Thousands of cricket fans cheered on their favorite stars and waved signs proclaiming: “We want peace” at an international T20 match on Thursday in the former Taliban stronghold of Miranshah, as authorities proudly showcased the area as free of militants.
The match between the Pakistan XI and a visiting U.K. XI in the country’s restive tribal belt comes weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump blasted Islamabad publicly, accusing the ally of supporting militant safe havens in the region.
Stretched along the Afghan border, North Waziristan’s Miranshah was once a de facto Taliban state that hosted foreign jihadists including leading figures from Al Qaeda and served as a launching pad for attacks into Afghanistan. But in 2014 the Pakistan Army launched a clearance operation in the tribal district to wipe out militant bases and bring an end to a bloody insurgency that has cost thousands of lives since 2004 and strained ties with Washington.
Leading Pakistani cricketers Shahid Afridi and former captain Inzamam-ul-Haq took to the lush pitch to the roaring approval of more than 20,000 fans in attendance, who had been massing since early in the morning for the rare chance to see international cricket live.
“It feels like I’m in Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore or in Islamabad today. It doesn’t feel like the old Miranshah infested by the militants,” said Fahimullah, a 31-year-old schoolteacher.
Batting first, Pakistan scored 254 runs while the U.K. batsmen could only reach 151 for seven wickets in the allotted 20 overs.
Pakistan’s former captain Inzamam and the immensely popular Afridi hit some towering sixes and brisk boundaries leading their team to victory by 103 runs against the British side.
“I have not seen such a big match here before today,” said ninth grader Faizan Khan. “We could not go out earlier because of Taliban. The situation was very bad then, but now they have disappeared, I don’t know where have they gone.”