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“Pakistan, welcome to Hyderabad” was the sign held up by a bevy of schoolgirls, still in uniform, who had come to see the one-day international match being played in Niaz Stadium. Of course, the Pakistani national cricket team were there, but Pakistan itself was at the party too. Women and children, cheeks painted with the Pakistani flag, were a substantial part of the 7,500 capacity crowd in Niaz Stadium.

And in the days after the murder of Benazir Bhutto, we were told that spontaneous violence had erupted in Hyderabad, although President Musharraf, in one of his town-hall lectures, presented danda serial numbers to debunk the spontaneous part. One look at the huge vertical ‘POLICE’ banner hanging on a nearby building and we were sure that this security operation was the real McCoy, with visibility, public relations, and the whole bit. When the first Zimbabwean batsman emerged beaming, feeling like royalty with two police officers escorting him onto the ground, we got the hint that this was for the benefit of the Australians, who hide their cricketing weakness with security excuses – OK OK, I’m just trying to talk them down here. Even the TV crew chipped in, interviewing a surprisingly eloquent police chief, Imran Shaukat, who described the details to scare off all the bad guys out there: “we have four levels of security and . . a jubilant crowd . . . and we would like to see more international events here.” The camera then cuts over to a security control room with CCTV monitors made out of regular TVs. Efficient, not too intrusive, if not totally impressive. When the ICC race-abuse warning played on the PA system, we were convinced that the PCB has its act together as Pakistan prepares to host the Champions Trophy this year, and co-host the Cricket World Cup in 2011. And when a PAF Mushshaq circled overhead, there was no doubt that they were going all out.

Niaz Stadium once hosted test matches and the original capacity was 15,000. It was here that Imran Khan tore through the Indian Test batting line-up in 1983 with 8-23, and famously denied Miandad his triple hundred by declaring the innings. When I last passed by the stadium in 2004, it was a total mess. Neglected and crumbling, it was a wedding-party ground, a parking lot and occasionally, a heliport! The grass on the outfield, pock-marked with tent pegs and matted with vehicles, would not even have prompted a second look from a starving goat. The stadium was taken over by the PCB, transformed, and will soon boast a close-by five-star hotel.

The ‘P’ in PCB stands for Pakistan, and and Hyderabadis know it. Hyderabad is the heart of the interior of Sind, and has seen itself go from the third most populous city to the sixth, and then it got forgotten, left behind. Except for the Zeal-Pak cement factory that eats away at Ganjo Takkar limestone deposits with machines from the 1960s, industrialization never took hold in this city. Its neighbourhood ethnic-cleansing in the late 80s is a living testimony of how ethnic strife can ruin a people for decades to come. It is a lesson that Hyderabad can now export. And then, beyond the ethnically homogeneous sectors of the city lie the lands of the lawless and brutal Sind waderas and their de-facto slavery of their hari peasants. When that slavery ends, the mechanics of its demise will be in Hyderabad.

Back to the match. The crowd wanted Boom Boom Afridi with adoring signs held by innocent children for whom he is a hero. As Pakistan’s Mr. Cricket walked in to bat, he met a raucous welcome – a welcome that showed no divisions between Sindhi and Sarhadi. And we are told that Hyderabad is the home of Sindhi ethnic nationalism.

Three of the players that played well today — Suhail Tanveer, Nasir Jamshed and Misbah-ul-Haq — are genuine products of Pakistan’s domestic system. With its players with ordinary backgrounds, rebuilt stadium, reviving city and ebullient fans, what today’s match showed is that things do work, and decay can be reversed, and hope can be re-kindled. A little money invested in stadiums, sports, regional teams, and venue security will go a long way in creating that elusive national spirit of fair play, excellence, compromise, healthy self-worth, teamwork, and sheer joy of being alive. That is the only spirit that can fight corruption, terrorism, ignorance and hostility. Only.

In this age of an informed public, the militants of ethno-regional organizations like MQM, Al-Qaeda, and Jeay Sind — all need ‘our deprivation’ as the cause, and an ‘other’ as the effect. When there is no discernible deprivation, and ‘others’ become us, they will need to reach out to keep their public support.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the American people tried to continue their everyday life as normal as humanly possible. In retrospect, and ignoring its xenophobic repercussions in the United States, it is perhaps the most powerful tool wielded by the general public to combat the scourge of indiscriminate terrorism. And sport is the perfect antidote to depression and low self-esteem. And low self-worth is the fuel of laziness, ignorance, corruption and terrorism. And even the mullah will not object to this indulgence.

So, come on — let us build and reclaim the stadiums and grounds lost to corruption, spend a little money, and let us bring in business sponsorship in creative ways, and get at least our urban teenagers and young men and women running, jumping, bowling and hitting. Yes, I know, the rural children will still be under-educated and impoverished, and they have yet another generation to survive in their misery, but let us take one step at at time. Even for them, a vibrant Pakistan and a can-do generation in the urban centres will ensure that their plight does not endure.

Back in the stadium, a group of boys, smiling in that endearing way that only small-town kids can, held up a sign saying, ‘We want more matches in Hyderabad!’. The PCB’s chief, Dr. Nasim Ashraf, concurred: “We want to develop a regional academy in the city and build more grounds to enable club cricket. Our policy now is to host matches on a rotational basis and we need to develop grounds in places like Sahiwal and Sialkot to give them more exposure.” Amen!

And, dear PCB, keep the security tight and please, a few more matches for Hyderabad, Sind, Pakistan. Pretty please, for the city’s long-suffering and patient adults, and beautiful children, deserve it.