Ground Report: Pakistan Welcomes World Cricket Back With Open Arms
‘’What’s your reason for visiting Pakistan?” asks the scowling man with the thick, handlebar moustache, as I hand my passport through a grilled window. “Cricket,” I reply. And the mood changes immediately. The scowl disappears, and his face breaks into a wide smile, “Welcome to Pakistan, then, my friend. Take your visa in three hours.’’
And so, I head to Lahore, a city that is welcoming back top-tier international cricket after a gap of eight years – a gap forced upon the nation by a terrifying attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team bus in 2009.
Immigration is a breeze – the liaison officer assigned by the Pakistan Cricket Board makes sure of that, and then I’m whisked away on a bullet-proof bus to the city’s only five-star hotel, the Pearl Continental.
Admittedly, this is not my first visit to Pakistan, having travelled here off and on for the last fifteen years, producing and directing cricket for television, but even so, there’s a feeling of anticipation. After all, cricket means so much to Pakistan and Pakistan means so much to cricket.
An entire generation of children have gone without watching their heroes in action in the flesh. Now, all that was about to change – a team of undisputed quality, put together by the ICC, performing in front of packed houses, is just what the country needs to kickstart the return of international teams to Pakistan.
It’s been a moment that has been a long time in coming, even though there have been a few baby steps along the way – the tour by Zimbabwe in May 2015 and the PSL final earlier this year – have gone a long way towards laying the groundwork for this series, having demonstrated the country’s ability to host events of this magnitude.
Of course, an event such as this also has the potential to backfire if things go wrong, something that both the government and the PCB are well aware of, and so, the city went into virtual lockdown when the World XI arrived – roads were closed, vehicles were diverted and the Pearl Continental became a virtual no-go zone for the ordinary Lahori. And while it was still quicker for me to get around than any ordinary day in Delhi (even in a normal vehicle without a police escort), for the normal man in Lahore it was a jam unlike any they had seen in the recent past.
Every time the teams travelled, it was in bullet-proof buses with a convoy of vehicles armed to the teeth escorting them. The idea was as much to ensure safety, as to assure the visiting players that there would be no compromise on their safety.
For the Pakistani cricket team, winners of the Champions Trophy not so long back, this was a seminal moment. Five members of the team had never played an international game in their own country, and for them, this was a game that meant more than most. “It’s a wonderful gesture to come and play in Pakistan,’’ said Shoaib Malik, now the elder statesman of the Pakistan team. “All those who are coming to Pakistan and helping resurrect cricket in the country will remembered, for a long time, perhaps the rest of my life, for bringing international cricket back to us.”
With the three T20 matches given the status of official international games, it meant that the slightly incongruously named Independence Cup (Independence from whom, exactly?) would be taken seriously by both teams, easing fears that it could turn into a sort of light-hearted festival match.
A hot, steamy day in September is perhaps not the most ideal to host a game of international cricket, but even the weather couldn’t dampen the excitement of the fans. From the first ball of the day, an inside edged four off the bat of Champions Trophy final hero Fakhar Zaman, the game was played with an intensity that reached its apogee when young leg spinner Shadab Khan, steaming after being smashed for six by David Miller, screamed in celebration after getting his revenge next ball with a beautifully bowled googly. In between, the near-capacity crowd was treated to a fabulous exhibition of batting by young Babar Azam, who left his coach Mickey Arthur cooing in admiration en route to a 52-ball knock of 86.
In the end, the home team turned out to be just too good for the World XI, but in more ways than one, it didn’t really matter who won, especially to the crowd. After all, this series means so much more in the larger scheme of things – a team comprising players from eight nations travelling to what has hitherto been a no-go zone is probably the best way to break down any opposition to other bilateral series happening in Pakistan.
With Sri Lanka slated to come down for one T20 in October followed by the West Indies for two games, things are looking up for a complete return of cricket to Pakistan. Of course, there are still several challenges to surmount. Only one venue, Lahore, has been allowed to host international cricket so far and the preparedness of other venues, such as Karachi, Multan and Rawalpindi remains to be tested. That notwithstanding, the Independence Cup seems poised to deliver Pakistan from their dependence on the UAE as a surrogate home venue.
(Hemant Buch is broadcaster and writer who's worked for over two decades in this field. Cricket is his profession, and racket sports, his passion. He tweets @hemantbuch)
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