Mortal blow to nation's passion

By midday, the Abdul Qadir International Cricket Academy is usually bustling with young boys sprinting around the field, demonstrating their sportsmanship and mimicking the game's stars.

Security officials search the scene of the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore yesterday.
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LAHORE // By midday, the Abdul Qadir International Cricket Academy is usually bustling with young boys sprinting around the field, demonstrating their sportsmanship and mimicking the game's stars. Yesterday, there was not a player in sight. Fields across the city of Lahore remained deserted following an assault on the Sri Lankan national cricket team that left six police officers and one civilian dead and several players wounded. Boys who would normally stay out late into the evening playing with their friends opted to stay home, many of them devastated by news of the attacks. "[This] incident will definitely be damaging to the game of cricket," said Abdul Qadir, a former captain of the Pakistani national cricket team, and owner of the Abdul Qadir International Cricket Academy, located a few steps from the Gadaffi Stadium, scene of yesterday's attack. "Youngsters play in the streets, the villages, in the roads, at the clubs - this is the most loved game." Abdel Mohsen, 18, a first-year medical school student in Lahore, said the incident strikes at the heart of many young men in Pakistan. "These players are like heroes to us so of course we are all really sad that something like this could happen," he said. While a common history and ethnic ties may link many in South Asia, the game of cricket is what unites them. Often regarded as the best and most reliable form of diplomacy, the sport has superseded cross-border emotions and rollercoaster politics between India and Pakistan, as well as with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. "In the 1980s, when India and Pakistan were on the brink of war, the Pakistani cricket team was touring India and it really diffused tensions," said cricket fan Danish Altaf, 23. "We are a region that eats cricket, sleeps cricket and dreams cricket so it is no surprise that it would take the place of politics sometimes." Pakistanis are concerned that the guerrilla-style attack on the Sri Lankan team yesterday could signal the death of professional cricket in a country where the embattled cricket league already struggles to woo foreign teams. The Test matches between Pakistan and Sri Lanka were the first international home games to take place in Pakistan in 14 months, after the Australian, English and Indian teams bowed out due to security concerns. Sri Lanka, however, had declared solidarity with Pakistan, its government urging the ill-fated team to take India's place after the Mumbai attacks led to the tournament's cancellation. "It was such a great gesture from the Sri Lankan team to come and play in Pakistan when no one else would," said Mr Qadir, the retired Pakistani captain. Local cricketers now fear it may be quite some time before another team is willing to take the risk. "This was the nail in the coffin," said Ali Shujaat, owner of the Lahore Cricket Academy. "As it was, we were not attracting many international students or international cricketers to the academy because of the current security scenario and now this killed it for us." Private cricket academies in Pakistan are mostly commercial entities. Many of the smaller schools receive very little in the way of tuition or profits, but continue to thrive based on community support. Officials maintain that security is not a major concern moving forward. Only hours after yesterday's bloodshed, however, disappointed sports fans were already expressing scepticism over the future of the 2011 World Cup, which Pakistan is set to co-host. "I think it will be harder to get teams to agree to come here," said junior cricketer Ousman Qadir, 15. "People here play with a passion. They play not just because they want to win but because they love the game."