x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Lahore's Gaddafi stadium in search of a new name

The Lahore cricket stadium with the most unwanted name in the world.

The giant golden sculpture - its clenched fist wrapped around a stricken US fighter plane - has been removed from Bab Al Aziziya, Muammar Qaddafi's former Tripoli compound. It sits now in Misurata, bedecked in graffiti, a trophy of the uprising, a testament to those who fought back. The posters and murals, the unwanted artwork of an unloved regime, have all gone too, ripped up, defaced and abandoned on the streets of the north African nation.

But while Libya begins to imagine life without Qaddafi, and the monuments that sustained the myth he so lavishly constructed, one such edifice remains. And it lies not in Libya, but in Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan.

The Gaddafi Stadium (pronounced as Kazza'fi in Urdu) is one of Lahore's most famous landmarks, complete with its compelling Mughal-style structure and its imposing red brickwork.

Built in 1959 and originally designated as the Lahore Stadium, it was renamed in early 1974 by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first democratically elected prime minister, after the Libyan leader had been warmly received at the venue by thousands of Bhutto loyalists.

Bhutto, famous for his thundering speeches, introduced Qaddafi as a benefactor of Pakistan. He would return the compliment by throwing the doors of his country open to hundreds of thousands of Pakistani labourers and professionals.

Relations between the two nations soured in 1977 when Bhutto was ousted in a coup d'état engineered by General Zia-ul Haq. Bhutto was hanged two years later after being found guilty of sanctioning the killing of a political adversary.

Qaddafi, an ardent Bhutto ally, retaliated by sending thousands of Pakistani expatriates home and by encouraging violent action against Zia. Indeed, the Libyan Trade Commission in Pakistan was later accused of providing arms and financial assistance to dissidents. Qaddafi also publicly hosted Al Zulfiqar, the terror group founded by Mir Murtaza Bhutto, the son of the slain leader and brother of Benazir Bhutto. The Libyan leader was reported to have offered to launch a covert military operation to spring his father from prison.

Surprisingly, amid such swirling threats to national security, Zia largely ignored Qaddafi and the sporting stadium retained its name almost in spite of those cooling relations.

Earlier this week, the last link to that era was severed, not by Qaddafi's killing, but by the death in Dubai on Sunday of Nusrat Bhutto, the former first lady of Pakistan, who had married Zulfiqar in 1949.

Appointed as her husband's political successor after his arrest, she endured periods of house arrest before leaving Pakistan in the early Eighties. She returned later to serve as a member of parliament and as a cabinet minister when Benazir, her late daughter, became prime minister. Qaddafi is believed to have kept in touch with Nusrat in the years after her husband's death.

Meanwhile, the stadium that bears Qaddafi's name continued to host high-profile international cricket matches and provided the venue for the 1996 ICC Cricket World Cup final, when thousands of spectators filled its cavernous stands to watch a classic encounter between Australia and Sri Lanka.

Australia, the pre-tournament favourites and former champions, were sent into bat by Sri Lanka and amassed 241 in their allotted overs - a decent but not insurmountable total. Sri Lanka, who had never previously made it into the knockout stages of the competition, closed out the game with overs to spare, largely due to a magnificent century by Aravinda de Silva.

In truth, the win was far more significant than even these bare details suggest: Sri Lanka's victory heralded the beginning of the power shift away from the traditional colonial powers of cricket (Australia and England) and towards the triumvirate of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Without de Silva's sublime innings of pinch-hitting on a damp evening in the Gaddafi Stadium, the road to the Indian Premier League and the millionaire's game of the modern era would have been almost impassable.

The ground is also still home to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), the superior cricketing body in the country, but more recently, just as the West was beginning to embrace Qaddafi and the free-flowing oil of the country he presided over, the stadium would be dragged into the pages of history in the darkest of circumstances.

On March 3, 2009, a convoy of vehicles carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team to the ground prior to the start of the third day of a test match against Pakistan, was attacked by a group of terrorists with links to Al Qaeda.

The terrorists killed eight Pakistanis - half a dozen policemen and two civilians - and injured seven Sri Lankan players, including the captain Mahila Jayawardene and his vice-captain Kumar Sangakkara, who last weekend scored a brilliant double-century in Abu Dhabi as he helped his team save a thrilling test match against Pakistan.

The shootings led to the cricket community shunning Pakistan as an international sporting host and the PCB has since been forced to play its "home" series overseas, including the current contest against Sri Lanka in the Emirates, which continues today in Dubai.

For 37 years, Qaddafi's name has adorned a famous sporting stadium, but how long will it be before his name is stripped from the stands of Lahore, just as it has been from the streets of Libya?

The media in Pakistan has roared into life in recent days.

One newspaper report asked: "Why does this dictator get the name of our premier cricket ground? How can a murderer's name be associated with the game of cricket? Pakistan must change the name of the stadium as soon as possible to show solidarity with the innocent people of Libya". Another noted that "keeping the cricket ground named after Qaddafi will bring Lahore no glory now".

Farooq Tirmizi, a journalist with the English language daily Express Tribune would later comment: "We have tolerated this ridiculous name for 37 years. As we watch the scenes of horrific violence visited by the madman upon the Libyan people, let us at least do them the courtesy of removing their tormentor's name from our biggest stadium."

Some fans suggest renaming the ground after Imran Khan, the side's talismanic captain when Pakistan won the Cricket World Cup in 1992. Such a decision is unlikely to find favour in the corridors of power, where Khan is viewed with suspicion for the political career he has fostered in the years since his sporting retirement.

Still others have suggested Aleem Dar, the Pakistani umpire who is widely regarded as the best in the world or Abdul Hafeez Kardar, the father figure of the sport in Pakistan and the nation's first international cricket captain. Others would simply like the venue to be known as Lahore Stadium once more.

Surely, it is only a matter of time before Qaddafi's name is finally dispensed with. One doubts anyone will mourn its passing.