Pakistan on Tuesday celebrated the return of international cricket on home soil as its top players prepared to meet a World XI in a stadium sealed off by thousands of police and troops.
Apart from five limited-overs games against minnows Zimbabwe in 2015, Pakistan have not hosted top-level international cricket since militants attacked the bus of the visiting Sri Lankan team in March 2009, killing eight people and injuring seven players and staff. Since then Pakistan have been forced to play most of their “home” games in the United Arab Emirates—with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) complaining they have incurred losses of around $120 million
The PCB is now hoping the three World XI Twenty20 games are staged successfully, paving the way for Pakistan to host Sri Lanka for one T20 international next month followed by three T20s against the West Indies in November.
The World XI is led by South African skipper Faf du Plessis and includes players from Australia, England, the West Indies, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Sarfraz Ahmed will lead the Pakistan side and is among just five cricketers on the roster who have played a home international match—alongside Shoaib Malik, Ahmed Shehzad, Imad Wasim and Sohail Khan.
Ahmed said his squad was eager to play on home soil before a capacity 25,000 crowd at Lahore’s Gaddafi stadium. “We are super-excited,” said Ahmed. “A lot of players will be playing at home for the first time so the excitement is reaching its climax.”
Around 9,000 police officers and paramilitary forces were deployed to the area, cordoning off the team’s hotels and stadium. But the large security presence did little to temper the enthusiasm of fans in the cricket-mad country.
Hundreds of people were seen walking toward the stadium hours ahead of the match, which began at 7:30 P.M. local time, passing through metal detectors and undergoing body searches.
The second game is on Wednesday and the third on Friday.
“We should call it Pakistan’s Cricket Day,” said Amina Salahuddin, wearing a green Pakistan T-shirt. “We started off at 10 a.m. but it’s worth the pain and wait.”
Former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram said he hopes more cricket will come the country’s way soon. “We have suffered a lot,” Wasim told AFP. “I am so excited that it feels like I am going to play my first match.”