Eight years after being targeted in a deadly militant attack, Sri Lanka will become the first major team to return to Pakistan, giving the cricket-starved nation a huge fillip in their efforts to revive international cricket in the country.
Improved security through military operations in the country has helped Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) take gradual steps towards bringing international cricket back to the country, while their team has been forced to play home games on neutral venues of United Arab Emirates.
With improved security in recent years, PCB held a limited-over series with Zimbabwe in 2015, the final of Pakistan Super League, and a three-match series against a World XI side earlier this year – all in Lahore. That helped convince Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) to send their team for the third and final Twenty20 International in Lahore on Sunday (October 29).
Pakistan: Sarfraz Ahmed (capt, wk), Fakhar Zaman, Ahmed Shehzad, Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Hafeez, Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Faheem Ashraf, Hasan Ali, Aamer Yamin, Mohammad Amir, Usman Shinwari, Umar Amin.
Sri Lanka: Thisara Perera (capt), Dilshan Munaweera, Danushka Gunathilaka, Sadeera Samarawickrama, Ashan Priyanjan, Mahela Udawatte, Dasun Shanaka, Minod Bhanuka (wk), Sachith Pathirana, Vikum Sanjaya, Lahiru Gamage, Seekkuge Prasanna, Vishwa Fernando, Isuru Udana, Jeffrey Vandersay, Chaturanga de Silva.
The tour was in doubt after Upul Tharanga, Sri Lanka’s regular T20I captain, withdrew, forcing the SLC to hand the captaincy to untried Thisara Perera.
Other players including Suranga Lakmal and Chamara Kapugedara — both on the bus that was attacked in 2009 — Lasith Malinga, Angelo Mathews, Niroshan Dickwella, Akila Dananjaya and Dushmantha Chameera also refused to tour. Nic Pothas, their coach, also withdrew citing security fears.
A new look Sri Lanka lost the first two T20Is, handing Pakistan the T20I series to go with the ODI series which Sarfraz Ahmed’s side won 5-0. Sri Lanka will fly to Lahore early Sunday to play the last match later in the evening and will then dash off home the same night in a fly-in, fly-out arrangement.
Pakistan’s federal government, provincial officials and the army have planned strict security arrangements so that nothing like 2009 attacks on the Sri Lankan team bus happen.
A dozen terrorists opened fire on the Sri Lankan team bus as it headed for Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore on the third morning of the second Test on March 3, 2009, in an attack which left eight people dead and seven Sri Lankan players and staff members injured.
The attacks suspended all international cricket in Pakistan as most top teams refused to tour Pakistan on security fears.
Najam Sethi, the PCB chairman, said all arrangements are finalised and nothing will be left to chance.
“This is a historic moment, so we want to make it memorable and a huge step towards reviving international cricket,” Sethi told Wisden.pk. “We have suffered a lot but with improved security, and step by step, we hope full-fledged international cricket will return to our grounds in the next two years.”
PCB hope a successful T20 match will help in bringing Windies to Pakistan for three T20Is next month.
Pakistan last month employed some 20,000 security personnel for the World XI series. Since Sri Lanka is one of the top eight teams, arrangements will be further enhanced with regular air surveillance of the team hotel, the route to stadium, and the ground.
A delegation of Sri Lankan security experts comprising of Roshan Biyanwala, the Air Commodore, and Nalaka de Silva, the Deputy Inspector General of Police, have inspected the arrangements and were satisfied. They will remain in the city until the completion of the game.
Perera, who visited Lahore with the World XI, said he was happy with what security he had seen last month.
“I was really happy with that security because we went for a three-match series,” said Thisara. “Unluckily we lost the series, but we were really impressed by security because everyone enjoyed (themselves). I think seven-eight countries participated there. I’m really satisfied with the security,” he added.
Asanka Gurusinha, the Sri Lankan team manager, and Hashan Tillakaratne, the batting coach, who were both part of the Sri Lankan team which won the 1996 World Cup final against Australia in Lahore will also be with the squad.
Gurusinha said it was time to pay back for Pakistan’s noble support during the 1996 World Cup.
“Pakistan and India sent a joint team to Sri Lanka when Australia and the West Indies declined to play matches in our country,” said Gurusinha. “Had they not sent the team I doubt Kenya and Zimbabwe would also have pulled out so we must support Pakistan,” said Gurusinha.
Fans on the streets are also excited as all tickets for the match have already been sold out.