Karachi: Pakistan's cricket chiefs hope the country can host a full series by 2020, after a successful tour by the West Indies sparked hopes of an international revival.
The three-match series against the World Twenty20 champions, staged in the once militancy-wracked port city of Karachi, was accompanied by a wave of optimism, with enthusiastic fans braving heavy security checks to express their gratitude to the West Indies for the visit which ended Tuesday.
Last month Karachi also hosted the final of the popular Pakistan Super League, the biggest cricket event in the city since a 2009 attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team in Lahore drove international cricket from the country.
Pakistan was forced to host its international fixtures in the United Arab Emirates. But with security dramatically improving in the last three years, the Pakistan Cricket Board has been taking "gradual steps" to bring them back, PCB chairman Najam Sethi said.
"They are bearing positive results," he told AFP.
"We will host more PSL matches next year and by that time almost all the top international players from top cricketing nations will have played in Pakistan," he predicted.
"Then we can convince their boards to send national teams for a full series to Pakistan in 2020."
His confidence is striking, coming after so many false starts.
Sri Lanka had agreed to return in 2011, but an attack on a Karachi naval base derailed that hope. The PCB then convinced Ireland to tour in 2014, only to have the trip cancelled after militants attacked the Karachi airport.
Bangladesh also declined tours not once but twice out of unspecified security concerns, after initially agreeing in 2012.
But in 2015 the sound of the Pakistani national anthem rang out at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium once more as minnows Zimbabwe became the first international team to return.
Unprecedented security was put in place with some 30,000 policemen and military personnel on guard as spectators braved heat and security checkpoints to attend the first international match in the country in six years.
Bringing cricket home
Not everyone touted it as a success. "What kind of message of peace will we send abroad by arranging the match after closing down shops and roads?" grumbled former Pakistan captain-turned-politician Imran Khan at the time.
But security has continued to improve under a military crackdown, and confidence has been steadily growing, despite continued sporadic attacks and strong warnings from critics that Pakistan has not done enough to get to the root causes of extremism.
In 2017 Pakistan hosted the PSL final in Lahore. Some top foreign players – like Kevin Pietersen of England, Shane Watson of Australia and Rilee Rossouw of South Africa – stayed away.
But those who came, like double World Twenty20 winning West Indian captain Darren Sammy, were won over.
That led to a visit by a World XI side, then the emotional return by the Sri Lankan team in October last year, a hugely symbolic event that also saw Pakistanis turn out in their thousands to welcome the visitors with open arms.
Sammy – a Pakistani crowd favourite – returned for two PSL play-offs in Lahore and the final in Karachi this year, and his presence influenced former teammates Andre Fletcher, Samuel Badree and Chadwick Walton to be part of the West Indies team.
Security remained an enormous issue, however, with massive, head-of-state level arrangements made for each visit. A security company appointed by the International Cricket Council (ICC) under its Pakistan Task Team had greenlit the matches.
"We realised that matches caused inconvenience for Lahorites and Karachiites, but they were a big gain for Pakistan," Sethi said.
Now the PCB is setting its sights on bigger teams, with hopes that sides such as South Africa could tour by next year. Pakistan's Interior Minister has also invited the England team to come.
Former Pakistan captain-turned-commentator Ramiz Raja praised the efforts in a newspaper column recently.
Pakistan, he wrote, "will fight tooth and nail to bring international cricket back home".
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