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A new dawn for Pakistan cricket

Sri Lanka's Thilan Samaraweera celebrates his double century in 2009

The significance of the Rawalpindi Test between Pakistan and Sri Lanka today dwarfs the points the two teams will be fighting for the ICC World Test Championship.

It has taken a good many years for the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to convince the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the rest of the cricket playing countries of it being safe and eager for resumption of international tours and now finally a five-day Test match. Captain Azhar Ali, represents a generation of Pakistan cricketers, eagerly looking forward to displaying their red-ball skills in front of the home crowd, for the first time.

The much-awaited return of Test cricket on Pakistan grounds, after a decade-long wait is over and ironically it was Sri Lanka whose tour was so cruelly disrupted following a shooting attack on its team coach, enroute to the Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore in 2009. Six of the playing members of the Sri Lanka team were injured and eventually the entire squad was air lifted from the Gaddafi Stadium on March 3, 2009.

A reminder of Pakistan team for the fateful Lahore Test in March 2009 – Khurram Manzoor, Salman Butt, Younis Khan (captain), Shoaib Malik, Misbah-ul-Haq, Faisal Iqbal, Kamran Akmal, Yasir Arafat, Mohammad Talha, Umar Gul, Danish Kaneria. The shooting incident led to the abandonment of the second match of the three-Test series. At the close of the second day Pakistan had responded with 110-1 to Sri Lanka’s massive 606 all out. Amongst the playing eleven, Rawalpindi-born all-rounder Yasir Arafat was the only one, never to appear in a Test match again.

The Presidential-level of security promised by the PCB to the Sri Lanka team clearly was breached to leave Pakistan in isolation and was subsequently denied opportunity to host both 2009 Champions Trophy and 2011 World Cup. A double blow for Pakistan cricket fans as cancellation of two major ICC events was set to create great buzz in the country.

Following the shooting incident, the doors of international cricket simply closed on Pakistan cricket until Zimbabwe arrived in Lahore for three ODIs in May 2015. It was a promising start but none of the leading international teams would commit itself with five-day Test match.

In terms of hosting major international teams, Pakistan in the two decades, i.e. 1978-98 was as safe as any other cricket playing country. It had enjoyed tremendous success in co-hosting World Cup events in 1987 and 1996. The 9/11 twin tower attacks of the World Trade Centre in New York in September 2001 changed the world for ever, leading to USA military invasion of Afghanistan and consequences on the entire sub-continent. As a neighbour of Afghanistan and with marginal sympathy to fundamental Islamic ideology, Pakistan was set to suffer with the after affects.

The security fears initially led to Australia and West Indies refusing to tour Pakistan and the cricket Board reluctantly agreed to host international cricket in United Arab Emirates (UAE). To make matters worse in May 2002, New Zealand team returned home, following a terrorist attack in Karachi and has never returned to Pakistan, preferring to play in UAE, ever since. The arrival of Indians in 2004, a Test tour after a lapse of 14 years, proved a major event but other teams kept away from Pakistan. Many in the country believed the option by PCB in 2002 to make UAE as its ‘home’ was not well thought for the next generation of Pakistan cricketers would be playing in front of small crowds with hardly any ‘atmosphere’.

After further reassurances of Pakistan Government both England and India agreed to tour Pakistan in the 2005-06, followed by South Africa in 2007-08 and that sadly were the last of the full-fledge tours enjoyed by the Pakistan crowds. Although Pakistan hosted Asia Cup in 2008 but there was an unease for it did not play any Test matches – home and abroad – in that calendar year.

All those years of anguish and frustration will soon be part of history. An incident-free tour by Sri Lanka is set to send positive vibes to the rest of the cricketing world as Bangladesh Cricket Board contemplates touring Pakistan in January 2020. The Government of Pakistan with PM Imran Khan, the iconic cricket figure as its head, has given PCB full support in reviving the fortunes of the most popular sport of the country.

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