Pakistan may have taken its biggest step yet towards full restoration of cricket at home by staging the first of three Twenty20 internationals against the World XI, a team from seven nations assembled by coach Andy Flower on behalf of the Pakistan Task Team that was formed by International Cricket Council in 2010 to revive cricket in Pakistan. After the horrific militant attack on the touring Sri Lankans in Lahore in 2009, the country had become a no-go zone for the foreign teams with Zimbabwe being the only team to tour Pakistan for an international series in 2015.
On a glorious night in Lahore, cricket took the centre stage with about 20,000 people turning up to watch the players they perhaps had seen only on television screens before. Such was the pull of the event that every news channel had made ample room for cricket in the bulletins. While the prices of the tickets were on the higher side – the maximum being 8,000 Rupees (£55), the car-for-hire app Uber announced it would take spectators to the stadium at a flat rate of 111 Rupees (£0.80).
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Lahore had been buzzing with excitement and there was festivity in the air since the World XI team arrived in the wee hours of Monday.
The players travelled to play the first match at the historic Gaddafi Stadium in a bomb-proof bus with a large contingent of law enforcement agencies overseeing every move.
The result did not go in their favour as they lost the game by 20 runs but the cricket on the night was bigger than sport. A decade from now the players and the officials might hark back to this night and consider it a watershed moment in cricket’s return to the country.
It was a important occasion for the home team too as five of their players, Fakhar Zaman, Faheem Ashraf, Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali and Rumman Raees, played on the home soil for the first time.
The idea of the World XI tour was mooted a year ago and the Pakistan Super League final in Lahore this year played a huge role in making it happen.
“Two years ago, the situation wasn’t so good and we didn’t want to risk anything that might endanger the guests even if they were prepared to come,” the PCB and PSL chairman, Najam Sethi, told the Guardian in Lahore.
“Now we can say with assurance that the war against terrorism has been taken to its logical conclusion and that 90-95% of terrorism has abated in this country.
“A sufficient condition was to convince the international community in general and the ICC in particular that the situation was safe to play cricket.
“First step in that direction was to at least try and play at least one match in Pakistan, which is why I fought tooth and nail to have the PSL final in Lahore.
“Security experts affiliated with various boards and also with the ICC came to the Lahore final and saw for themselves the excellent security arrangements that were in place, and then they went back and gave their reports. All this formed the basis for a World XI tour.”
It is not the only series that Pakistan will host this year as there are two more in the pipeline.
The Pakistan Cricket Board is in advanced discussion with Sri Lanka for a one-off T20 international in Lahore next month and with West Indies for a three-match T20 series in November.
The PCB chairman also revealed that there will be two more tours by the World XI in the coming years. “The World XI series is now planned for every year for the three years. This is first of the three series and there will be two more in the next years,” he said.
“Once this [World XI tour] is done the Sri Lankans have committed to play one or two matches in Lahore next month and then the West Indies have committed to me that they will come for three matches in November.
“If there is no untoward incident that mars any of these events then I’d imagine by next year at least one or two big teams will come to Pakistan.”
India-Pakistan is the greatest sport rivalry on Earth. The games draw huge crowds. Television audiences can top 1.5 billion for a single match. It’s not just that people on both sides of the border share a love of cricket. They also share a common culture and a tragic history. The two South Asian neighbors were once a single nation living under British colonial rule. When the British withdrew in 1947, the former colony was partitioned into two separate countries: a large Hindu-majority country called India; and a smaller Muslim majority country called Pakistan. Partition was traumatic, and war soon broke out. Tens of millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were uprooted from their towns and villages. There was widespread ethnic cleansing on both sides of the borders. The countries waged three more wars after partition. Indian and Pakistani troops still exchange gunfire today in the disputed Kashmir region. And both countries possess nuclear weapons. “Cricket between India and Pakistan is not a game,” says one Sikh cleric in Delhi, the Indian capital. “It’s war.”
You can take the temperature of the India-Pakistan conflict with cricket. If the countries are playing, it means they’re trying to get along. If they’re not playing, they’re mad. Five years passed after partition before Pakistan’s team made its first cricket tour through India in 1952. The cross-border visits continued until 1960, when rising tensions put an end to the matches. India and Pakistan fought two more wars in 1965 and 1971. In 1974, India detonated its first nuclear device, pushing Pakistan to develop its own nuclear arsenal. In 1978, after an interval of 18 years, leaders from both countries organized a head-to-head cricket series in Pakistan. This was the beginning of cricket diplomacy; the sport was used to promote good will and defuse tensions between the testy neighbors. Indian and Pakistani leaders regularly met in the stands at matches to be photographed with players from both teams.
Cricket diplomacy produced mixed results. Sometimes home team fans embraced visiting fans in the streets. Other times, fans pelted opposing players with bottles and fruit, or set fire to the stands. The India-Pakistan matches also highlighted other tension—the growing terrorist threat in Pakistan and the growing distrust between India’s Muslim minority and its Hindu majority. One Indian Hindu fundamentalist leader said that India’s Muslims should show their loyalty to India by weeping publicly each time India lost to Pakistan in cricket.
Relations between India and Pakistan plummeted in 2002 after Pakistani-based terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament. Tempers also flared between Hindus and Muslims in India. In March 2004, with the countries on the verge of nuclear war, Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee sent India’s cricket team across the border. “Don’t just win games,” he instructed the players. “Win hearts, too.” The 2004 tour was wildly successful. More than 20,000 Indians traveled to Pakistan where they were received like long-lost relatives. Sentiments changed in both countries, enabling leaders to take concrete steps towards a permanent peace.
Then, in November 2008, a team of Islamist militants who had trained in Pakistan attacked Mumbai, terrorizing the city for three long days and killing 170 people. The Mumbai attacks slammed the brakes on the peace process. India sealed its border, called off all direct negotiations, and, tellingly, cancelled its scheduled 2009 cricket tour of Pakistan. Three years later, leaders from both countries met in the stands in Mohali, India as Pakistan played India in the semifinal of the 2011 Cricket World Cup tournament. Once again, cricket was the vehicle to relaunch the sputtering peace process. The slow march to peace continued when Pakistan’s cricket team crossed the border once again for a five game series in India in January 2013. A cautious India issued just five thousand cricket visas to Pakistani fans. All five matches were peaceful.