Pakistan suffered a shock T20 series defeat last week to a depleted Sri Lanka, but it hardly mattered. International cricket was back in Pakistan with three ODIS and T20 games played in Karachi and Lahore.
These were beautiful, heartwarming scenes seeing diehard Pakistani cricket fans enthusiastically supporting their beloved team in person.
No fan base is more passionate and consistently entertaining than Pakistan. Quite simply, it has been a travesty that fans have been mostly deprived of seeing their team play at home ever since a horrific terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009 saw an exile of international cricket in Pakistan.
But things are looking positive for the strife-torn nation. The series against Sri Lanka went smoothly – particularly important considering what happened a decade ago. This was also extremely noteworthy because the tour was in jeopardy when Sri Lanka Cricket said it was reassessing the security situation in Pakistan after receiving a warning “of a possible terrorist threat” to its team.
The series went ahead but without 10 frontline players for Sri Lanka who withdrew citing security concerns. Those that did tour were given presidential-level security over the course of the entire series.
“This tour is a message for the whole world, and especially a message for future Sri Lankans,” Sri Lanka coach Rumesh Ratnayake said. “This has gone very smoothly. Us playing here will encourage so many other countries to also be here.”
It continued the momentum for cricket’s fully fledged return to Pakistan in recent years, which has included visits from Zimbabwe, the West Indies and a World XI team. However, all those were limited-overs series with Test cricket still not having been played in Pakistan since the 2009 tragedy.
As part of the new World Test Championship (WTC), Pakistan are scheduled to host Sri Lanka for a series in December but indications are that it is unlikely to be in Pakistan. There is more optimism that a two Test series in January against Bangladesh could be played in Pakistan and so could a series against South Africa 12 months later.
For Pakistan, playing exclusively at home instead of being based in the UAE – successful on-field but a highly expensive alternate – needs some trumpeting from a powerhouse. It’s not going to come from neighboring foe India, who refuse to play in bilateral series against Pakistan due to strict government orders.
Cricket Australia (CA), encouragingly, are preparing the groundwork on a possible return for a scheduled tour in 2022. Australia has not toured Pakistan since 1998 for security reasons and the official Australian government advice for its citizens is to “reconsider” traveling there.
CA chief executive Kevin Roberts and head of security Sean Carroll last month recently traveled to Pakistan in the first visit of a high-level Australian delegation in more than a decade.
And now it’s England’s turn to ponder. Tom Harrison, the England and Wales Cricket Board chief executive, was in Lahore during the T20I series against Sri Lanka. England haven’t toured Pakistan since 2005 but are scheduled to visit in late 2022.
Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Ehsan Mani has previously expressed confidence to me of being able to persuade England to break the more than decade-long exile.
Harrison was impressed by his visit. “We had a real look at the incredible work that is going on in Lahore with the Safe City Project and the extraordinary reaction to past incidents that has been put in place here. And that’s been incredibly impressive,” he said on the PCB podcast.
“Now we need to take the entire information home and start building towards a plan to put in place over the next few years to make it safe for us to consider coming here and fulfilling that obligation in the second half of 2022.”
There is still a lot of water to go under the bridge for England – and Australia – to return but Ireland, cricket’s newest Test member alongside Afghanistan, have expressed considerable interest. Warren Deutrom, the chief executive of Cricket Ireland, was also scoping the scene in Lahore during the Sri Lanka T20 series.
“The courtesy, the generosity, the hospitality, the warmth, the love of cricket is plainly obvious for anyone to see,” he said on the PCB podcast. “Cricket Ireland is now a Test nation and we certainly feel it is important that we play our part in being a mature and grown-up member of the cricket family.
“We want to play our part in assisting getting international cricket back in Pakistan.”
An Ireland tour of Pakistan is not possible in the next eight months but there is an expectation that something will be scheduled before the end of 2020.
“When we receive an invitation, we will go through the motions and will take it extremely seriously. There is no date set,” he said. “I think that’s something we should take extremely seriously.”
Pakistan was Ireland’s first ever Test opponent. Coincidentally, Ireland could well end this barren period for Pakistan and become the first team to play a Test there in more than a decade.
And maybe, just maybe, the powerful duo of England and Australia will tour in 2022 and almost complete Pakistan’s arduous journey back home.