Page last updated at 11:43 GMT, Saturday, 7 March 2009

The day guns stopped play

The people of Pakistan used to think cricket was immune from militant attacks, but those ideas lie in ruins, as Pakistani writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif reports.

TV footage of the gunmen in Lahore
The people of Pakistan believed cricket was above politics

"Do you think the Taleban might ban cricket?" I asked a class eight student in Mingora, the main city in Pakistan's Swat Valley last week.

The schools had reopened after the government reached a ceasefire deal with the local Taleban, who had banned girls from attending schools and blown up more than 200 school buildings.

As I visited various schools and markets, all the hallmarks of Taleban rule were visible there.

The trousers-shirts school uniform had been replaced by salwar kameez dresses. Girls in fourth grade had turned up in elaborate black head covers.

Taleban clampdown

Girl students in high school and female teachers wore burkas. All the music shops had been shut down.

Barbers had hung "no-shaves", and "no-un-Islamic haircut" signs outside their doors.

The class eight student, who had just given me a very articulate critique of the Taleban's approach to Islam, seemed baffled at my question.

"Why would they do that?" he asked me. I reminded him of the Taleban's ban on all kinds of entertainment - music, movies even advertising billboards.

"But cricket is just a sport," he said, "it's good for your body."

Pakistan map

The student in Mingora was not alone in his bafflement when more than a dozen militants targeted the visiting Sri Lankan team in the heart of Lahore this week.

Pakistanis had come to believe that the game of cricket was above all the bloody battles raging in Pakistan.

Second religion

In the past two years, militants have blown up mosques, attacked five-star hotels and opened fire on school buses carrying children.

But cricket in Pakistan was considered a religion above religion, not just a favourite pastime or passion as many observers have pointed out, but almost a spiritual obsession.

Devout family members cut their prayers short so that they do not have to miss a single ball being bowled in a cricket match.

Last year I had a reunion with a long-lost friend who spent the entire evening glued to his television screen watching a Twenty20 match and only started talking after the game was over.

I have had conversations with the celebrated Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, where he has explained everything from the current literary trends to world politics in cricketing terms.

 Inzamam ul-Haq  of Pakistan
Cricket has an almost spiritual significance in Pakistan

One of Pakistan's most famous pop singers almost broke down in tears recently, when he confessed that as a teenager he wanted to make it to the national cricket team and his pop stardom was no consolation.

The love for cricket in Pakistan cuts across all ethnic and class divides.

On any given weekend or public holiday, streets and by-lanes of Pakistani cities turn into cricket pitches. Grown-up, bearded men play cricket on Karachi beaches using a disused shoe as a bat.

I still remember the sparkle in children's eyes in Pakistan-administered Kashmir when, after the devastating earthquake, relief workers distributed bats and balls.

Attack trauma

I am myself a lapsed cricket fan and can only be bothered to pay attention if a match is heading towards a nail-biting finish.

But even I considered it my parental duty to take my son to Qaddafi Stadium to see an India-Pakistan match during the last tour.

He was awe-struck by the electric atmosphere and was soon chanting and waving without understanding either the game or the slogans.

Last Tuesday, as I watched the images of young men barely out of their teens wearing white sneakers, carrying backpacks, shooting and running around the green patch just outside Gaddafi stadium, I called up a friend to share the news.

She said with genuine sadness: "The match has been cancelled."

I was struck how she was concerned about not being able to follow the game amidst all the mayhem unfolding on the screens.

It is almost certain that no international cricket team will play in Pakistan for the foreseeable future

As I watched the live coverage of the events on Pakistani television channels, my friend's sentiments were echoed by various journalists.

The dead policemen were lionised, the bus driver who had managed to race away under the hail of bullets was declared a national hero but the centrepiece of the coverage was cricket - what team would dare to visit Pakistan after this?

Was this the end of international cricket for Pakistan? What about the Cricket World Cup 2011, which Pakistan was supposed to co-host with other countries from the subcontinent?


There were also suggestions that this was revenge for the Mumbai attacks.

Some TV channels ran split-screen footage of the Mumbai and Lahore attacks to prove their point.

For me there were other, chilling parallels.

There were 12 attackers, the size of a cricket team plus 12th man, their performance on the green patch outside Qaddafi stadium involved nifty footwork and great co-ordination.

And like good cricketers, they kept their heads down and went about their business efficiently.

It is almost certain that no international cricket team will play in Pakistan for the foreseeable future.

But I wonder how many kids watching these attackers in action might think that playing Rambo in front of a world audience is more fun than a game of street cricket.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 March, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific