Security concerns stopped foreign cricketers from touring Pakistan four years ago when the domestic Twenty20 tournament was launched, forcing organizers to stage the event on neutral turf in the United Arab Emirates.
When the 2020 edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) starts in Karachi on Thursday, Darren Sammy of the West Indies and Shane Watson of Australia will be among 36 foreign cricketers involved in the six franchises.
“Foreign players coming is a huge bonus for us,” Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Chief Executive Wasim Khan told the Associated Press. “It is a massive step forward because they clearly believe that its safe to be here for four to five weeks.”
The return of international cricket has been a slow process following an attack on the Sri Lankan team’s bus in Lahore during a test series in 2009.
For this T20 event, the PCB has worked with the Federation of International Cricketers Association and also shared its security plans with foreign stars to make them feel safe.
“We firmly believe that we are in a good position,” Wasim said. “We’re delighted there are so many players coming here and its a great endorsement for us as a country.”
Cricket went into isolation for more than six years after the attack near Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore in 2009.
There was a ray of hope in 2015 when Zimbabwe toured for a limited-overs series but it was not enough for Pakistan to host its first PSL tournament the following year.
In 2017, the PSL final was played at a packed Gaddafi Stadium, in stark contrast to the group-stage matches that were contested in mostly empty venues in the UAE.
Over the next two years, Sri Lanka and the West Indies also played limited-overs matches in the country, and more PSL games were staged in Lahore and Karachi.
The PCB overcame another barrier when it hosted test matches last year in Pakistan for the first time in a decade. Pakistan successfully hosted two tests against Sri Lanka in December and, after a lot of negotiations, last month managed to convince Bangladesh to play a test in Rawalpindi.
All the cricket activities require heavy security surrounding the foreign teams, with the kind of armed security and road closures usually reserved for visiting heads of state.
Visiting players have had virtually no movement outside team hotels or match venues although a few Sri Lankan players went to a shopping mall while they stayed in the federal capital.
But Wasim believes that over time, the blanket security can be eased and players will feel more relaxed.
“Certainly its something that we are looking at,” he said. “The more we play at home, the more confidence people have, the better it will become. We certainly can’t sustain state-level security.”
“More freedom of movement for visiting players and ensuring costs for security don’t overburden federal and local governments has to be balanced,” Wasim said, “with making sure we never become complacent and we provide the right level of security”.
In a bid to reassure cricket officials from countries such as Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa about the security situation, Pakistan invited the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the guardians of the laws of cricket, for limited-overs matches in Lahore.
Led by former Sri Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara, who is also the MCC president, the players have had VIP level security, which is a slightly lower level than that provided to Bangladesh and Sri Lankan squads for recent series.
“MCC has played golf […] so we’ve given them a level of freedom which under VIP status you can afford. Certainly, that’s something that we wish to move forward as well,” Wasim said.
Sangakkara has also backed the country’s efforts to resume international cricket.
“Security is always a major concern everywhere in the world,” Sangakkara said. “In Pakistan, I think the steps that have been taken over the past few years have instilled great amounts of confidence in cricketing nations beyond the shores of Pakistan and slowly but surely that confidence is building up.”
“The more times international sides tour, the stronger that message becomes [making it] harder to ignore.”
And Wasim believes the need for Pakistan to host international cricket series in neutral countries is closer to ending.
“There’s no reason for us to play anywhere else now,” Wasim said. “Cricket has firmly resumed within the country and we fully expect this to be the way moving forward.”