Harare – 35 years after apartheid’s leaders tried, and failed to use cricket as a weapon to smash the pillars of South Africa’s isolation from world sport, a World XI side – dominated by cricketers from the Rainbow Nation – flew into Pakistan on Sunday for a week-long tour pregnant with both morality and defiance against terrorism.
The apartheid leaders organised a number of rebel tours to their isolated country, starting in 1982, in a failed bid to defy a global sporting ban – supported by the United Nations – in protest over South Africa’s cruel system of institutionalized segregation and discrimination.
Now, more than three decades after those rebel tours started, some of South African’s finest cricketers have been playing a leading role, this week, to break the barriers which have seen Pakistan unable to host international cricket in its backyard since militants attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009.
The World XI side – which features cricket stars from South Africa, Australia, England, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, New Zealand and Bangladesh – is coached by former Zimbabwe captain Andy Flower and captained by Proteas skipper Faf du Plessis.
That Flower, who also coached England in the past, is playing a leading role after agreeing to coach the World XI side in the three ODI matches against Pakistan in Lahore, the very same city where the terrorist attacks triggered the country’s problems in attracting the world’s best cricket nations to its shores, is significant.
Zimbabwe are the only Test-playing country, since those terrorist attacks, to tour Pakistan while Zimbabwean cricketer-turned-coach, Grant Flower, has worked in Pakistan as the batting coach of that country’s national team.
With the World XI side having five South African stars – skipper Du Plessis, Hashim Amla, Imran Tahir, Morne Morkel and David Miller – in its fold, there is no questioning that while this is an international effort, to help Pakistan out of its isolation, its roots are firmly entrenched in Southern Africa.
Flower, speaking at a media conference in Lahore on Monday alongside his captain Du Plessis, which was streamed live on Facebook, said they appreciated the ‘’support they have received from the people of Pakistan for their decision to tour Lahore.
‘’These cricketers are here to play their part in the safe and steady return for international cricket in Pakistan so that the enthusiastic and die-hard fans and followers of Pakistan cricket can once again start to watch their stars and their heroes in their own backyard.
‘’The World XI is fully backed and supported by all the Test playing countries, all the professional cricketers union as well as the ICC.
‘’This clearly demonstrates the unity within the cricket family as well as the cricket fraternity’s long-standing resolve to help one of its key members which has been unable to host international cricket since 2009 for no fault of its own.
‘’In this background, Pakistan reaching number one in the ICC Test rankings and winning the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 is an amazing effort.
‘’This reflects a strong cricket heritage, culture and talent in this country. Ladies and gentlemen, the World XI looks forward to celebrating the resumption of international cricket in Pakistan by playing some competitive cricket and we hope to see some very interesting over the next few days.
‘’We hope the international stars will return home with happy memories over their trip to Lahore and at the same time will leave behind a legacy of co-operation that will help Pakistan build its cricket future.’’
Flower said he had a personal attachment to Pakistan, dating back to his days as a star batsman for Zimbabwe, having toured the Asian country three times in the ‘90s.
‘’On a more personal note, I have a strong bond with Pakistan, having toured here with the Zimbabwe cricket team in 1993, 1996 and 1998,’’ Flower said.
‘’Of course, the ’98 Test in Peshawar stands out for me because we won it and it’s not often that a Zimbabwean cricketer says that, and that helped us win our maiden Test series, the weather helped us just a little bit. The next two Tests in Lahore and Faisalabad were both (weather affected).
‘’Pakistan was a great supporter of Zimbabwe cricket, in those early days in the ‘90s, and I really appreciate the opportunities they have created for me and other cricketers in Zimbabwe.
‘’My personal bond with guys like Mushtaq Ahmed and Muhammad Akram and my brother’s experience with the Pakistani players make it particularly special for me to be here.’’
Du Plessis said the significance of their tour was that it was something that was bigger than just playing for one’s country.
“It’s not every day you get an opportunity to play in something that is much more than just about yourself and your own team or your own country,” du Plessis said.
“You do think about that sort of thing (the insecurity), but as soon as we spoke to the people who were in control of the security… as a player all you want was that peace of mind and they gave it to us.
“When I sit down with my family some day and we talk about this. It’s something I would be glad to have been a part of.
“I am proud to be captain of the World XI, to be bringing international cricket back to Pakistan.’’
Former West Indies captain Darren Sammy and his counterpart, Samuel Badree, Englishman Paul Collingwood, Aussie cricketers – George Bailey and Tim Paine and New Zealander Grant Elliot, who was born in South Africa, made the trip to Pakistan.
Sri Lanka, whose cricketers were attacked in that terrorist attack in 2009, have already agreed to make the trip and play in Pakistan in November this year.