse swing and not ball tampering. No other team had a bowler that could match the consistency and lethal nature of his Yorkers.

Credit goes to the whole team as Younus Khan, after experimenting in the opening matches, settled on an opening pair in Kamran Akmal and newcomer Shahzaib Hassan. Akmal was consistent in providing Pakistan with a steady start in each innings. Shahzaib failed to make an outstanding impression, but he is young and shows promise. Younus Khan consistently put on 20 to 30 quick runs with a couple fifties throughout the tournament. Shoaib Malik played out his role as an orthodox batsman that could anchor Pakistan’s innings at any given time. Malik proved useful with the ball to fill up some of the middle overs and dry up the runs.

Saeed Ajmal turned out to be the silent hero for Pakistan. One of the leading wicket takers of the tournament, he was overshadowed by Umar Gul, but his performance with the ball contained the opposition’s runs and took wickets at regular intervals. He has proved to be a standout off-spinner for Pakistan with an impeccably disguised “doosra.”

Lastly, Abdul Razzaq proved to be Pakistan’s psychological trump card. His admission into the team re-energized the squad and made believers of a team which at the beginning only looked like they half-believed. He bowled disciplined spells that can only come with experience. Razzaq was that extra spark that the team needed to finish the job.

Pakistan’s number one weapon, though, was the heart and will to win. They played with a passion that had been missing from the team for years. This passion seemed to be fueled by their desire to uplift a bruised and battered nation. They had the hopes and dreams of an entire nation on their shoulders, and they carried it proudly. A team without a home-ground showed that they can turn any ground into their home territory.

It goes without saying, but this win was a gift for the Pakistani people and most importantly a gift for those internally displaced people of the Swat Valley. The sons of their land were the heroes of the Pakistan team. The people of the NWFP have been thrust onto the world stage for the wrong reasons, and now they can hold their heads up high and display their talent. Thanks to Younus Khan’s gift, the displaced people may have something to smile about, if only for a short while.

As Pakistani’s sing and dance throughout the night they can once again feel proud to be Pakistani. Cricket is after all, just a game. But in a country like Pakistan it’s a game that serves as an ambassador that every Pakistani can be proud of. Shahbash boys…shahbash.

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Pakistan Zindabad!!

Given the volatile situation in the country, today’s cricket victory should give Pakistanis something to smile about. After defeating the tournament favorites South Africa in the first World Twenty20 semi-final, Pakistan will move on to play either Sri Lanka or the West Indies in the final Sunday. Team captain Younus Khan told reporters after the game, “We are slow starters, we arrived late, didn’t have a lot of practice sessions so there was no pressure on us – but suddenly we are in a good position.” He, along with many people, gave credit to Shahid Afridi, who hit 51 runs, took 2-16 [bowling], and was subsequently awarded man-of-the-match. BBC quoted Afridi as saying, “The captain and the coach [Intikhab Alam] really gave me a good confidence. I asked them to send me in as number three and after that I enjoyed my batting. In the semi-final you don’t have any more chances – this is good for Pakistani cricket.”

This is what the Guardian had to say about Afridi’s performance today:

Afridi’s promotion to No. 3 was Pakistan’s wild card, and his 51 from 34 balls justified it. It has never been possible to ascribe logic to an Afridi innings. There is none. Even before the advent of Twenty20, no matter how serious the circumstances, he was thoroughly recalcitrant. He only averages 15 in 41 Twenty20 matches, and he started scratchily, barely looking at the bowler’s approach initially. But he is a perpetual menace, occasionally contained but never controlled. From the depths of his memory, he summoned what his former coach Geoff Lawson concluded was his ‘best innings for two years.’

It is incredible how sports can unify a country and ignite the national spirit. I am always proud to be Pakistani, but was especially proud today, [a feeling echoed by Pakistanis at home and around the world]. So, it’s been a good day. Pakistan Zindabad, and good luck to our team in the final!

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[Image, AP]

Today, a police official in Lahore told reporters that about 20 people had been detained in the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in which six police officers were killed and six players were wounded.  The NY Times cited Nasir Bajwa, the deputy superintendent of police in the Model Town section of Lahore, who  said the suspects “were detained Tuesday night, hours after the attack.” He gave no details of the identities of those detained. The Times added, “The owner of a hostel in an area of Lahore close to the attack said the police had detained about 13 students who were at his premises. Muhammad Ashger said the students were arrested around midnight. A rocket launcher and clothes with bloodstains were recovered from the hostel, the police said.”

According to BBC News Wednesday, “Up to 14 gunmen were involved in the attack at the Liberty Square roundabout in the heart of Lahore on Tuesday.” The BBC’s M Ilyas Khan noted that hundreds of people have been questioned in poorer areas of Lahore to find clues to the attackers. However, the BBC reported, although a number of people had been detained, senior police official Haji Habibur Rehman added that little headway had been made in identifying the men.

