Salma Jehangir

Peshawar: A huge crowd has gathered in Sheikh Kalay, the vicinity of district Mardan to witness a football match being played between two local teams as part of a tournament. Though cricket is the most popular game in the home district of the former captain of the Pakistan cricket team and the incumbent batting coach Younis Khan, this event has pulled a huge crowd, probably, because it is the first-ever instance of a football championship being organized in the suburb.

The managers of the event, though, employed some volunteers to organize the crowd, however, neither the organizing committee nor the district administration bothered to ensure implementation of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) announced by the government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The government has repeatedly hinted to implement certain restrictions to prevent the second wave of the pandemic in the country, however, no solid measures have so far been taken. Prime Minister Imran Khan has dismissed the possibility of imposing a complete lockdown, commentators believe a possible ban on sports activities and other public gatherings is expected keeping in view the growing number of corona positive cases.

The first wave of the pandemic severely affected sports activities globally. In March, Pakistan declared a state of emergency in the country due to the fears of the coronavirus outbreak and suspended sports activities all over the country. The government closed playgrounds, gymnasiums, and clubs following a spike in the coronavirus positive cases. As a precautionary measure, the Pakistan Cricket Board decided to postpone the remaining matches of the Pakistan Super League, the biggest and perhaps the most celebrated sports event of the country. Likewise, other sports activities at provincial and regional levels were also affected.

In July, the government decided to relax the lockdown and reopen sports activities under strict SOPs. The relevant authorities drafted a set of precautionary guidelines and SOPs for the players and other officials. The compliance with these guidelines was not less than a challenge but there was no other way out.

At the international front, SOPs were drafted. Matches were held without the crowd as their entry into the grounds was banned. Players were required to spend some time in quarantine. In cricket, players were banned to apply saliva to the ball, fast bowlers usually do to shine a particular part of it.

After the resumption of the sports activities in the province, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Directorate of Sports and Youth Affairs kick-started the sports calendar by organizing swimming competitions for players below the age of 21 years. It was followed by two separate sports galas, each organized for the members of the transgender community and the people with disabilities.

Gulshan, who hails from South Waziristan, participated in table tennis and powerlifting competitions in the recently concluded games organized by the government for special persons. She is happy that sports activities have resumed in the province under the SOPs, she urges that all sportspersons must follow the guidelines as these are necessary for their safety.

“I tried to follow the SOPs,” she says. “I used to wear a facemask and regularly wash and sanitize hands throughout the competition. Some players were not following the guidelines. Some used to wear masks while others didn’t bother,” Gulshan maintains.

“The authorities can only try to implement the SOPs, they hardly ensure that every individual will follow the guidelines,” she remarks.

Asfandyar Khattak, the Director-General Sports, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says that his department has been trying hard to ensure implementation of the government SOPs during the events being held in the province.

“We had to postpone many events due to the lockdown due to the fear of the pandemic outbreak. Even after the lockdown was relaxed, we didn’t hold big events. We are trying to organize minimum indoor activities,” he informs.

Khattak maintains that efforts are being made to observe the mandatory social distance between the players, particularly those who are traveling from far-flung districts. “To follow the social distancing, we are accommodating only two players in a single room,” he adds.

While analyzing different events, it has been observed that the precautionary SOPs are being followed to some extent in the events organized at the government level. However, the situation is altogether different in events organized at the unofficial level just like the one being held in Mardan.

A cricket league is underway in the provincial metropolis in which teams from different media outlets are competing. According to the organizers, more than 250 players are participating in the tournament which is a regular feature of the journalist community’s sports calendar. Some of the players confess that SOPs are not being observed properly.

“SOPs are not being followed,” a journalist Waheed Khan tells this scribe. “It is quite difficult to follow the guidelines in sports activities. Though there is no crowd the players can hardly keep the mandatory distance from each other. When a bowler takes a wicket, all other teammates gather and celebrate it jointly. Players hug and tap each other, which is a common practice even in international games,” Waheed explains.

While justifying his stance, Waheed adds that a player neither can wear a mask nor can use sanitizer after every delivery.

“It is humanly impossible to follow the SOPs in letter and spirit not only in sports but in daily life as well. One can only ensure that a large number of people do not gather in a small space. Holding large gatherings may prove hotspots of the coronavirus,” he argues.