Cricket rivalry took a backseat as a full house at the Gaddafi Stadium celebrated the beginning of the end of exile of Pakistan from hosting international games. The scenes at the stands on Sunday featuring Pakistan and Sri Lanka were a throwback to the eighties and the nineties when a cricket match in Lahore united the entire city.
Gates started to open by 3.30 pm and within an hour, most of the stands were full. Face paints in green, banners, giant flags, the familiar sight of Cricket Chacha chanting Pakistan Zindabad, all made a comeback. With the stadium complex converted into an impregnable fortress, spectators were made to park their vehicles 2 kilometres away from where they were ferried to the stadium in special buses. But for a nation deprived of international cricket for over 8 years, these were small prices to pay for the lovers of the sport. Women and children braved the countless security checks to soak in the atmosphere.
The contest was not riveting with the outcome of the match almost a foregone conclusion, four overs before the final ball. Yet there was plenty to celebrate for the cricket fans as the return of Sri Lanka cricket team to the same venue of their attack in 2009 was a ringing affirmation of the improved security in the country.
Former New Zealand fast bowler Danny Morrison who was part of the commentary team for the game in Lahore believes that the smooth conduct of the recent World XI matches and the T20 game are giant steps to instill confidence in foreign players to travel here. “These are positive developments and cricket authorities in Pakistan should take one step at a time. Schedules featuring international teams should be drawn to ensure matches are played at a solitary city rather than involving multiple venues to cut down on too much movement of players,’’ says Morrison who has been travelling to Pakistan for various fast bowling talent hunts.
“There is no denying the fact that cricketers from abroad are still edgy about travelling to this part of the world and the only way to remove the fears gradually is through hosting more international matches,’’ he adds. This year’s Pakistan Super League (PSL) staged its final match in Lahore with UAE hosting all the other games. However, the stakes will be high in the 2018 edition with all the play-offs set to be played in Pakistan. Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore and the National Stadium in Karachi are expected to be the two venues.
There is no better motivation and adrenaline rush for a Pakistan cricketer than to perform before home crowd. None of the current players in the Test team has played in Pakistan, including captain Sarfraz Ahmed. “Used to playing abroad, it felt so surreal to raise my bat before a packed a house in Gaddafi Stadium, reminisces Azhar Ali who hit a century against Zimbabwe in Lahore in a one-dayer in 2015.
Cricket fraternity in Sri Lanka has been sharply divided about travelling to Pakistan. “It was the Sri Lankan Cricket (SLC) president Thilanga Sumathipala who convinced the players and the support staff to travel to Pakistan. There were many in the current set-up who were reluctant to travel,” reveals Roshan Abeysinghe, the lone Sri Lankan commentator in the television crew for the game in Lahore.
The tour received the final green signal merely three days before the actual game after a security delegation from the Island Nation was satisfied with security arrangements. The visitors flew in to Lahore from Abu Dhabi and checked into the hotel in the early hours on the day of the match and left for Colombo immediately after the game.
Rumesh Ratnayeke a former fast bowler and now the bowling coach of the Sri Lankan team was willing to travel to Pakistan when the tour was announced. “Maybe I had an easy decision to make as I was not present when the team was attacked. It is tough for the cricketers who were present in the bus on that day in 2009 to forget it and travel to Lahore,’’ says Ratnayeke.
Suranga Lakmal and Chamara Kapugedera were the two members from the current Sri Lankan team who were present during the bullet attack and refused to travel with the team. Apart from his playing days, Rumesh has repeatedly travelled to Lahore during his stint as a coach with the Asian Cricket Council. “I always enjoyed coming to the city and this short trip was significant,’’ feels Ratnayeke. Captain for this series, Thisera Perera, also had no reservations. The big built all-rounder was part of the World XI squad. “I had thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Lahore with the World XI team and I wanted to come back,’’ says Perera whose batting exploits won a game for World XI at Gaddafi Stadium, two months ago.
The corridors of PCB’s headquarters located in Gaddafi Stadium are abuzz with talks of the next international series next month, likely to feature the West Indies. Like the World XI games, the short series is expected to consist of three T20 games to be played in Lahore.
As the bullet proof bus carrying the Sri Lankan team made its way on a foggy Lahore night and finally reached the airport, the security agencies heaved a sigh of relief. And for cricket fans, it will hopefully pave the way for more international games in Pakistan