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Cricket’s return to Pakistan

This year Pakistan held all thirty-four matches of PSL in the country with a hundred percent capacity of spectators allowed. Both these events have lent Pakistan the publicity and credibility it sought as a cricketing nation capable of hosting international teams. Technically international cricket returned to the country when World XI toured Pakistan for the T20 series.

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During yet another political and economic crisis in Pakistan, cricket once again brought some respite for the public. The West Indies Men’s Cricket Team visited the country in June to complete the  One Day International Seriespostponed from the previous West Indies Tour. Sri Lanka’s Women Cricket Team also concluded the One Day International series in June. In October Pakistan is braced to host England for Test, One Day and T20 international later this year.

This visit is a continuation of the confidence restored after Australia’s visit to Pakistan. The story of Pakistan cricket is a story of resilience, ups and downs and perseverance in the face of challenges ranging from the science of the game to the inability of the country to actually hold matches.  After Pakistan Team’s heroics in the T20 World Cup last year, the skill and standing of the team are only improving with superstars like Babar Azam, Shaheen Afridi, Muhammad Rizwan and  Shadab Khan. While the security situation started improving in 2017, the confidence was restored completely after Australia’s successful visit.

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Understanding the matter better

March brought the much-awaited return of the Australian Cricket Team to Pakistan after a gap of twenty-four years. Australian cricket team’s successful visit after two decades and countless incidents of terrorism in between has cemented Pakistan’s ability to hold international cricket. This year Pakistan held all thirty-four matches of PSL in the country with a hundred percent capacity of spectators allowed. Both these events have lent Pakistan the publicity and credibility it sought as a cricketing nation capable of hosting international teams. Technically international cricket returned to the country when World XI toured Pakistan for the T20 series.

Consisting of global T20 star cricketers, this tour was given the status of an international series by the ICC, smoothening the advent of international cricket in the country. Prior to World XI, Zimbabwe became the first-ever International Men’s cricket side to visit the country for ODI and T20 series. Though Pakistan whitewashed its opponents on the field, Zimbabwe actually made a great contribution to the country’s cricket and cricket lovers. In spite of a bomb blast outside Gaddafi Stadium during the second ODI, Zimbabwe continued with the tour. Despite putting the entire state machinery behind PCB for carrying out the visit successfully, the mishap demonstrated that the country still had miles to go, and it would take quite some time for international teams to fully trust Pakistan.

The security situation in the country was still fragile as the military operation against terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas was still being carried out. Same year Bangladesh women’s cricket team visited the country. For two years, Pakistan cricket remained in limbo, and international matches continued to be played in UAE, which incurred high financial costs for the PCB. A number of successful matches in 2017 paved the way for the return of international cricket in the country. In March, Pakistan organized the final of the Pakistan Super League in Lahore. A number of international players even pulled out in the last minutes. Nonetheless final was played in Lahore, and this event set up the future PSL matches as well as international matches in the country.

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The World XI T20 series played in May, and the seal of endorsement by the international cricketing body gave Pakistan Cricket the credibility it was looking for. ICC demonstrated that it had trusted Pakistan with hosting international matches after the Lahore tragedy.  The effort paid off, and Sri Lanka returned to Pakistan for the final match of a three-match ODI series.   Sri Lanka made a statement by returning to Lahore.

In 2018 another PSL final was held in Karachi’s National Stadium

The same year, West Indies visited Pakistan for a T20 series; much like the Sri Lanka visit last year, a number of key players refused to visit the country. In February 2019, West Indies Women visited Pakistan again. In March 2019, nine PSL matches were held in the country, demonstrating that PCB and Pakistani authorities were capable of successfully managing a long tournament. In October, Sri Lanka visited again for T20 as well as the ODI series.

2020 was, in general, a bad year for the world as well as sports, including cricket. Pakistan was set to fully host PSL in the country; however, after several matches, the tournament was postponed and played later on in UAE. Despite the setback, this year brought a silver lining as  Bangladesh visited for a test series. Despite the popularity of white-ball cricket, the longest format of cricket remains the most important parameter to assess a team’s quality, and in consequence, the venue’s host. Bangladesh, playing test cricket in  Pakistan, cemented its position as a viable host for international cricket. In theory, international cricket had returned to  Pakistan, and all teams in principle should visit the country.

In 2021 South Africa visited the country for a Test series and a T20 series. A number of high-profile international visits were scheduled, including New Zealand, England and Australia. A seal of approval from SENA countries is a must in the cricketing world. After South Africa’s visit, it was expected and rightly so, that Pakistan would, without interruption and hiccups, once again host international cricket. However, the euphoria was short-lived, and Pakistan was dealt with a heavy embarrassment almost akin to undoing years of efforts in bringing international cricket back. In September, the New Zealand Team abandoned the tour minutes before the first ball was supposed to be bowled.

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PCB scrambled all resources it could to convince New Zealand to play, even bringing in the country’s then Prime Minister Imran Khan to convince his counterpart. New Zealand refused, citing a “credible and specific security threat”, which was never shared with Pakistani authorities. PCB, Pakistani cricketers as well as the public seethed at this unilateral decision. It was feared that the rest of the teams would follow suit, and Pakistan Cricket would be back at square one. And these fears turned out to be true when England Cricket Board also decided to abandon its red and white ball tour to Pakistan based on flimsy objections. The ECB derided the growing security concerns in the region, the bubble fatigue as well as preparation for the upcoming T20 World Cup.

The way forward

ECB’s cancellation received a contrasting response from the international community, particularly English journalists and sports media. The lack of a satisfactory reason beckoned a wave of criticism for the ECB. The British High Commissioner in Islamabad categorically stated that he supported the tour, but the players association revealed that they were not even included in the discussions before canceling the tour. The backlash was so intense that the ECB Chairman buckled and resigned from his post. However, it is believed that his resignation was only partly because of his decision to cancel the tour.

Nonetheless, it was expected that Australia would follow suit and cancel the 2022 series. Against all expectations, Cricket Australia decided to go ahead with the tour and announced the schedule for the historical series. It is possible that the criticism English Cricket Board received, as well as Cricket Australia’s desire to improve its own reputation, contributed to their decision-making. The red ball and the white ball series were hailed as historic by both Cricket Australia and the PCB. Despite a bomb attack in Peshawar during the Rawalpindi test, Australia remained committed to the tour and did not give in to any knee-jerk reaction.

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This successful tour has dissipated fears that Pakistan’s security situation is not conducive for international cricket. The discussion has shifted entirely from security to the merit of the sport, as seen during the West Indies Tour. Security hardly featured in the discourse surrounding the visit. Cricket’s return to Pakistan brings hope for cricket lovers along with inspiring an entire generation of cricketers. The current lot in the Pakistan cricket team deserves to play in their own home grounds in front of their own crowds. Pakistan’s security agencies, as well as civil administrations, deserve full credit for vigilantly working to bring cricket back home.

 

The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.