Lahore (Pakistan) – Pakistan gave a huge sigh of relief Monday after Zimbabwe’s high-stakes, high-security tour ended without major incident, the first top-level international cricket in the insurgency-hit country in six years.
Cricket-mad Pakistani fans, starved of action at home since gunmen attacked the Sri Lanka team bus in 2009, packed Lahore’s Gaddafi stadium for the two Twenty20s and three one-day internationals.
The home side dominated, winning both T20s and two of the ODIs, with the third rained off, but the symbolism of the matches mattered far more than the results.
And as the Africans flew out early on Monday, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) was already talking up the chances of luring more international teams.
But much remains to be done to convince foreign boards, players and umpires that the country is once again safe to tour.
Zimbabwe are a fairly low-profile team but they still needed a mammoth security operation — reportedly bigger than for visiting heads of state — with 4,000 policemen guarding the stadium and another 2,000 at the team hotel and on their route to the ground.
Even with these measures in place, a blast hit Lahore during Friday’s second ODI, killing two people, with Pakistani officials giving conflicting accounts.
Police insisted it was a gas cylinder explosion but a government minister said it was a suicide bomber who detonated explosives when challenged by police at a security cordon some 1.5 kilometres from the ground.
Despite the blast, Zimbabwe went ahead with the final ODI and PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan said it was a complete team effort which helped the revival, hailing the courage of the police.
“I think praise is due to an unknown policeman guarding the team to the government and to every cricket fan who packed the stadium despite security hassles and made this a successful and safe series,” Khan told AFP.
Fans waited in blistering temperatures exceeding 40 Celsius to pass through numerous security checkpoints on their way to the ground — a testimony to the enthusiasm for the return of live action.
– Braving fears –
Zimbabwe pressed ahead with the tour despite scepticism from the international players’ union and the fact the International Cricket Council (ICC) said it would not send neutral umpires over safety fears.
An attack by militants on a bus in Karachi that left 45 people dead just days before the tour created further doubts, but Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) managing director Alistair Campbell said his country was glad to have played its part in Pakistan’s cricket revival.
“It was a tough decision to send the team, especially with opposition by some people in the wake of killings in Karachi, but in the end we are happy that we played a part in the cricket revival in Pakistan with a safe and successful tour,” he told AFP.
“The passion of the people was amazing and for the first time in the sub-continent I saw people clapping for the opposition in a packed stadium.”
– Long road to travel –
PCB is now hoping Sri Lanka will agree to tour, possibly next year.
Sri Lanka Cricket’s interim committee chairman Sidath Wettimuny, who was at the third ODI, said he was delighted at the success of the tour.
“We are really happy that somebody has come to Pakistan to kick off international cricket here,” he said.
“I am amazed with crowd. They have shown that they want to see international cricket and it is a great start for Pakistan.”
But the scars of the 2009 gun and rocket attack, which claimed eight lives, are still raw and Wettimuny was cautious about sending his team to Pakistan.
“It’s too early to say anything. It was important to come here and it was a goodwill gesture on our part. We have always been very supportive of Pakistan cricket. I will go back and tell our board what I have seen and take it from there,” he said.