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LAHORE: The Independence Cup has all the makings of being a watershed moment for international cricket in Pakistan.

Yet when the World XI squad took an open-top rickshaw ride around the stadium before their first Twenty20 International against Pakistan, the Gaddafi Stadium was only half-full.

The water-tight security outside the venue meant it only filled up to capacity by the fifth over of the hosts’ innings.

Fans turned up at the stadium with messages of “thank you” and “welcome” on placards for the cricketers whose involvement in this three-game series they hope will herald the return of international cricket to the cricket-crazy country.

Even the security — the stadium was sealed off by thousands of police and army soldiers — didn’t deter the fans from coming.

They had to show their national identification cards and go through at least four security checkpoints, passing through metal detectors and undergoing body searches, to get to the stadium.

With the stadium cordoned off, the government of Punjab provided shuttle bus service from the designated parking area to get to the stadium.

Throngs of fans began walking to the stadium hours before the match, their enthusiasm undimmed by the long trek to watch international cricket stars in their own backyard.

Apart from five limited-overs games against Zimbabwe in 2015, Pakistan have not hosted top-level international cricket since a terror attack on the Sri Lanka team in 2009.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), along with the International Cricket Council (ICC), is hoping the Independence Cup, whose slogan is “cricket ki halalala”, will help win back the confidence of foreign teams over security concerns, pave the way for the country to host Sri Lanka for one T20 international next month followed by three T20s against the West Indies in November.

“In a few years time when I will sit with my family, this is something I can be really proud of,” World XI captain Faf du Plessis said at the toss, hoping his side’s landmark tour will prove to be a turning point for international cricket in Pakistan.

Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed also hoped for a new beginning.

“We are really excited,” said Sarfraz at the toss. “A lot of players will be playing at home for the first time so the excitement is reaching its climax. Our focus is firmly on cricket and the past is the past.”

Agencies add: The enthusiastic fans, meanwhile, were not bothered about the extraordinary security in place as they waited in long queues outside the stadium as the match began.

“I simply want to see star players in action and these strict security arrangements do not bother me at all,” said Mohammad Sarwar, a local lawyer.

Big pictures of the World XI players were displayed outside the stadium.

“I am here to support the World XI because they are supporting our cause to revive international cricket,” said Ahsan Ali, a school student.

Most of the fans were decked out in the green and white of Pakistan, which has played all of its major home matches in the United Arab Emirates for eight years.

“It’s a dream come true for me to watch my favorite batsman Hashim Amla playing right in front of me today,” said Imtiaz Gul, who came from Islamabad for the game. “I don’t care which team wins because we want to prove to the cricketing world that it’s safe to play in Pakistan.”

The second game is on Wedneday and the third on Friday.

“We should call it Pakistan’s Cricket Day,” said Amina Salahuddin, wearing a green Pakistan T-shirt. “We started off at 10am but it’s worth the pain and wait.”

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2017