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PSL final: What next for international cricket in Pakistan?

Pakistan would need to invest heavily in the security of the touring sides and players till things become calm throughout the country. That, as we all know, would be a long and arduous process

PSL final: What next for international cricket in Pakistan?

The euphoria of last Sunday’s PSL final is still tangible. Its impact on the nation as a whole has been discussed in Op-Eds, talk-shows and social media throughout the past seven days. But what we also need to discuss is its impact on the proper return of international cricket to Pakistan. After all, the selling point of the decision to hold the final in Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore — especially after the spate of terror leading up to the match — was the fact that it would bring back international cricket.

That of course was the billing of the Pakistan Super League itself, since the idea was conceived. Back in 2014, PCB Chairman Shaharyar Khan had said that the ‘semis’ and final of the first season of the PSL would be played in Pakistan. While that didn’t materialise due to security concerns when the league was inaugurated last year, in May last year, the PSL Chairman Najam Sethi announced that the final for this year’s tournament would be held in Lahore.

The surge in bombings across Pakistan, including Lahore, in February, after the start of PSL2 in the UAE meant that there were question marks over the feasibility of the plan. Six days before the final, the government and security agencies gave the decision the formal green signal, amidst scores of understandable criticism.

Even so, the overwhelming success of the event and the reaction it mustered has given everyone hope of bigger and better things to come — and soon. And yet, hosting the final — despite its many achievements which have been and will be discussed elsewhere — inside, what in effect was a fortress in the middle of a war zone, does not necessarily convey that Pakistan is safe to host international cricket just yet.

The success of the final inevitably hinged on the participation of overseas stars. After all, without them it would’ve been just another domestic game. In that regard, the PCB and cricket fans all over Pakistan lucked out that Peshawar Zalmi made it to the final. It’s hard to imagine the foreign players of any other franchise making the trip to Lahore. Even the Zalmi stars Darren Sammy, Marlon Samuels, Dawid Malan and Chris Jordan were convinced by Javed Afridi, and not the multi-layered security, to come to Lahore.

But now that World Cup winners and Englishmen have played a high-profile match in Pakistan, the psychological barrier has been overcome. A lot of international cricketers would look at Sammy’s images from the final, where the participation of his heart and soul is palpable, or the statements issued by Malan and Jordan and gain confidence that Pakistan is safer to play cricket in, if not safe, even if the security arrangements are nothing like these athletes are accustomed to.

Najam Sethi confirming in the immediate aftermath of the PSL final that a World XI would play four T20s in Lahore this September underscores how the aforementioned barrier has been surpassed. Such matches would only pave the way for a full international side to tour Pakistan.

Formal resumption of international cricket is a multi-step process. Zimbabwe’s 2015 tour was an important step, and so is hosting the PSL final in Lahore. The next realistic step would be hosting next year’s PSL playoffs along with final, and hoping that an international side could drop by for a brief tour.

Realistically in addition to Zimbabwe, the Test sides likeliest to tour Pakistan are Bangladesh, West Indies and Sri Lanka – the latter, despite the 2009 attack. Let’s not forget that Australia had refused to tour Pakistan multiple times even before the attack and even New Zealand have pulled out in the past. These sides along with England and South Africa coming to Pakistan would depend on the overall security situation of the country, more so than any successful tours or matches being organised.

Australia refused to tour Bangladesh in 2015 citing the surge in violence. Eoin Morgan and Alex Hales pulled out of England’s tour to Bangladesh last year as well. These teams and their individuals would remain wary of touring any country where terror attacks continue to take place.

In that regard, Pakistan’s return to pre-2001 in terms of hosting international sides would depend on the country’s counter-terror successes. Meanwhile, what the cricket board can do — and has been diligently working on — is take the necessary baby steps to eventually, hopefully, complement the state’s achievements on the terror front.

The trust that international cricket lost following the attack on Sri Lankan team bus would take years to regain. It took six years to host and international team and eight to hold a match of our own franchise T20 league at home. But hosting World Cup winners has catapulted Pakistan back into the spotlight.

The international coverage of the PSL final demonstrates the impression that the event has left on the world. But unfortunately it takes one wrong incident to completely demolish it.

Pakistan would need to invest heavily in the security of the touring sides and players till things become calm throughout the country. That, as we all know, would be a long and arduous process. But till then, let’s enjoy the return of international stars to Pakistan, slowly and patiently. For, fingers crossed, the worst is well behind us.

K Shahid

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