Over the last eight and a half years, Pakistan have played a majority of their ‘home’ matches in the United Arab Emirates. © Getty Images

Over the last eight and a half years, Pakistan have played a majority of their ‘home’ matches in the United Arab Emirates. © Getty Images

Tuesday (September 12, 2017) will mark a massive day in the history of Pakistan cricket. For the first time since the attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore on March 3, 2009, a plethora of global stars will herald the return of top-flight international cricket to Pakistan as a World XI takes on the host nation in the first of three Twenty20 Internationals.

Over the last eight and a half years, Pakistan have played a majority of their ‘home’ matches in the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, the only slice of international cricket in Pakistan was in May 2015, when Zimbabwe figured in two T20Is and three One-Day Internationals.

The putting together of a World XI by the International Cricket Council to tour Pakistan has to be construed as the first tentative step towards the return of full-fledged international cricket to that country. While opinion is divided on whether the three Twenty20 games should indeed have been accorded international status, the fact that the World XI contains, among others, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, Imran Tahir, David Miller, George Bailey and Darren Sammy is a coup the world body can be justifiably proud of.

“It is a great thing for Pakistan,” Mohammad Azharuddin, the former India captain, tells Wisden India. “The people of Pakistan have suffered a lot, and their cricket has also taken a hit because there has been no big-ticket cricket there for a long time now. It is a good development, the resumption of international cricket in Pakistan. It is wonderful news for the Pakistan team as well. Playing at home, it is always a very different thing. A lot of us take this for granted, but several of the current Pakistan players don’t know what it is to play at home, in front of their fans. Likewise, the people of Pakistan have not seen their players play at home for a very long time. I am sure the security mechanisms that are put in place will be from the highest drawer. This is a fantastic move; it is good for everybody concerned and for the game itself.”

Azhar knows what it is to travel to a trouble-hit country during times of strife in a show of solidarity. After Australia and West Indies refused to play their World Cup league fixtures in Colombo in 1996, the Indian and Pakistani boards of that time came together to send a joint India-Pakistan XI – the first and only one of its kind to date – to the Sri Lankan capital to play the home side in a gesture meant to show the world that Australia and West Indies’ concerns were unfounded. That match, at the R Premadasa Stadium on February 13, 1996, drew a full house and a star-studded Wills XI – as the India-Pakistan team was called – led by Azhar.

The Wills XI that played in that Solidarity Cup match against Sri Lanka included Mohammad Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Wasim Akram, and Waqar Younis among others. © Getty Images

The Wills XI that played in that Solidarity Cup match against Sri Lanka included Mohammad Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Wasim Akram, and Waqar Younis among others. © Getty Images

“The result of the match was immaterial,” says Azhar, whose memories of that February night are a little hazy by his own admission. “I know we won the match, it was a low-scoring game, but more than the match, the message had to be sent to the world that Sri Lanka was a safe place to play cricket in.”

The Wills XI that played in that Solidarity Cup match was the veritable Who’s Who of Indo-Pak cricket at that time. Azhar. Tendulkar. Anwar. Sohail. Ijaz. Jadeja. Latif. Kumble. Waqar. Akram. And Aashish Kapoor. Sri Lanka, the eventual World Cup winners, were restricted to 168 for 9 in the 40-overs-a-side contest with Kumble, the Man of the Match, taking 4 for 12. Wills XI rode on steady contributions with Tendulkar’s 36 the highest and Azhar’s 32 the next best to eke out a four-wicket win with 33 deliveries to spare.

“I just remember that we were asked to go there because Australia and West Indies didn’t want to play their World Cup matches,” recalls Azhar. “There was no pressure on any of us. Our board (the BCCI) was very magnanimous and the Pakistan board was also very magnanimous. Players from Pakistan and India were playing together for the first time. It was a good thing that we went there and played that game, in front of a full house.

