After more than a decade, Test cricket is finally returning to Pakistan. On 11th December, Pakistan will play their first Test on home soil since March, 2009. It seems like a long time ago but back in March 2009, it was unthinkable of seeing another game of international cricket in Pakistan.
On 3rd March, 2009, Sri Lanka’s team bus was on its way to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. There was nothing special or unusual about the day, it seemed as docile as the pitch at Gaddafi. Sri Lankan players sat on the bus probably thinking about having to toil hard on the field. They had scored 600 plus runs in their innings; Pakistan were 110/1 heading into the morning session. When the bus reached liberty square, the heart of Lahore, everything changed. Twelve gunmen started firing at the bus as it crossed the road. The police returned fire and in the ensuing fight, six Pakistani policemen and two civilians lost their lives. The terrorists fled the scene leaving behind grenades and rocket launchers. Six Sri Lankan cricketers were also wounded, it was only because of the bus driver’s sheer bravery that all of them were alive. Bus driver, Mehar Mohammad Khalil kept driving amidst a rocket being launched at the bus. Even a grenade was thrown under the bus but Khalil did not stop until he reached the stadium.
A minivan carrying match officials was also attacked. All the officials survived but the driver lost his life. News spread throughout Pakistan, no one could believe what had happened. The entire country went into a state of shock. News broke out about deaths of policemen, then of civilians, then of the minivan driver and everyone feared for the lives of Sri Lankan cricketers. No one was still sure if they were safe. Later, it was reported that no Sri Lankan player was fatally wounded however, Kumar Sangakkara, Thilan Samaraweera, Chaminda Vaas, Suranga Lakmal, Ajantha Mendis and Tharanga Paranavitana suffered injuries. Team's assistant coach Paul Farbrace was also wounded in the attack. Reports also news came out that Ahsan Raza, one of the umpires was shot twice and was rushed to the hospital. Thankfully, he survived.
The entire nation had been brought to its knees by a dozen terrorists.
As a country, Pakistan takes prides in its hospitality. The citizens welcomed the Indian cricket team and the visiting fans on two tours to Pakistan earlier in the same decade. This attack destroyed that image of Pakistan and majority in the country were aware of it. A sense of depression took over. A few terrorists had just smeared the image of an entire nation. It was one of the gloomiest days in Pakistan’s history.
At the time, the entire nation wanted to find the people behind these attacks. Investigations were launched quickly and it was clear that Pakistan wanted to earn back their lost pride. The country’s media blamed the Al Qaeda for the attacks, other theories also came forward but security officials deemed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned militant organisation, to be the one behind the incident.
During investigations, officials were even ready to take drastic measures. The Punjab government offered $125,000 to anyone who came forward with any sort of information. Over 250 suspects were questioned and out of that, four of them were considered as prime suspects. Eventually around two dozen people were arrested.
The incident received condemnation from within Pakistan and all across the planet. At the time, Pakistan’s interior minister declared that the country was in a state of war.
Over the last decade, Pakistan has gone to great lengths to make amends for the unfortunate events of March 2009. Presidential level security has been provided to visiting teams. It all started with Kenya’s tour to Pakistan, when they played the A team in 2014/15. Then Zimbabwe visited, after that the Pakistan Super League played a huge part in bringing cricket back to the country. A lot of international players agreed to play in Pakistan for the PSL, that was followed by the World XI tour, which featured some of the biggest names in world cricket. All these T20 and ODI tours showed the world how determined Pakistan was on providing security to visiting team and the officials.
Earlier this year, Sri Lanka toured Pakistan for a T20 and ODI series. It is only fitting that Sri Lanka will be the team to bring Test cricket back to Pakistan. Security arrangements have obviously been beefed up considering this is a significant milestone in Pakistan’s attempt to bring cricket back. A decade ago, a full Test tour was inconceivable, now it feels like an eventuality after all the groundwork that has been laid over the last 6-7 years. It is not only the government of Pakistan that has made this possible, it is the people of Pakistan who have been starved of their favorite sport for a decade. Pakistan is a one sport country, nothing in Pakistan is bigger than cricket, even Pakistan’s prime minister is a retired cricketer, that is how big the sport is.
Roads are blocked during cricket matches in Pakistan due to the extra security, shops remain closed, offices and schools in the proximity are shutdown, but people still support the return of cricket. They know how important the event is. Cricket is a way for Pakistan to show it’s flare, skill, determination and above all it’s hospitality. Cricket is Pakistan’s identity and the country will do anything and everything in its power to protect it.
The writer is a general manager of PSL franchise Islamabad United
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