Not cricket

Why did terrorists in Pakistan attack Sri Lankan cricketers?

On March 3rd, unknown terrorist gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the old capital of the Punjab and second city of Pakistan. Six police guards were killed, but the cricketers escaped.

The story is nasty in a standard way, and very odd in others.

The easiest anomaly to explain is the survival of the cricketers. They were lucky – but also made their own luck. They came from a society with its own long history of terrorism by the Tamil Tiger separatists. Besides, they were professional athletes: very fit young men, with the quick reactions selected for by any ball game, and honed by its high-level practice. Cricket may look languid, as games last so long; but the ball is hard, like a baseball, may be bowled at 90 mph, and it’s legitimate to aim at the batsman’s head or body to intimidate him. The fielders are expected to take catches of mis-hit balls travelling at only slightly lower speeds, barehanded. At this level, you have to be pretty brave as well as quick. So when the team heard gunshots outside their bus, they did the right thing: they dived for the floor and shouted to the driver to keep going. And it worked.

Clip of highlights from a recent match between India and Sri Lanka:

What is harder to understand is: why pick on Sri Lankans? And why cricketers? To jihadist Muslims, Sri Lankans are infidels – Hindus and Buddhists – but they come from a poor country with no recent history of conflict with Muslims. They are just generic foreigners. The one thing that could have made them stand out is that they replaced an Indian cricket team whose tour was sensibly cancelled after the Mumbai attacks.

There’s even less logic to attacking cricketers. Surprisingly, the Takiban are in favour of it. Before 1978, most Afghans despised the game as a British imperialist relic. But following the Soviet invasion of 1978, young Afghan refugees in Peshawar picked up the game from Pakistanis, much as Tibetan refugees in Nepal have adopted spicy subcontinental food. The Taliban took the game back to Afghanistan when they gained power. A cricket website writes:

In January 2000, the Taliban regime wrote to the Pakistan Cricket Board seeking support to join the International Cricket Council as an associate member.

A decorously bearded Afghan team played in Rawalpindi in May 2001. So its unlikely that the Taliban would have chosen cricketers as suitable symbolic targets. The Middle Easterners in Al-Qaeda presumably do not play the game, which never caught on in the British Empire in that part of the world; but why should they hate it?

Terrorism works by symbolic association. If observers are left scratching their heads because they can’t see the point, an attack has failed. This one makes the Pakistan government look weak and incompetent, which it is, and may therefore have some obscure payoff in Pakistani internal politics. It may also backfire. The mass of the Pakistani population live in the Indus plain and like cricket. Making them angry and liable to demand action against the anarchist backwoodsmen in the mountains doesn’t look to me like a brilliant idea.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web