Pakistan, World XI

A star-studded World XI side will play three Twenty20 Internationals against Pakistan from September 12 to September 15. © Getty Images

Not too long ago, Pakistan celebrated the announcement of a World XI tour to their country on twitter with a hashtag that instantly went viral – #CricketIsComingBackHome.

Now, the entire country is all set to extend their celebrations from the virtual to the real world. A star-studded World XI side, led by Faf du Plessis, will play three Twenty20 Internationals against Pakistan from September 12 to September 15.

The lead-up to the series has been filled with excitement and anxiety in equal measure. The overwhelming emotion, though, is hope. Everyone associated with Pakistan cricket hopes the series will lead to something bigger. Something bigger for cricket, and something bigger for Pakistan.

Firstly, it could lead to more cricket in the country – something they’ve been yearning for since 2009. But more importantly, a successful series would be a strong message to the larger world outside of cricket that the country won’t be held hostage by extremists. It was this emotion that Najam Sethi, the PCB chairman, conveyed last week.

“If the World XI tour is a success, we could convince Sri Lanka to play another Twenty20 International to the one they’re already going to play and we are also trying that the West Indies play three Twenty20 Internationals,” he said. “This event is not just about cricket but we have to show the world the soft image of the country to defeat terrorism.”

Pleasingly, it’s not just Pakistan who share this hope. The global cricketing fraternity too has showed tremendous support during tough times, as is evident from the big names in the World XI squad. Not many expected a side with cricketers from seven Test-playing countries. Even fewer would have expected the Morkels, Amlas, Baileys and Collingwoods to be a part of the team.

Each one of them has empathised with Pakistan’s situation, and have shared the need to do their bit for a larger cause. It starts right with the captain.

"Playing Pakistan in front of its passionate supporters will be a unique occasion, which I can’t wait to experience" - Faf du Plessis. © Getty Images

“Playing Pakistan in front of its passionate supporters will be a unique occasion, which I can’t wait to experience” – Faf du Plessis. © Getty Images

“I am honoured to have been appointed as captain of such a diverse, attractive and well-balanced side,” said du Plessis in a statement. “In my career, I have featured in some very exciting matches against Pakistan but playing Pakistan in front of its passionate supporters will be a unique occasion, which I can’t wait to experience. As a player, I understand the importance of playing in front of home crowds and that is something I’m sure the Pakistan players will relish.”

Collingwood too had similar reasons, as he explained in his column for ICC’s official website: “You can only imagine how demoralising it must have been for Pakistan’s players during the last few years and it’s an opportunity to show and prove that they can hold big fixtures in their own country once again.”

According to the players, the series is all about taking baby steps for a ‘greater cause’.

“Everyone is here and they realise that they are part of a greater cause, and they have accepted they are part of something more important than just themselves,” said Darren Sammy, who also played the Pakistan Super League final in Lahore earlier this year. “I think each one of us is happy to be a part of this process.”

“Pakistan is a great country with great cricketing heritage. To kind of assist in bringing international cricket back to Pakistan, I am very proud to be a part of it.” – Hashim Amla

“I am looking forward to it very much. Pakistan is a great country with great cricketing heritage. To kind of assist in bringing international cricket back to Pakistan, I am very proud to be a part of it,” said Hashim Amla. “I hope everything goes well and smoothly. All the five players from South Africa are looking forward to it. Last time I went to Pakistan ten years ago, I had a great time, the games were well attended and the people there have great passion for the game, that’s something I am looking forward to.”

“I feel that representing the World XI is a big achievement for me and I’m very proud of it,” said Tamim Iqbal. “I think that the ten Test-playing nations are like a family. Someone has to help international cricket get back to Pakistan. They have taken a fantastic initiative. If they are successful in hosting, I hope more international teams will visit Pakistan. It should have started at some stage. We have taken the first step. I think this is really a fantastic thing but it should have been organised a long time ago.”

The camaraderie and the sense of family is not just among players. Cricket boards of other countries too have welcomed the development, as is evident from the number of countries that have sent their players.

The ICC too have done everything they could to ensure smooth progress till this point, despite facing multiple hurdles over the last few years. The World XI tour was originally planned for 2016 but a deadly blast in Lahore in March last year killed such hopes.

The final was perhaps Pakistan’s most celebrated event in recent times. © AFP

“The focus of everyone in the international game is the safe return of cricket to Pakistan” – Giles Clarke. © AFP

Since then, the governing body has been more cautious in its planning, which began in January this year when Giles Clarke, chairman of the Pakistan Task Force, visited the country to assess the situation and kick-start things.

Through constant background work for the rest of the year, the administrators have ensured that the stage is set for a grand show. In another significant show of support, the ICC appointed Richie Richardson as the match referee for the series, making it the first time since 2009 that an ICC match official will oversee cricket in Pakistan.

“Pakistan has been an important Member of the ICC and the cricket community has felt its pain,” Clarke said last month when the series was officially announced. “As part of its duty of care, the cricket community has always ensured that the sport is not affected due to no fault of the Pakistan Cricket Board when it has continued to play its away series off-shore.

“The ICC Members releasing their top players and the respective player unions backing this series is testament to the support the world has extended to Pakistan during these difficult times. The focus of everyone in the international game is the safe return of cricket to Pakistan.”

However, even accounting for a successful World XI tour, a full-fledged return of top-flight cricket to the region could still be some time away.

Each player is reportedly expected to receive around $135,000 for his participation – quite a hefty amount for a four-day tour. For obvious reasons, the players involved have stressed that money isn’t the only motivation, but only time will tell if cricketers would be willing to visit Pakistan for longer tours without added incentives.

That, though, is a topic for another day. For now, it’s time for Pakistan to ensure smooth progress and enjoy, as #CricketIsComingBackHome.