LAHORE - Pakistanis Sunday were all delighted, and grateful to courageous Sri Lanka cricketers – who returned to Gaddafi Stadium after the long eight cricket-dry years of Pakistan.

International cricket was suspended in Pakistan after the 2009 gun attack on the Sri Lankan team’s bus in Lahore – which left eight people killed, and seven visiting players and their staff members injured.

The terror incident scarred the country’s image and desolated its stadiums. Since then the country has only hosted minnows Zimbabwe in 2015, the final of Pakistan Super League and a three-match Twenty20 series against a World XI earlier this year.

Sri Lankans were thus the last major team to visit Pakistan. And now, in a show of love and valour, they are the first one in the Top Eight to honour Pakistanis by coming to the same city and the same stadium to play cricket.

They are here for the third Twenty20 of a three match series – two of which had been played at UAE, the home venue for the Pakistan during their exiled years.

Pakistan’s cricket crunch started as the International Cricket Council had been quick to abandon Pakistan following the Lahore attack – stripping the country of hosting rights of Word Cup 2011 and all its 16 matches had been assigned to other sub-continental hosts i.e. India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka . This hasty step set the tone for the future and since then Pakistan has been forced to play home matches in the UAE.

But this misfortune failed to kill the cricketing spirit of a nation that is simply crazy for cricket. The game runs thicker than blood in their bodies.

For years Pakistani players have been denied the comfort of home ground and the cheers of the majority of their die-hard fans but it could not stop their march towards the pinnacle of the game.

The country won Twenty20 World cup, surged to number one in Test rankings and lifted ICC Champions Trophy. So amazing are Pakistan cricket’s achievements and exploits despite the heavy odds that the cricket world could not afford keeping it in isolation any longer.

So eight years after, the same Gaddafi stadium was buzzing as the national anthems of the two sides were played before an excited and ecstatic crowd of 23,000 – in a historic and potentially game-changing moment for Pakistan cricket.

Heavy security with air surveillance had been put in place during the match with fans having to go through various check points and body searches. But this time around the environment was more disciplined and relaxed and people have easy access to the venue without many hazards.

“We are thankful to the Sri Lankan team for coming to Pakistan and I request the fans to support both the teams during the match,” said Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed, whose team also arrived from Dubai early Sunday.

Cricketers, former greats, politicians and fans came together to welcome the Sri Lankans.

Even legendary cricketer Imran Khan, who was highly critical for hosting the Pakistan super League final earlier this year in Lahore for below par players, termed the event very significant for Pakistan cricket.

“I am very happy to see that the Sri Lankan team is in Lahore and will play today at the Gaddafi stadium. Their visit is very important for our cricket and hopefully it will now lead to more teams coming to Pakistan,” Imran told a television channel.

Imran said the PCB deserved appreciation for getting the Sri Lankans to play in Lahore.

“What happened in 2009 was very sad and bad for Pakistan cricket. It hurt our cricket and young players a lot. But now things seem to be moving in the right direction and today our people can show everyone they are a peace-loving nation who enjoys cricket,” the former captain said.

Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who remained an influential figure for giving all out support to the PCB cause at administrative and security level, also extended a warm welcome to the Sri Lankan team.

“It’s not just international cricket that is coming home today but our pride and our passion... Lahore welcomes SriLankan guests ... –ss,” Shehbaz wrote on twitter.

Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was also quick to attribute the credit of the cricket return to the ex-premier. In a twitter message, she extended immense gratitude towards Nawaz Sharif for spreading happiness and peace for Pakistanis.

Maryam in her tweet praised Sharif for exterminating terror from Pakistan and restoring peace and security and compared previous years when Sri Lankan team was attacked here at Lahore and now after five years they are back in the country.

Pakistan team players and former greats also too twitter to show their excitement and gratitude to Sri Lankan team.

Bowling legend Waqar Younis couldn’t hide his excitement for the occasion.

“Chalo Chalo Lahore Chalo” Here we come Lahore #PAKvSL Come on Pakistan lets make it 3-0 #T20.”

Former speedster Shoaib Akhtar even demanded that the bus driver who saved the lives of Sri Lankan players in the 2009 attack, be made chief guest of the game. The PCB has also invited driver Meher Khalil and his family to the match as special guests.

Fans also applauded Sri Lanka’s decision to return to Lahore, and this week many headed out to buy last-minute tickets for Sunday’s game. “I am very happy really, as I have purchased tickets for me and my family members,” a spectator Kashif Khan said.

Initially it does seem surreal that only eight years later, the same team will return to the same city, to play at the same stadium in the vicinity of which so many cricketers had nearly lost their lives.

And yet, in another light, the decision to tour is utterly unsurprising. Sri Lanka have always been among the likeliest teams to tour Pakistan. Their boards have long been the chummiest.

Sri Lanka Cricket President Thilanga Sumathipala, who also in Lahore for ACC meeting, said Pakistan should no longer be overlooked, citing his own country’s decades of isolation during its civil war with Tamil rebels. “In those 30 years Pakistan never stopped its cricket tours so we cannot leave Pakistan in cricketing isolation,” said Sumathipala.

Sri Lanka’s sport minister Dayasiri Jayasekara is also in Pakistan with Sumathipala.

Sri Lankan all-rounder Thisara Perera, appointed captain of the new-look team, said it was great to be back. “It’s nice to be in Pakistan again,” said Perera, who was part of the World XI last month. “We are thankful for a warm welcome and will do our best to entertain the crowd with some good cricket.”

Ahead of the game PCB chairman Sethi said the schedule for a three-match Twenty20 series with the West Indies in Lahore would be announced shortly.

“This match is big signal to the world that Pakistan is ready for big-time cricket and in the next couple of days we will announce the schedule of Twenty20 series with the West Indies,” said Sethi.

PCB chief hoped a safe tour by Sri Lanka will help them convince the West Indies to visit for three Twenty20 internationals next month. “It’s a historic moment. With improved security we hope fully fledged international cricket will return to Pakistan in the next two years.”

Former pacer and member national junior selection committee also echoed the same thoughts.

“It’s a historic day. We hope the match is held without any problem and it would not only pave the way for the other teams return to Pakistan but would also helped improve the image of the country in the world and give confidence to foreign investors also,” he added.

Former chief selector and Test opener Muhammad Ilyas said it was a befitting reply to the enemies of Pakistan. “Pakistan neither can be intimidated nor suppressed and returning of cricket to country’s stadiums is an answer to our mischievous neighbours that its nefarious designs could never stop Pakistan from prospering and excelling.”

The PCB, for their part, can only be congratulated for ensuring that all arrangements are in place and checks completed which have convinced Sri Lanka Cricket to take the bold step to send their cricketers to Pakistan.

Progress has been made, but there remains a lot of hard work ahead for those running Pakistan cricket to convince other nations to tour Pakistan. But, as things stand, the future of cricket in Pakistan looks a lot brighter and that can only be a good thing for the cricketing family and well-wishers of Pakistan cricket.

 

 

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