Friday, March 20, 2009

After Attacks, Cricket Fights for Life in South Asia

Cricket is many things to South Asia. For India and Pakistan it is continuation of war by other means. Whenever England tours, it is a chance to right colonial-era wrongs. Like Bollywood, cricket is a glue that binds, acting as a shared cultural code that overrides differences of language, nationality and culture.
Premier League (IPL), which features a fast and furious short version of the game, began in 2008 and is already worth approximately $2 billion. But last year's terror attack on Mumbai, and the assault on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan on March 3 in which eight people died (six policeman and two civilians) and several Sri Lankan players were injured have raised fears about the future of the game in the region. Will the threat of further attacks spell the end of international cricket in South Asia? (See pictures of the deadly attack on Sri Lanka's cricketers.)

In India, the answer for now seems to be no. Though there was talk of canceling the second season of the Premier League, the IPL looks set to start on April 10 per the original schedule. Security has been beefed up. Players — the teams feature the best in the world from Australia and South Africa to Sri Lanka and the West Indies — will be restricted to the ground and their hotels. Fans will have their bags checked more thoroughly. But the game will go on. "I think we don't have much of [a] choice in this," says Kumar Sangakkara, the Sri Lankan skipper whose team was targeted in Lahore. "Cricket will have to survive. It is a much-loved game in the sub-continent and when you look at global revenue, the Indian sub-continent generates a large part of it and that is very important." (See pictures of cricket.)

New Delhi-based cricket commentator G. Rajaraman says individual players may want out, but their number is unlikely to be significant. "If they want to pull out, franchisees will understand," he says, "But I believe players will come." Rajaraman points out that last year's IPL match in Jaipur between the Rajasthan Royals, led by Australian bowling great Shane Warne, and the Bangalore Royal Challengers with players from South Africa, England and Australia, went ahead despite a deadly terror attack in the city just days before. "At one level, it's a game people love and will do anything for," Rajaraman says. "At another, there is greater faith in India than there is in Pakistan."

Pakistan is indeed in much worse shape. The Sri Lankan team was touring there because India had called off its scheduled tour after the Mumbai attacks, which the Indian government blames on Pakistan-based militants. Teams like Australia and England have refused to play there, too, forcing Pakistan to consider playing all its "home" games in Dubai.

International sides have been wary of playing in Sri Lanka in the past as well. New Zealand has twice aborted tours of Sri Lanka, in 1987 after a bomb exploded in the capital Colombo, and again in 1992, when a suicide bomber detonated his payload in front of the team's hotel. That tour continued despite the five leading players and the coach pulling out. The Lahore attack, says Roshan Abeyasinghe, Sri Lankan cricket commentator and manager of Ajantha Mendis, one of the Sri Lankan players injured in the Lahore attack, just confirms the potential dangers of a sub-continental tour. "Now whatever fears they had have come true," he says. (See the worst sporting terror attacks.)

South Asian players and officials are quick to point out that the danger of an attack is not confined to their region. In July 2005, for instance, the Aussies toured England just weeks after the deadly London tube and bus attacks. "I feel that sports all over the world and not only cricket in the sub-continent have to adapt to what is happening around us," Sangakkara says. "We need to assess the situation and then take appropriate measures."

In Colombo, Sangakkara's team is back in action. "It has been actually a relief to get back to practice, to get to the field and do what we do," says Sangakkara, who wants a professional security assessment before every tour. "We have been pushing for pre-tour assessment for some time, for a manager to tour the host country and report on ground conditions, practice facilities, travel time, etc."

The Indian Premier League is bringing in South African security firm Nicholls, Steyn and Associates to manage safety for the entire tournament. Company director Bob Nicholls knows just what he's up against — he was in Mumbai at the time of last November's attacks. The Indian government has also offered to provide paramilitary forces if required, even though the country will be holding general elections over six weeks coinciding with the tournament. IPL president Lalit Modi has been in a running tiff with the government over dates and venues for his tournament, and it is a measure of the importance of cricket to India that the IPL's request to be provided additional security during the time of general elections was not only made but also entertained. The joke in India is that more people will be watching cricket than will be casting their votes anyway.

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