Investigators are also checking backpacks recovered from nine locations in the city that “were apparently left by the attackers as they escaped.” The BBC reported, “Police say the backpacks contain water bottles and dry food items, indicating that the attackers were preparing for a long operation, as was the case in last year’s attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai.” Meanwhile, the Punjab government has placed advertisements in local newspapers announcing a $125,000 reward for any information that leads to the attackers. The advert, carried on most front pages, features two grainy pictures of the attackers, apparently taken from video footage, noted the BBC.  According to The News,Lahore police also drew sketches of four of the terrorists involved in Tuesday’s terror attacks…The sketches were prepared on the basis of descriptions given by eyewitnesses, car owner and rickshaw driver.” [Image above of the cache of weapons left behind]

Despite these efforts, criticisms [not surprisingly] intensified Wednesday. Former interior minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, head of the PPP-Sherpao, criticized the recent arrests, asserting, “They [the government] want to show to the world they are making arrests…They don’t know anything. There is not any semblance of government.” The Punjab Assembly, meanwhile, condemned the attack and held Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer responsible. According the News, the Assembly promptly called for Taseer’s resignation.

Several media outlets also cited statements made by Chris Broad, a British umpire traveling with the Sri Lankan team, who angrily claimed that police “melted away as the attackers opened fire,” leaving them like “sitting ducks.” He told media outlets, “I am extremely angry that we were promised high-level security and in our hour of need that security vanished.”

His statements seem to fall in line with a GEO News report that broadcast “exclusive CCTV footage” [see below] of the attackers shooting at the buses in Liberty Square. The news agency reported, “The exclusive footage reveals that attackers carried out the heinous act with full impunity. They started firing indiscriminately on the cricketers’ bus at 8:39 am on March 3 and managed to flee from the spot at 8:46 am. The attackers, as shown in the footage, faced no hindrance and kept lurking about Liberty Chowk area freely. They came toward Firdous market and used the same route for exit. The footage shows attackers in groups who were carrying heavy bags.”

Another article in The News reported that “The Crime Investigation Department (CID), Punjab, had accurately warned the Punjab government on Jan 22, 2009 about an Indian plan to target the Sri Lankan cricket team during its visit to Pakistan.” The news agency added, “The report tagged “SCRET/IMMEDIATE” with subject “SOURCE REPORT” reads: “It has reliably been learned that RAW (Indian intelligence agency) has assigned its agents the task to target Sri Lankan cricket team during its current visit to Lahore, especially while traveling between the hotel and stadium or at hotel during their stay.”

While the GEO development is interesting because it addresses the questions many of us had regarding how the attackers managed to escape, it should still be taken with a grain of salt. So should  the aforementioned article in The News, which reported that RAW was behind the attack. A multitude of theories and allegations are abound, and it’s important to wait until the dust settles before drawing any tangible conclusions.

I do take issue with Broad’s tirade over the lack of security, though. Yes, the attack was horrific and embarrassing because the Sri Lankan cricket team and the umpires should have been afforded much better security.  The Nation cited a former police official who called it a major security lapse, and noted there “was no proper deployment of additional police guards and patrolling from the PC Hotel to the Gaddafi Stadium despite the fact that the convoy of the Sri Lankan team had been declared VVIP.” That I fully agree with and is something they should be held accountable for. But to say that police “melted away” when the attackers appeared? What about the six police officers who died in Tuesday’s attack? The ICC official’s statements completely neglect to mention their sacrifice. To me it symbolized the oft-nameless casualties of violence that are quickly forgotten in the steady stream of press statements and headlines.

The finger-pointing that has ensued following Tuesday’s attack is ironic, to say the least. The shameful incident that occurred in Lahore yesterday showcased a lack of control on the part of the government, but it also exemplified what can occur when politicians are too distracted by infighting to pay attention to the broader issues facing the country. An editorial in today’s Dawn newspaper echoed my sentiment exactly: “The politicians need to wake up, bury the hatchet in the national good and rout the real enemy.” Instead of doing it, though, opposition parties are using it as leverage to blame the government further. The government in turn is trying to save face in light of some pretty stunning allegations.

Yes, someone needs to be held accountable as the country is turned inside out on this witchunt. But have we learned nothing from what injuries our self-interest can cause? What about the people killed and the lives almost lost? What about the threat to our country’s greatest love – cricket, a sport that is not only a national pasttime but one enjoyed by all Pakistanis, regardless of class, ethnicity or religious sect? And more importantly, what about what could happen next if things degenerate further? At the end of the day, if we watch our country go up in flames, the only people we have to blame is ourselves.

Great reads: This NY Times op-ed by Ali Sethi, as well as “An Open letter to the Citizens of Sri Lanka,” by Samad Khurram and Sara Seerat.

