|Fans at Gaddafi Stadium hold banners calling out to international cricket teams that they are missed in Pakistan | M Arif, White Star
It didn’t take long for Pakistanis to shift their attentions elsewhere. In fact, it didn’t take any time at all.
In the middle of April this year, as the rumours of Zimbabwe’s possible tour to Pakistan began surfacing, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), Shahryar Khan, held a press conference. The purpose of this was to take control of the situation. All Khan said at the press conference was that Zimbabwe had shown interest in touring Pakistan and that this would be discussed at an International Cricket Council (ICC) meeting a few days later. One would imagine that this would have led to further questions about the logistics and meaning of the tour. Instead, one of the first questions asked at the press conference was whether the proposed series against India at the end of the year would also be held in Pakistan. In that one question, both the hopes and fears of those in Pakistan were evident in all their honesty.
The PCB, it can be argued, has put its best foot forward to kindle hopes and quash fears about the future. Other than the blast during the second One Day International (ODI) that killed two people on the outskirts of the Nishtar Park Complex – of which Gaddafi Stadium is a part – the Zimbabwe tour was a huge success. The first tour by a Test playing nation in over six years, the series enhanced the PCB’s administrative reputation. The board showed the sort of organisational skills rarely expected from it. Every single match of the series was sold out days in advance and the performance of the team exhibited what home advantage really means. The constant support and chanting for the Zimbabwean team also pointed to a facet of Pakistani cricket fandom hardly ever seen before in such a consistent and generous manner.
But even the PCB would admit that this is just a baby step towards Pakistan’s re-induction into the international cricket calendar. The fact that the Zimbabwe tour, too, was briefly called off just before the visiting team was to fly to Pakistan – and ran a serious risk of coming to an abrupt end with one match still to go – showed how precarious the progress in making it happen truly was.
|Pakistan versus Zimbabwe at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore | M Arif, White Star
The road to the Zimbabwe tour was strewn with similar uncertainties. The on-again off-again nature of international cricket’s return to Pakistan first became apparent after former PCB Chairman Zaka Ashraf revealed in April 2012 that the Bangladesh team would visit Pakistan — only to eat his words when the tour had to be called off due to political and financial reasons. Since then, senior officials at the PCB have made a number of attempts to bring international cricket to Pakistan. The tour by Kenya in December 2014 was the first step; the Zimbabwe tour is the second — albeit on a bigger scale than the first.
Yet, Pakistan remains on the periphery of the cricketing world. Until the situation returns to what it was in the noughties, when most international teams were willing to tour Pakistan, the work is cut out for the PCB, as well as the government authorities tasked with regaining the country’s status as an important sporting destination.
The board showed the sort of organisational skills rarely expected from it. Every single match of the series was sold out days in advance and the performance of the team exhibited what home advantage really means.
The question that confronts the PCB is where it must go from here. Much like the one in Zimbabwe, there are other cricket boards which could be willing to oblige if cricket authorities in Pakistan made them a good enough offer. As is well known internationally, cricket boards in both the West Indies and Sri Lanka have had financial problems for the past few years, often creating friction between the managers and players of the game. There is a possibility, although remote at this moment, that either the West Indies or Sri Lanka – or perhaps both if we are really lucky – agree to send their team to Pakistan if the PCB can convince them about the soundness of security arrangements here and approaches them with a financial package they cannot refuse.
|Crowds at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium cheer at the first Pakistan versus Zimbabwe T20 match | M Arif, White Star
This will not be easy. The West Indian players recently walked off midway through a tour to India, rejecting pay packages that their board was willing to give them. They may, therefore, require bigger than usual financial incentives. And it was Sri Lanka’s team that had come under a terrorist attack in Lahore — the very reason for the suspension of international cricket in Pakistan. To overcome these hurdles will require that the PCB make a much bigger effort than it did to convince Zimbabwe to come here to play.
So, one big test will follow another. The PCB, however, can take advantage of the situation in international cricket where the creation of the so-called Big Three – India, England and Australia – has left many cricket-playing nations chafing at the veto the three countries enjoy over major international decision-making for the sport. Pakistan can launch an aggressive campaign to create alliances that can benefit both itself and the world game.
The only other option is failure to build on the success of the Zimbabwe tour. In that case, the tour will just look like a rare and unexpected oasis in a vast and parched desert. It is entirely the PCB’s burden to decide which way it wants to take the future of international cricket in Pakistan.