Pakistanis welcome return of international cricket to homeland

By Abdul Nasir Khan

A bystander admires a photo of cricket players in front of the Pakistan Cricket Board office in Lahore September 4. [Abdul Nasir Khan]

A bystander admires a photo of cricket players in front of the Pakistan Cricket Board office in Lahore September 4. [Abdul Nasir Khan]

LAHORE -- After eight years as an international sports pariah, Pakistan's cricket fans are excited to see foreign players and teams playing in their country again.

Foreign teams almost completely shunned Pakistan after the March 2009 terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Seven Pakistanis were killed and seven Sri Lankans wounded.

During those years, Pakistani teams representing all sports generally had to play abroad or not at all. Two rare exceptions were visits by Kenya and Zimbabwe's teams in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Foreign teams make plans

Now, after a series of military offensives shattered militant cells, hideouts and networks throughout the country, the teams are announcing plans to play in Pakistan again.

The West Indies and, very symbolically, Sri Lanka -- the country whose team came under a hail of bullets in March 2009 -- have disclosed plans to play in Pakistan after the International Cricket Council (ICC)'s touring World-XI squad (comprised solely of foreigners) finishes its three mid-September matches in Lahore.

"The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has been continually persuading the ICC and cricket-playing nations to come back," Lahore-based sportswriter Hafiz Shahbaz Ali told Pakistan Forward, citing the PCB's success in having Kenya and Zimbabwe play in Pakistan.

"But I think bringing the World-XI team, Sri Lanka and West Indies to Pakistan will be more helpful in restoring international cricket played in Pakistan," predicted Ali. "Credit goes to Najam Sethi, the PCB chairman who organised a peaceful final match of the Pakistan Super League [PSL] in Lahore [in March]."

"Many foreign players took part in the final," said Ali, referring to Peshawar Zalmi's victory over the Quetta Gladiators. "The success of the PSL final encouraged the ICC, Sri Lanka and West Indies to visit Pakistan."

If the PCB can keep holding peaceful matches, the ICC and other cricketing nations will give Pakistan a second look, said Ali, a former first-class cricketer.

The ICC World-XI squad, which includes players from seven countries, will play first, to be followed by Sri Lanka in October and the West Indies in November.

The World-XI team is scheduled to play three Twenty20 matches against Pakistan September 12, 13 and 15. The ICC has sent its security team to review arrangements in Lahore.

"I look forward to my maiden tour to Lahore and play my part in the safe and gradual resumption of international cricket in Pakistan," said South Africa's Faf du Plessis, the World-XI captain, according to the PCB.

Sarfaraz Ahmed is the Pakistani team captain.

Authorities vow ironclad security

Security officials are determined to repay the coming visitors' faith in Pakistan's turnaround.

"The tours by international teams are proof of and a vote of confidence in our improved security situation," Nayan Hyder, Punjab Police spokesman, told Pakistan Forward.

"We proved that Pakistan is a safe country for all kinds of sports," he said "We hosted the PSL final and have hosted international footballers, wrestlers and bodybuilders [since security began improving]."

"The players will get the security ... given to heads of state," he said. "We'll deploy extra security contingents in Lahore."

"Security measures will be stricter than the ones for the PSL final," said Hyder.

"Only ticket holders will be allowed to enter the stadium," Lahore crime reporter Irfan Malik told Pakistan Forward." They'll be picked up from parking areas and dropped off at the stadium by special shuttles."

Excitement builds

Online ticket sales began September 1, while selected booths began in-person ticket sales Tuesday (September 5), said the PCB.

Cricket fans are eagerly awaiting the chance to see foreign stars they had no chance to watch live for eight years.

“It will be a great moment to see Hashim Amla [of South Africa] and du Plessis playing on Pakistan's soil," Lahore cricket fan Asad Khan told Pakistan Forward.

"I'm trying my best to buy tickets to all three [World-XI matches]," said another Lahore fan, Waheed Butt.

Three former Pakistani team captains, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Inzimam ul Haq, had high praise for the PCB's efforts to bring back international cricket to Pakistan, according to the PCB.

The World-XI series "poses a golden opportunity for Pakistan to once again show that it is a peace-loving and cricket-crazy nation, which has been deprived of watching international cricket stars for no fault of theirs", said Inzimam.

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