Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Security doubts 'beyond logic' - PCB

An ICC security delegation inspects the Bagh-e-Jinnah ground in Lahore.

The Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA) may have told its players not to tour Pakistan for the Champions Trophy in September, but concerns are growing in Pakistan that the decision was made based on hasty, possibly inaccurate security assessments.

An increasingly exasperated Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has questioned the wisdom behind the ACA's decision and particularly the information on which it was based. "All we can do logically about the situation, we have done," Shafqat Naghmi, chief operating officer told Cricinfo. "This is now beyond logic. If they are haunted by horror stories there is little more we can do."

The frustration is understandable, given the lengths to which the PCB has gone to address various security concerns. Cricinfo has learnt that a lot of importance was given to Reg Dickason's private security assessment of venues by players from Australia and New Zealand, even though his was a whistle-stop tour of venues during the Asia Cup in June.

Dickason, hired by Cricket Australia, New Zealand Cricket and the ECB, provided, broadly, "a very negative report based on a one-day stay in Karachi simply advising them not to tour" according to an official involved in the recent meetings between the ICC task force and Australian players.

The PCB is particularly unhappy for it feels the more comprehensive and accurate assessment of the situation is provided by Nicholls-Steyn, security consultants hired by the ICC who have been analysing the ground situation in Pakistan for several months. The appointment of the firm itself was a recommendation of an earlier ICC security assessment, the Janusian report, carried out in the first week of June.

That report, based on a two-day stay in Pakistan, found several concerns, though one of them was the contention that as cricket was a 'western game', it constituted a valid target for extremists. But their key recommendation was the presence of a security team permanently in Pakistan to properly assess the situation, one which the Pakistan board readily accepted and which brought Nicholls-Steyn came into the picture.

Since then Nicholls-Steyn have worked assiduously with a number of relevant stakeholders to paint an accurate picture of what is happening in Pakistan. Led by Bruce Spargo, they have held briefings not just with police and interior ministry representatives - as most security firms do - but with a much broader network of security, military and intelligence officials.

"For example, they met men with hands-on experience of the Afghan situation, with real connections and people who know what is going on in the country and the various threats," Naghmi said. "They were told there was no feasible threat to the tournament."

Unlike the Dickason report, the Nicholls-Steyn assessment was discussed at the ICC annual meeting at the end of June. Minor concerns were discussed and immediately addressed by the PCB and the interior ministry. The Asia Cup in June and July provided a good dress rehearsal for security arrangements and Nicholls-Steyn were more than content, claiming the arrangements to be "beyond our own expectations." Such were the arrangements that even the ICC task force, including FICA chief Tim May, was said to have been impressed.

Even before the task force was created, however, the concern had already shifted to whether such elaborate arrangements could be sustained and delivered during the tournament itself, with May leading the questioning. "It appears that no matter what he [Bruce Spargo] says, Tim May questions the ability of the Pakistan authorities to deliver the 'Plan'," said an official who attended the meetings between Australian players and the task force.

While in Pakistan, May suggested organising two practice matches on consecutive days between local teams to get a clearer picture of the arrangements in action. The PCB agreed to this and sent an email to the boards concerned a week ago but have yet to receive a reply.

Thus, less than a month before it starts, the status of the tournament remains in limbo. Fear and paranoia is such that when a Pakistani police official spoke of a contingency plan in case of a rocket launch attack during meetings with the task force, he was immediately asked whether he was expecting one.