UPDATE 3/5: Below, are the sketches of the four suspects the Pakistani police are looking for:

[Image from the NY Times]

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On Tuesday, media outlets reported that a dozen men attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team with rifles, grenades and rocket launchers ahead of a match in Lahore, wounding six team members [five players and the coach] and killing a driver and six police officers. CNN reported, “The Sri Lankan squad had been making its way to the city’s Gaddafi Stadium for the third day of the second test match against Pakistan at around 9 a.m. local time (11 p.m. ET) when the attack occurred.” According to Dawn, the attack triggered a 25-minute gun battle with security forces. Lahore police chief Habib ur-Rehman told the news agency, “They appeared to be well-trained terrorists.” Several media outlets reported that television footage “showed several gunmen creeping through trees, crouching to aim their weapons and then running onto the next target.”

CNN reported that witnesses described the scene as “pandemonium,” noting that “images showed police vehicles with their windscreens shattered by bullets and splattered with blood.” The news agency quoted Hamish Roberts, a camera operator who was inside the stadium when the attack occurred. He said, “I heard two loud explosions outside the stadium and a lot of AK-47 fire.” The AFP also quoted a Sri Lankan player, who speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “There was a blast first, then we heard firing. A rocket launcher was also fired at the bus which narrowly missed.”

Today’s tragic development is likely to enforce perceptions about Pakistan’s deteriorating security situation, and “cast another cloud over Pakistan cricket which has been reeling from a string of cancelled tours and tournaments,” noted Dawn. This past December, India canceled their 2009 cricket tour of Pakistan following increased Indo-Pak tensions. They were the third major cricket tour to Pakistan last year to be canceled on security grounds. Australia pulled out of their scheduled visit in March 2008, while the International Cricket Council also postponed the Champions Trophy one-day tournament in September.

According to CNN, “Pakistan’s Cricket Board had hoped Sri Lanka’s tour would help it recoup some of more than $16 million it was set to lose as a result of India’s cancelation.” The news agency added, “The Sri Lankan offer to tour was a reciprocal gesture. Pakistan was one of two countries that agreed to play in Sri Lanka during the 1996 World Cup tournament. Other countries refused to travel there because of security concerns over the country’s civil war with Tamil separatists.” Last month’s meeting with Sri Lanka in Karachi was the Pakistani team’s first test match since touring India in 2007. However, following today’s attack, the team announced they were effectively ending their tour of Pakistan.

AAJ Television cited statements made by David Morgan, the president of the International Cricket Council. Following Tuesday’s attack, he told reporters that Pakistan “cannot host international cricket unless it dramatically improves security.” His announcement will dramatically impact whether Pakistan will be able to jointly host the 2011 World Cup. He asserted,

In the current situation it is clearly a very dangerous place…Things will have to change dramatically in Pakistan in my opinion if any of the games are to be staged there…I think that international cricket in Pakistan is out of the question until there is a very significant change, a regime change I guess.

Today’s incident was truly a tragedy, perpetrated by forces wishing to negatively influence perceptions of our country and destabilize Pakistan further. Not only did they target innocent people, but they also threatened a sport that Pakistanis [and many other countries] love with all their heart. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those wounded and killed in this horrendous attack. [Image from Reuters]

UPDATE 935 [EST]: Pakistani Information Minister Sherry Rehman has told reporters that the gunmen are still at-large. According to CNN,  “No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Sri Lankan officials have ruled out Tamil separatists.” Lahore’s police chief said the gunmen were in their early 20s and were bearded. According to the NY Times, “He described them as resembling Pathans, an ethnic group that dominates North West Frontier Province and tribal areas, an apparent suggestion that assailants were Taliban militants from the tribal areas.” However, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer likened the incident to the Mumbai attacks, and noted the attackers were highly trained and equipped with sophisticated weapons. “The attackers were not ordinary terrorists but highly trained,” he asserted, adding, “These were the same methods and the same sort of people as hit Mumbai.” According to AAJ Television, Inspector General of Punjab Police Khawaja Khalid Farooq told media that joint investigation teams comprising professional and honest officers have been constituted to probe the attack.

UPDATE 1715 [EST]: CNN’s Situation Room spoke with its Pakistan correspondent Stan Grant who said the gunmen, who carried out Tuesday’s attacks in broad daylight, hid behind bushes waiting for the Sri Lankan players’ bus at a busy roundabout in Lahore. The BBC‘s Barbara Plett, in Islamabad, said that accounts suggest the attack was sophisticated, with one group of gunmen firing a rocket-propelled grenade to create a diversion, while others fired on the convoy. When the bus came under attack, the driver of the bus “heroically sped off.” Sri Lankan wicket keeper Kumar Sangakkara told an Australian news agency, “We had an amazing driver who just kept driving the bus straight through all of that to the ground and that’s probably what saved us.” However, the driver of the bus following behind, carrying the Australian umpires, was killed. CNN noted, “This attack shows just how vulnerable Pakistan is.” According to Grant, the gunmen are still at-large, and the investigation is just beginning. The Situation Room also spoke with Fareed Zakaria, who said, “There’s no question that Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world right now…it is unstable, weak, and this cancer of Islamic terrorism has turned into Frankenstein’s monster…”

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