Pakistan’s interior minister has invited the England cricket team to tour the country for the first time since 2005, after a successful visit by the West Indies amid improved security boosted hopes of an international revival.
A visit by a major Test-playing nation such as England would be hugely significant, in terms of both cricket as well as Pakistan’s wider security and the message it hopes to send about its crackdown on extremism and militancy.
Interior minister Ahsan Iqbal extended the invitation to U.K. High Commissioner Thomas Drew on Tuesday, urging the international community to recognize the strides Pakistan has made. “The successful staging of international matches in Pakistan is a clear proof that we have defeated terrorism and extremism,” he said, according to an official statement.
Drew said he was already looking forward to “this summer’s big cricketing event,” Pakistan’s upcoming England tour. “But I also hope that it will not be long before I can welcome an England team to Pakistan,” he told AFP on Wednesday. “That really is something to look forward to.”
For years foreign teams refused to tour Pakistan, wracked by Islamist attacks. In 2009 an attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore drove international cricket from the country entirely, and their fixtures have been played in the United Arab Emirates. But security has improved dramatically in recent years, and since 2015 Pakistan has hosted Zimbabwe, a World XI, Sri Lanka, the finals of its domestic T20 league for two years running and, most recently, the West Indies, for a short T20 series, which finished on Tuesday.
The matches have been staged in both Lahore and Karachi, the cricket-obsessed country’s two largest cities, both of which have been hit repeatedly by militant violence over the last decade.
Head-of-state level security has been provided for visiting players, most of whom have come away praising the arrangements. Various military operations across the country have led to the increased security, particularly in the northwestern tribal region, where militants once operated with impunity.
But the U.S. maintains that Pakistan is hosting militant safe havens in the northwest, accusations Islamabad denies; while critics warn that the country has not gone far enough in rooting out the long-term causes of extremism.