In his latest article for FirstPost Sports, Saj discusses how the World XI side's visit to Pakistan can bolster the hosts' hopes of hosting international cricket on a regular basis once again.
By Saj Sadiq (11th September, 2017)
In March 2015, the Zimbabwe cricket team arrived in Lahore to tumultuous praise from Pakistan fans and the Pakistan Cricket Board. It was almost six long and painful years since an international team had set foot on Pakistani soil.
The air in Lahore in those days was filled with hope as it appeared that the long years of enforced exile for the Pakistan cricket team were finally over. Virtually banished to play their 'home' tours in the UAE, the Pakistan team were nomads and constantly on the move. Playing overseas or at home amounted to the same inconveniences for the squad and associated personnel.
The five limited overs games against Zimbabwe were played with great zest and gusto in Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium. This was the first time since the unfortunate events of March 2009 when the Sri Lanka Test squad was the target of a brazen daylight attack. The subsequent damage done to the reputation of Pakistan cricket was immense and to some degree irreversible.
To many, including the PCB, the Zimbabwe tour of Pakistan represented a watershed moment and a milestone which would hopefully see the return of more international teams to Pakistan. But sadly, this was not the case and another period of frustration for Pakistan's cricketing fraternity ensued.
A combination of PCB's trust deficit with the outside world and a precarious security situation at home meant that the resumption of international tours to Pakistan became a near impossibility. In desperation, the PCB made offers to bring in teams from Afghanistan and Bangladesh to Pakistan but such proposals were shot down in their infancy. It appeared that audiences in Pakistan were still destined to watch their beloved stars play on television in far-off lands.
It was early in 2017 that a momentous turning point was reached when the final of the second edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) was held in Lahore. The naysayers were present in plenty with pronouncements of untold disasters if an international player ever set foot on Pakistan soil.
To the PCB’s immense credit, and hard-work from the security personnel, the PSL final was held without any issues with a number of foreign players including Darren Sammy, Dawid Malan, Marlon Samuels and Chris Jordan taking part in an event which bore more resemblance to the festival of Eid than a cricket game.
Those living in Lahore came out in numbers to witness this game and the people of Pakistan rejoiced as the Gaddafi Stadium played host to the finalists in the PSL. The momentum that was generated by this event gained further traction when an unfancied Pakistan team won the Champions Trophy tournament held in England in June 2017 and calls from Sarfaraz Ahmed and Mickey Arthur for international cricket to return to Pakistan were heard around the world.
The unstoppable tide of public opinion was now turning in favour of Pakistan. A team that could provide such skills and talents could not be allowed to live like nomads. It was also grossly unfair on Pakistan's cricket-mad fans. The International Cricket Council reacted by making concrete plans that had been proposed a few months ago. After receiving a favourable report from its security consultants, the ICC in conjunction with the PCB, confirmed firm dates for a World XI tour of Pakistan.
As a result, a team lead by South Africa's Faf du Plessis — and consisting of some big names such as Hashim Amla, Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir — is now on its way to Lahore in Pakistan to play three T20I games on the 12th, 13th and 15th of September.
These will not be exhibition games designed for meaningless public-relations activity. The ICC have accorded international status to the three T20 games and given the strengths of both squads, these promise to be highly competitive encounters.
This, of course, is great news for the millions of followers of Pakistan and will be an instant hit with the thousands of fans who will fill the seats at the Gaddafi Stadium. History has borne witness to the enthusiasm of Pakistan fans as they would watch their heroes display their skills in the many memorable encounters with top teams of the world. The Independence Cup games against the World XI will be no different.
Pakistan fans have waited for years for high-profile encounters on their home soil and the World XI players can expect a boisterous yet hospitable crowd to greet them at the Gaddafi Stadium where each ball and stroke will be watched and appreciated with enthusiasm that is sure to reverberate through the foundations of this iconic venue.
If the reports of sold-out stands and long queues outside various ticketing venues are to be believed, Lahorites will fill the stadium to its capacity with many more having to undergo disappointment due to the sold-out venue. It’s not just the denizens of Lahore who have caught this cricket fever, all around Pakistan the talk is of these games alone with many ticket-holders travelling to Punjab's capital to watch history being made.
So, what can the crowds and followers of Pakistan cricket worldwide expect from these games? For a start, international status of the games will mean that all performances will count towards Twenty20 rankings of individual players. The games are expected to be hard-fought with three of the top-ranked bowlers in the shape of Imad Wasim, Imran Tahir and Samuel Badree vying to reiterate their credentials in front of a knowledgeable crowd. With the likes of David Miller and Fakhar Zaman batting as well, the audiences are sure to be treated to a solid batting which they will undoubtedly cherish.
The World XI’s visit to play the Independence Cup is a prime opportunity for Pakistan to re-establish its claim to host international cricket. The PCB and the local government are taking no chances with six-layer security for the players. If all goes well during the Independence Cup and by the time the World XI is safely on its way back on the 16 September, Pakistan’s dream of regaining its status as host for international games may well be closer to reality and the world of cricket will be richer for that.