New Zealand call off Pakistan cricket series after security alert

·4 min read
The move is a massive setback to Pakistan, which has been trying to revive tours by foreign sides (AFP/Aamir QURESHI)

New Zealand pulled out of their cricket series against Pakistan on Friday over security concerns just as the first one-day international was due to start, in a devastating blow to the South Asian country.

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 advisors on the ground, it has been decided the BLACKCAPS will not continue with the tour," New Zealand Cricket said in a statement.

Arrangements are being made for the team to leave the country, it added.

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 several French naval staff and Pakistanis.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) said New Zealand made the decision unilaterally.

Before the match was to start, Prime Minister Imran Khan -- himself an international cricketing legend -- spoke with his counterpart Jacinda Ardern to assure her of the team's safety, Pakistan's interior minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad said at a press conference.

He said Ardern reported that the team may be at risk of an attack outside the stadium.

"There is no threat to cricket in Pakistan, there was no threat to New Zealand and there is no threat to England," he added.

- Other tours in danger -

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, some 10 kilometres from the Rawalpindi stadium where they were due to play, has been guarded by a heavy paramilitary and police contingent.

Local media reported that the team were due to fly out on Saturday on a chartered flight.

Pakistan are 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, adding a decision would be made in the next 24-48 hours.

- 'Past still haunts us' -

Security in Pakistan has improved dramatically over the past few years but militant groups still operate along the border with Afghanistan.

After the Taliban seized control of neighbouring Afghanistan last month, the region is watching closely for any spillover of militant threats -- though interior minister Rasheed said in a press conference that its borders were secure.

Pakistan is "being punished for the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan," security analyst Qamar Cheema told AFP.

"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," retired general turned security analyst Talat Masood added.

There was an outpouring of frustration over New Zealand's decision.

"Extremely disappointed on the abrupt postponement of the series, which could have brought the smiles back for millions of Pakistan cricket fans," the captain of the Pakistan side Babar Azam tweeted.

Spectators, who had been allowed to return to stadiums in small numbers after Covid-19 restrictions were eased, were held back from entering the Rawalpindi ground.

It was clear something was wrong when neither team had arrived for the 2 pm toss, just half an hour before the match.

"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 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."

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