New Zealand cricket team in Pakistan
New Zealand cricket team during a practice session in Pakistan. The team suddenly cancelled its tour last week. Image Credit: AFP

Cricket generates boundless passion in Pakistan. It was therefore predictable that the sudden cancellation of the cricket tour by New Zealand, citing security reasons, would produce a tsunami of disappointment and anger in the country.

The event took place last week, when the touring side did not show up for the first showdown with the hosts and hours before the start of the play left the spectators and the nation shell shocked by announcing that they are packing, strapping and leaving.

Its ripples continue to reverberate across the land. The news is still headline material and the commentary sections of the media are awash with analyses of all types and variety.

(Update: After New Zealand, England too called off its cricket tour to Pakistan. England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) confirmed the development, just days after New Zealand abandoned their limited-overs tour of Pakistan.)

No security threat at all

Pakistani officials have not accepted the reasoning given by the guests that there was a clear and present danger to the team and therefore the whole trip needed to be called off.

After the cancellation was announced Gulf News contacted high ranking security officials who were in touch with the touring team and their government back home to find out if there was indeed an imminent attack that had been sniffed out by the Kiwi government and which led to the heartbreaking anticlimax.

“None was identified”, said the security official while referring to the possibility of the attack or the plan of the attack. He cited massive numbers to dispel the impression that there was a breach of the security cordon at any level.

“Our intelligence about the security profile of the visitors was absolutely accurate and there was not even a remote threat on the horizon”, he said. When asked about an official circular that was circulating on the social media about a security alert he said: “That is routine communication at the low level that does not even have merit to be shared with the top policymakers.”

Imran Khan Pakistan phone
Pakistan PM Imran Khan spoke with NZ PM to deny reports of any security threat to New Zealand's tour of Pakistan Image Credit: APP

Top level, foolproof security

“We had 4000 police men deployed and the inner cordon was three-layered security parameter that is only reserved for the Prime Minister and other high-level visitors. We had 300 cameras and a hundred monitoring screens checking every yard of the route the team would travel from the hotel the venue,” he continued.

It was this detail that gave prime minister Imran Khan, then visiting abroad on Afghanistan-related concerns, to call up his New Zealand counterpart and reassure her that her cricket team members were totally safe and that the tour should continue. But that effort did not yield result.

This bizarre twist to what was a much-anticipated sporting event has led to intense speculation about the motives behind New Zealand’s move. Opinions swing from discussing geopolitics to international plots to embarrass the country.

This is so also because the cost of the cancellation of the tour is not just the financial loss incurred by the Pakistan Cricket Board. More devastating is the reputational damage that the cancellation has caused. Other sporting nations who had planned cricket trips to Pakistan may now be in the process of reviewing their commitments.

It had taken Pakistan years of hard work to repair the dented image of the country as a safe venue for international events after an attack on the Sri Lankan team. Now without a single incident or no indication of any sabotage, things seem to have not worked out.

Shadow of the shock

Pakistani officials are however hopeful to come out of the shadow of this shock. They plan to invite international celebrities to play in the country to showcase the safety and security of Pakistan’s sporting venues.

They are also planning to invite other teams that have played here before to come and fill in the void these cancellations have left in the country’s cricketing heart and soul.

Clearly, the cancellation of the cricket tours is more than a sports debacle. It is now a diplomatic row that will linger on for a long time to come.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12