Minutes before match: Kiwis cancel tour citing security issues

Abdul Mohi Shah & News Desk
Saturday, Sep 18, 2021

ISLAMABAD: New Zealand unilaterally pulled out of their cricket series against Pakistan on Friday over security concerns minutes before the first one-day international was due to start.

The move is a massive setback to Pakistan, which has been trying to revive tours by foreign sides after home internationals were suspended in the aftermath of a 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lankan side.

The England and Wales Cricket Board said it would decide in the next 48 hours whether to withdraw from a tour planned for next month. “Following an escalation in the New Zealand government threat levels for Pakistan, and advice from (New Zealand Cricket) security advisers on the ground, it has been decided the BLACKCAPS will not continue with the tour," New Zealand Cricket said in a statement.

Arrangements were being made for the team to leave the country. New Zealand Cricket chief executive David White said Pakistan had been "wonderful hosts", but "player safety is paramount and we believe this is the only responsible option".

The Kiwis are in Pakistan for the first time since 2003 and were due to play three ODIs, followed by five Twenty20 matches. They previously cut short a tour in 2002 after a bomb blast outside their team hotel in Karachi killed 14 French naval staff.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) said New Zealand made the decision unilaterally. "The PCB is willing to continue the scheduled matches," it said in a statement. Before the match was to start, Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke with his counterpart Jacinda Ardern "and assured her that New Zealand team is provided foolproof security", Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry tweeted. “Our intelligence agencies are among the best in the world. And in their opinion, there is no threat to the New Zealand team,” he wrote.

Imran Khan is himself a former international player and cricketing hero. Jacinda Ardern meanwhile said that the safety of the players is paramount as she supported New ZealandCricket's decision to pull out of its Pakistan tour. "When I spoke with the prime minister of Pakistan, I conveyed our thanks for taking care of the New Zealand Cricket team," Ardern said in a statement.

"I know how disappointing it will be for everyone that the game hasn’t gone ahead, but we totally support the decision that’s been made. Player safety has to be paramount,” he said. A security delegation from New Zealand last month inspected arrangements in Pakistan and it was only after their clearance that the tour was given a go-ahead.

"The security officials with the New Zealand team have been satisfied with security arrangements made by the Pakistan government throughout their stay here," the PCB statement said. Most of the squad arrived on Saturday and Sunday with a level of security usually reserved for visiting heads of state that included armed guards escorting their bulletproof buses.

Their Islamabad hotel has been guarded by a heavy paramilitary and police contingent. Surprisingly, neither the NZ Board nor the touring squad was ready to share details on the security threats they received early Friday morning.

The NZC decision took the PCB Chairman Rameez Raja by surprise. “Crazy day it has been! Feel so sorry for the fans and our players. Walking out of the tour by taking a unilateral approach on a security threat is very frustrating. Especially when it is not shared!! Which world is NZ living in? NZ will hear us at ICC,” Rameez Raja, who remained busy throughout early Friday morning, and even had cancelled his scheduled press conference at the Pindi Stadium, said.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid later disclosed at a press conference that the visitors were even offered to play the series in an empty stadium to which they also refused. At a press conference, the minister said New Zealand authorities do not have substantive proof of threat in Pakistan. He said New Zealand took a unilateral decision to cancel the Pakistan tour despite the country's tight security arrangements for the team.

Sheikh Rashid said Pakistani officials spoke to Prime Minister Imran Khan — who is currently in Tajikistan. "The prime minister was briefed on the matter. He then called New Zealand prime minister and assured her that there was no security threat," the minister said.

Responding to PM Imran Khan, the New Zealand prime minister said there were reports that the team might be attacked once it steps out of the hotel, the interior minister said. The minister said the unilateral decision comes as Pakistan is playing a crucial role in establishing peace in the world. "The country has strong institutions which have fought terrorism," he said.

"The tour has been cancelled on the basis of a conspiracy. This is their (New Zealand's) problem. The National Crises Management Cell and other institutions had tried to convince them, but New Zealand's government has taken a unilateral decision," he said.

"This conspiracy has been hatched to tarnish the image of Pakistan, as its image was going to build up due to the role it is playing for peace in the region," the minister said. Pakistan are also due to host England for two Twenty20 internationals next month, while the West Indies and Australia are also to tour in the next six months.

"We are liaising with our security team who are on the ground in Pakistan to fully understand the situation," the England Cricket Board said in a statement. "The ECB Board will then decide in the next 24-48 hours whether our planned tour should proceed."

There was an outpouring of frustration over New Zealand´s decision. Security analysts said Pakistan had made huge efforts to secure the safety of the New Zealand team. "It seems that the past is still haunting us, those incidents have badly damaged our reputation and now the Afghan situation has also impacted our regional security," a retired general turned security analyst Talat Masood told AFP.

Fans, who were allowed to return to stadiums in small numbers after COVID-19 restrictions were eased, began to realise something was wrong when neither team entered the pitch for the 2:00pm toss, half an hour before the match was due to start.

"After waiting so many years, we were minutes away from watching a major cricketing team playing in Pakistan," ticket holder Osama Malik said outside the Rawalpindi stadium. "I have seen Zimbabwe playing in Rawalpindi, but this team was a World Cup finalist and are currently ranked number one in ICC ranking." Others on social media said New Zealand had caused drama and embarrassment for the country.

"New Zealand cricket team´s decision to leave the country after being here for 6 days is terrible. There is no basis to cause such an embarrassment," Mohammad Zubair said. "This is not fair. Seriously you guys are having world best security," another said.