“It is very important, obviously, for the Asian countries to come together in troubled times, but this is not just about the Asian teams. Everyone must stand together for the game of cricket, the whole cricketing world should come together. If there is a problem in some country, the entire cricketing community should come forward and make sure that things are resolved as quickly as possible so that the game of cricket flourishes in different countries. Playing in the home country is a totally different high.”

“I can say with confidence on behalf of all the Indian players who went to Colombo for that match that we were very clear in our minds, that we didn’t have any fears or concerns about playing there. We had played in Sri Lanka many times before that, and we didn’t have any problems at all. Sure, even when we played Test series in 1986 and 1993, and then in one-day tournaments after that too, there used to be a heavy security presence around us, but we never faced any problems. We didn’t feel that there was anything wrong in going and playing, and telling the world that there is nothing wrong in Sri Lanka. There were security concerns at various stages but sport really remained untouched in Sri Lanka. When teams started to pull out (of World Cup fixtures), then a message had to be sent.”

That message didn’t really register on the Australians and the West Indians, who forfeited their respective matches in Colombo. “All of us wanted to go there and play and spread the message, but if teams still pulled out, what could you do?” Azhar asks, rhetorically. “It depends on the teams, on their perceptions of security. Sometimes, it happens that players didn’t want to go to a country for security reasons. It happened with Bangladesh also, when some England players didn’t want to travel there (last year). But I am sure they must have realised later that it was not the right decision that they took.

“The most important thing is to take the word of the people on the ground, the ambassadors to that country. Their inputs are more important than anything else because they have been there for a period of time, they know what’s happening, what the ground reality is. I know that for these matches in Pakistan too, there have been a lot of inputs from the security point of view. A lot of homework has been done before we have got to this stage. It is a very important tour not just for Pakistan but for cricket as such. And if the tour is successful as I am confident it will be, then I think everything will become alright, gradually.”

The last time international cricket was played in Pakistan was in May 2015, when Zimbabwe figured in two T20Is and three One-Day Internationals. © Getty Images

The last time international cricket was played in Pakistan was in May 2015, when Zimbabwe figured in two T20Is and three One-Day Internationals. © Getty Images

Clearly impressed with the star cast assembled to represent the World XI, Azhar is generous in his appreciation of everyone who is a part of that side. “I must congratulate all the players who are going there, and the various different boards who are sending their players to Pakistan,” he says. “There are some top players in the world going, which is great. It’s a good start, a very good beginning. I know Zimbabwe went there a couple of years back, and the final of the Pakistan Super League was held in Lahore earlier this year, but this is massive, this could change the perception of Pakistan as a cricketing host.

“It is very important, obviously, for the Asian countries to come together in troubled times, but this is not just about the Asian teams,” he goes on. “Everyone must stand together for the game of cricket, the whole cricketing world should come together. If there is a problem in some country, the entire cricketing community should come forward and make sure that things are resolved as quickly as possible so that the game of cricket flourishes in different countries.”

Azhar has never been in the position of playing at a home away from home, but he clearly empathises with what the Pakistani players have had to endure over the last eight years and more. “Playing in the home country is a totally different high. When you go abroad and perform on an overseas tour, you get a lot of recognition. You are already recognised in your country, but you get more recognition when you do well in foreign countries,” he offers, tacitly reminding the current generation perhaps not to take anything for granted, given that the Pakistani players haven’t had the chance to showcase their skills in front of their own fans.

“It’s extremely important for the Pakistani players to play international cricket in front of their own passionate fans, in their own backyard. I have been saying for a long time — that cricket should be played in Pakistan. And several of the former players hold a similar point of view. It is very, very important that youngsters in Pakistan can go to the ground and see their players, their heroes in action in international cricket. They can so easily get inspired by them and go on to represent their country. It’s good for the game of cricket. The fans want to see their stars in action. Watching on TV is alright but when you are actually going to the ground and watching, it is a whole different experience. There is a buzz in the country. For the time being, the Pakistani internationals are only playing domestic matches in their own country, which is fine. But beyond that, nothing has been happening. Now, things are moving in the right direction. It will be a victory for cricket by the end of next week, I am sure.”