. . . high-stakes Zim tour to Pakistan ends

THE BANNER SAYS IT ALL . . . A Pakistan cricket fan pours his heart out, expressing his love for the Zimbabwe cricketers, after the Chevrons’ brave decision to tour his country and, in a small way, change the perception that it was not safe to play the game in the Asian nation. — Reuters

THE BANNER SAYS IT ALL . . . A Pakistan cricket fan pours his heart out, expressing his love for the Zimbabwe cricketers, after the Chevrons’ brave decision to tour his country and, in a small way, change the perception that it was not safe to play the game in the Asian nation. — Reuters

LAHORE — Zimbabwe and Pakistan heaved a huge sigh of relief yesterday after the Chevrons’ high-stakes, high-security tour — the first top-level international cricket in the insurgency-hit country in six years — ended without major incident.

The Zimbabwe cricketers arrived in Harare yesterday, ending a two-week tour of Pakistan that attracted global headlines and charmed the hearts of millions of cricket-mad fans in the Asian nation who hailed the Zimbabweans as heroes.

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 won both T20s and two of the ODIs, with the third rained off, but the symbolism of the matches mattered far more than the results.

The Sri Lankan Cricket Interim Committee president, Sidath Wettimuny, hopes the successful conclusion of Zimbabwe team’s tour will certainly change perceptions of other teams to come and play in Pakistan.

In its efforts to revive the game here, Pakistan Cricket Board had extended proposals to heads of other cricket boards to come and witness the arrangements made for the series and Wettimuny was at the Gaddafi Stadium on Sunday for the third ODI.

“The best thing is that series with Zimbabwe has finally happened and now everybody is going to accept it was a tour which ended successfully,” Wettimuny told The Express Tribune newspaper.

“We’re really happy that somebody has come to Pakistan to kick-off international cricket here. I’ve been amazed by the crowd and atmosphere. People here have shown how much they want to see international cricket and it is certainly a great start for Pakistan cricket.”

There had been a proposal previously to host Sri Lanka in April 2016 after Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse stated that they would help Pakistan and send the national team.

“It’s too early to say anything. It was important to come here and basically it’s a goodwill gesture on our part. We have always been very supportive of Pakistan cricket,” said Wettimuny.

“I’ll go back and tell our board what I’ve seen and then we can take it from there.

“Having gone through what Sri Lanka did, there are certainly mixed reactions.

“I need to go back, talk to our players because they have to be comfortable with it and know what they want to do. I’m sure that the government will look into it positively. We’ll assess everything and if there is any chance we will help.”

And, as the Zimbabweans arrived safely in Harare, the Pakistan Cricket Board were 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 are a Test side all the same and their presence in Pakistan was followed with keen interest around the world.

Would it all explode on the face of the organisers, and the brave Zimbabwe cricket authorities who had taken the huge gamble to send their team here, or would it sail smoothly and send the message that, indeed, Test sides can come and play in Pakistan?

Zimbabwe 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.

Critics of the tour immediately jumped on the incident, dramatising it even and that it received widespread global coverage, with most of the news item loaded with hostility, showed how much the game, if not the world, remained divided over whether it was right for Zimbabwe to play in Pakistan.

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.

Zimbabwe pressed ahead with the tour despite scepticism from the international players’ union and the fact the International Cricket Council 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 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.” — AFP/Express Tribune/Sports Reporter.