RAWALPINDI: The weather here on Monday was on the hazy side with the breeze making the atmosphere chilly just as Pakistan players got engaged in their first practice session at a new-look Pindi Cricket Stadium, the venue for the opening clash of the landmark two-Test series against Sri Lanka.

With Test cricket now just two days away from returning to Pakistan after the tragic events of March 2009 when the Mahela Jayawardene-led Sri Lankan side came under a horrifying terror attack on the third morning of the second Test against Pakistan at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, the build-up to the upcoming fixture hasn’t yet generated the usual fanfare.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has spent around Rs1 billion on the renovation of the stadium while it took almost a year for all tasks to be completed to make the venue more appealing as an international cricketing centre. The PCB is hopeful of a respectable turnout from Wednesday when the match starts. The only stand for the tickets, priced at just Rs50 each, have been put on sale for the Shoaib Akhtar Enclosure that can accommodate roughly about 4,000 people. On top of that around 11,000 tickets have been distributed among educational institutes free of cost in order to generate a buzzing arena.

The Sri Lanka squad, meanwhile, landed in Islamabad amidst watertight security blanket at 7:15 on Monday morning via Dubai and was swiftly whisked to the hotel in the federal capital.

KARUNARATNE UPBEAT

Speaking to a handful of reporters at the airport, Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne expressed optimism that he side have a great chance of repeating their winning sequence against Pakistan at the highest level.

“The last time we played Pakistan in the format was in the United Arab Emirates in 2017 and we defeated them in both the Tests. Therefore, we have the momentum on our side heading into this series,” Karunaratne said. “These are World Test Championship matches and that itself is a great source of inspiration to lift our team. Sri Lanka are on a high, anyway, having beaten Pakistan 3-0 in the Twenty20 series on their tour to this country recently.”

Karunaratne downplayed security concerns while expressing faith that the host nation’s abilities to take adequate measures for the duration of the series that concludes in Karachi where the final Test takes place from Dec 19 to 23.

“After the 2009 episode players across the world were scared to tour Pakistan for safety reasons. But Sri Lanka and some other sides started visiting Pakistan in the last couple of years. Just two months ago our team played ODI and T20 series [in Karachi and Lahore, respectively] and there were no issues related to security,” he said.

“This is my first tour to Pakistan and for sure, I’m as excited as anyone to be part of this groundbreaking series. As a team Sri Lanka want to play good cricket over the next couple of weeks. We are confident we can win again.”

SHAN, SHINWARI EXCITED

The resumption of Test cricket on Pakistan soil is obviously the thrilling moment for the entire generation of Pakistan team. Two members of the current brigade expressed profound excitement even before the first ball has been delivered.

Opening batsman Shan Masood, who was born in Kuwait 30 years ago, is impatiently waiting to face the first ball of the match — that if Pakistan get the opportunity upfront — and says it’s like one looking forward to playing his maiden international.

“To me it is a dream come true after being forced [by circumstances] to start my international career away from home. Everyone [in the squad] is very eager for that first delivery to be bowled. It’s a long time coming,” Shan said during a media conference.

“There is no doubt in my mind that playing in front of your own crowd is totally different to what we find when we go aboard. Personally, I have played all Tests [17 of them plus five ODIs] either in the UAE or elsewhere. But playing in Pakistan definitely is the biggest motivation that one can think of.

“My personal performance has been far from satisfactory but I’m sure that [performance] graph would improve as we get regular opportunities to play home Tests. The support that your own people give has no substitute no matter what. Just can’t wait for the action to begin.”

Usman Khan Shinwari, the 25-year-old paceman, has played 33 times — 17 ODIs and 16 T20s — for the country at the international level but still waiting to make his Test debut.

However, the left-armer from Landi Kotal who has a huge crave for both white and red beans, is praying for a Test debut on home soil.

“You might call it a blessing in disguise if I do get the chance [of playing] in this Test match. Maybe being the first Test after such a long time, my dream could come true. It would be a great moment not just for me but for my family, friends and all my well-wishers too!” a beaming Usman told the media press conference. “And if the chance comes my way, I’ll surely try my best to make it as memorable as possible and hope that we start the series on a winning note.”

A REUNION OF REMORSE

A one-time team-mate of some members of the Pakistan team, Sharjeel Khan was reunited with his former Islamabad United captain Misbah-ul-Haq when he met the head coach and his charges at the team hotel on Monday just before the national squad left for the practice session.

The 30-year-old opening batsman — who made a solitary Test appearance against Australia at Sydney in January 2017 apart from playing 25 One-day Internationals and 15 Twenty20 Internationals, in his final act of the rehabilitation programme — sought forgiveness from all members of the Test squad while forewarning them of the perils of spot-fixing and other corrupt-related maladies.

During the brief interaction, Sharjeel solemnly urged all the players to be on their toes and promptly report -- if they spot any suspicious movements -- to the PCB anti-corruption personnel.

The left-hander was initially slapped with a five-year ban for his role in the 2017 spot-fixing scandal on the first night of PSL’s second edition with half of the sentence being suspended. After showing reluctance to make public apology for his action, Sharjeel has now fulfilled PCB’s code of conduct criteria and will be seen in action during the forthcoming PSL is slated to begin from the third week of February.

Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2019