After more than 37 months of Pakistani players and fans' waiting and hoping, international cricket is all set to be revived in that country in end-April with Bangladesh agreeing to a very short tour. International cricket was suspended in Pakistan after a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in March 2009.
In a strange coincidence - Lahore - the city where the terror attack took place, will play host for the only one-day international on April 29, and a Twenty20 match the following day. As preparation for the historic and eagerly awaited series, the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore is undergoing renovation work even as a security wall is being constructed outside the main gate.
This though will not be the first visit by an international team to Pakistan since March 2009, as earlier this month, the British Universities XI had played a couple of matches in Lahore. Kamal Alam, the touring team's captain was effusive in his praise for the security arrangements, and said: "One of the main things of the tour is not just cricket, but more to show that Pakistan really needs cricket because cricket is the most important thing in the country and it keeps everyone going. It's almost like taking the oxygen out of the country when you don't have international cricket."
There were questions aplenty whether Bangladesh would go ahead with their tour of Pakistan despite a delegation giving a positive report about the security situation in the troubled country. However, the final clearance for the tour would have to come from the Sheikh Hasina government; and when there were indications of a possible pull-out, the Pakistan Cricket Board went on the offensive. "I think we will have to reconsider our relationship with Bangladesh if they don't tour us, but I hope such a situation will not come," PCB chairman Zaka Ashraf had said.
If this threat influenced Bangladesh's decision is open to debate, but with the tour going ahead, albeit only for two days, the limelight is firmly on Pakistan and the eyes of the world will be heavily focussed with the country's future and ability to be a sporting host coming under fresh intense scrutiny.
There are also strong suggestions that Bangladesh Cricket Board president Mustafa Kamal agreed to the tour mainly because he has won the PCB's nomination for the ICC vice-presidency; he is also alleged to have convinced (forced) Bangladeshi cricketers to tour Pakistan.
Pakistan's Interior minister Rehman Malik has reiterated a promise to put in place stringent security measures for the Bangladesh team. "We will leave no stone unturned and put in place the best possible security for the Bangladesh team as per our promise and make this tour an exemplary one so that other teams also tour us," said Malik. The International Cricket Council (ICC) has already said it needs a comprehensive security plan before sending its match officials to Pakistan.
While Bangladesh's forthcoming tour is apt reward for the patience of the country's cricket fans, the Pakistan government as well as the PCB officials will have to put in place stringent and tough security steps to ensure the short tour is held without any glitches on or off the field. Security will be of paramount importance and it is vital for Pakistan as a sporting destination that nothing untoward happens over the course of those two days. It may be a short tour in duration, but the outcome will have massive repercussions for Pakistan in the long run.
Admittedly, the security situation in Pakistan continues to be volatile and beset with risks; but in hosting the Bangladesh cricket team, Pakistan has started taking baby steps in reclaiming its right to host sporting events. It could be claimed these are premature steps with peace yet to return to Pakistan and terrorist attacks still taking place in Lahore and Karachi apart from other parts of the country; but one can only hope for the sake of Pakistani cricket, players and fans, that those two days are remembered for all the right reasons; and that's memorable cricketing action on the field with Bangladesh's players also enjoying the experience while feeling secure.
But, despite Kamal and the PCB's assurances, there is a fair amount of apprehension regarding the tour in the minds of Bangladesh's players and coaching staff. Outgoing Bangladesh coach Stuart Law has been quoted as saying: "I have spent time with the players and everyone is a bit concerned. Not just Bangladesh, but the other teams as well. The first initial response from the players around the world is: 'I don't want to go'."
Not surprisingly, leading Bangladesh cricketers and team officials have started expressing reluctance to travel to Pakistan; and it will be interesting to see how events play out in the coming days as the PCB has said they want a full-strength Bangladesh team to tour the country. This even as the head of the BCB Cricket Committee, Inayat Hussain Siraj, said they would not force any player or support staff member to go to Pakistan. There is also opposition from fans in Bangladesh against the proposed tour.
Veteran cricket journalist Malcolm Conn tweeted, "No surprise that Bang capt Mushfiqur Rahim is unlikely to tour Pakistan because of uni exams" as well as "Not surprisingly afro-india dominated ICC board allow Bang tour of Pak despite strong security advice from ICC officials."
There is concern that Bangladesh's cricketers are being used as pawns by their own board president and being sent to a country where security continues to be a daily problem just to ensure Pakistan's exile as a host nation ends irrespective of the ground situation.
And, while it will take a lot more for full-fledged international cricket to return to Pakistan despite whatever happens in end-April; the next step if the security and political situation show positive signs of improvement, could be getting overseas cricketers to feature in the proposed Pakistan Premier League and for Pakistan to host some of the 'A' teams as well as the likes of Lashings.
All that though hinges on what happens in Pakistan towards the end of April when Bangladesh come calling, and here's hoping this is the start of the revival of international cricket and sports in the troubled country.
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