High stakes as cricket returns to Pakistan

The last time a Test-level cricket team visited Pakistan, seven Sri Lankan players went home with bullet and shrapnel wounds after RPG and machine gun-wielding militants ambushed their team bus in Lahore.

Six years on and under high security involving 3,000 police and blanket aerial surveillance, the same city will host African minnows Zimbabwe from Tuesday for a short series that Pakistan hopes will help end its sporting isolation.

With top nations refusing to visit through fears of militant attacks, it’s been a long time in the wilderness for the cricket-mad country and its players, fans and administrators.

Risks remain high and the massacre of 45 minority Shiites in an attack on a bus in Karachi last week nearly prompted Zimbabwe to pull out at the last minute.

Even when they take the field from Friday, it will be without International Cricket Council umpires, after the world body decided not to send match officials because of security concerns.

However, excitement is building as international cricket returns, even in a small way with the two Twenty20 and three one-day matches against unglamorous Zimbabwe.

Large banners featuring fast bowler Wahab Riaz – one of the few bright spots from Pakistan’s mediocre World Cup campaign festoon roadsides across Lahore.

“The last six years were unbearable,” Test captain Misbah-ul-Haq told AFP.

“Our grounds were left deserted, fans were deprived and a new generation of players lost a chance of playing on home conditions before their own people.”

Forced to host home games in neutral venues like the United Arab Emirates, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) estimates it has lost $120 million in TV rights and extra overheads.

Even hosting Zimbabwe will cost PCB more than $1 million, half of which is for the visitors’ fees and expenses. Not much of the outlay will be recouped by sponsorships and gate proceeds.

While the March 2009 attack on the Sri Lankans, which left six police and two civilians dead, forced the long hiatus, it wasn’t the first time a cricket team had been caught up in Pakistan’s militant violence.

In 2002, 14 people died in a suicide blast outside a Karachi hotel as New Zealand and Pakistan prepared to leave for the second Test, prompting the tour to be abandoned.

The PCB now says it has “foolproof” security involving thousands of police to protect Zimbabwe as they shuttle between their five-star hotel and Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium.

The area around the venue will be cordoned off, with various security checkpoints for fans, and paramilitaries will watch the area around the clock with constant surveillance from rooftops and helicopters.

The players will not be allowed to leave their hotel without security and their movements will be restricted within the stadium.

“It is our first step towards the goal of reviving international cricket and we will leave nothing to chance to make this tour safe and successful,” PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan told AFP.

Nevertheless, it will be a long time before cricket returns to normal in Pakistan, still battling Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked insurgents who have claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives.

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