The game we love

Like on far too many days in this part of the world, a bullet left this morning hoping to find a target. It did. In a cruel twist, it found people that carried guns, not those who cannot think beyond a cricket bat and a ball. There is huge relief at the fact that the Sri Lankan cricketers, the nicest, humblest cricketers in the world, survived; but let us not forget that those assigned to protect them died. Meanwhile a rocket launcher missed its target, a grenade exploded after the team bus had passed over it and cricketers scampered to the turf wicket at the Gaddafi Stadium not to bowl a cricket ball or face it but to escape in a military helicopter. This is the most recent portrait of the game we love.

Inevitably emotions will run high and hatred will fill the air. Responsible, elderly people will make whimsical, dangerous statements and our game will be overwhelmed by those that speak another language. Neither emotion nor hatred is any good nor, as we now know, is romance and naivete. Cricket's popularity has made it a target for terrible people and that is a fact, however depressing, that we must now live with.

I must confess that my heart goes out to the cricket lovers of Pakistan who are now faced with the prospect of not seeing any cricket for a very long time. There are a very large number of those who love the game with the same passion as Sundar from Chennai or Neel from Kolkata do. One of my greatest professional regrets is not being able to go to Pakistan on the 2004 tour, from which almost everybody returned with beautiful, almost magical, stories of the people they met and the warmth that was showered on them. Thereafter peddlers of hate seem to have taken over, and maybe I will now have to go to Birmingham or Melbourne to watch with Pakistani cricket-lovers, a sad by-product of our times.

Almost certainly there will be no World Cup in Pakistan. Much can happen in two years but unless hatred, violence and terrorism are removed by some divine eraser I do not see anybody going to Pakistan. The mildest cricket team in the world has been attacked; people against whom you can have no animosity. There is no chance other teams will visit there. And sadly, it will have a deep impact on the future of cricket itself in that country.

For years, we in India, have shifted our eyes westward, only marginally westward, with awe and admiration at the kind of talent that came bursting through. Suddenly Wasim Akram appeared, suddenly Waqar and Inzamam and Saeed Anwar and many others who, though not quite destined for greatness, played lovely cameo roles. In recent times that production line has got clogged. There is hardly any incandescent talent that illuminates stadiums now. And in the years to come it could only get worse. Wasim Akram was in awe of Imran and Waqar wanted to be like him. Shoaib Akhtar wanted to bowl with Waqar and that is how it always is. One generation inspires another as Tendulkar did with Sehwag and Dhoni. If there is no cricket in Pakistan, there will be no inspiration. Expect lots of journeymen T20 players unsure of whether they are playing for Sussex or Northern Transvaal or South Australia.

This half-hour of madness in Lahore has far-reaching implications. Increasingly cricket grounds will be heavily guarded, cricketers will play in what look like garrisons; it will take longer to get into a T20 game than actually watch it. Little children will no longer eye the wax paper packet in which their mother has packed the best sandwiches in the world. People might stay in drawing rooms, not only because they are more comfortable, but because they are safer. Increasingly cricket will be limited to what the camera shows and what the commentator says. If they can fight their way through all the advertising! I fear cricket watching will become clinical rather than innocent.

Ultimately though, cricket is only a tiny part of the reality of our existence. Like the movies, if more strongly, it can allow us to escape into our little cocoon for a few hours. But thereafter we must emerge and place it in the context of our times. This is a time of extraordinary hatred and violence, of tearing apart rather than stitching together; of grown-up men fighting like neighbourhood kids but with weapons that can maim and kill. The sad reality in our part of the world is that we have far too many people to police and far too few that don't need policing.

The ICC must act fast and not close their eyes to reality like they did with the Champions Trophy. A firm decision on the World Cup will have to be taken quickly and without emotion or appeasement. This is neither the time to cater to vote banks nor for the former gentry to get back at the nouveaux riche.

Oh, and by the way, there is another set of people attacking our game and they have struck thrice in two weeks. In Karachi, Antigua and Barbados where Test cricket was mauled by insensitive caretakers with the three most boring games you will ever see. While the ICC debate terrorism and the World Cup they will do well to come down strongly on those that destroy the game from within.

Till then let us mourn for the Pakistani policemen and count our blessings that Murali will continue to spin the ball viciously, that the great elegance of Jayawardene and Sangakkara will continue to grace cricket grounds, that Mendis will continue to mesmerise batsmen... indeed just that the Sri Lankans will play cricket.

The writer is a cricket commentator express@expressindia.com

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