Australia flew into Pakistan on Sunday for their first cricket tour in nearly a quarter of a century — and into a high-security bubble that will envelop them throughout their six-week stay.
Senior batsman Steve Smith posted a picture on Twitter of the 35-strong Australia tour party inside their charter flight's cabin after it touched down in Islamabad. Local officials confirmed their arrival.
Pakistan have struggled to attract visiting sides since a fatal terror attack on the visiting Sri Lanka team's bus in 2009. Australia pulled out of a tour five years earlier after a suicide blast at a Lahore church.
They last played in Pakistan in 1998, winning the three-Test series 1-0 and blanking the hosts in the three one-day internationals.
Having been forced to play their home games abroad — mostly in the United Arab Emirates — Pakistan appeared to have reassured international cricket authorities last year with both New Zealand and England scheduled to tour.
But the Black Caps hastily departed in September just minutes before their first match was due to start, citing security fears, and England postponed tours by both their men's and women's teams soon after.
The decisions incensed Pakistan cricket authorities, who felt they had done everything possible to ensure safety and security.
They say they are again leaving nothing to chance, with nearly 4,000 police and military personnel guarding the team hotel in Islamabad and the cricket stadium in Rawalpindi.
'Head of state-level' protection
“The squad will be given 'head of state-level security',” a spokesman for the interior ministry told AFP.
“Such arrangements are only made for high-level foreign delegations, [and] the president and prime minister of Pakistan.”
Roads will be blocked off when the Australians make the 15-kilometre commute, with their team bus to be shadowed by army helicopters.
Snipers will be positioned on buildings surrounding the stadium, while nearby shops and offices have been ordered to close on match days, the interior ministry said.
Similar arrangements will be in place for matches in Karachi and Lahore.
The Australians will be confined to quarters for 24 hours after arrival for Covid tests, before intense training ahead of the first Test starting on March 4.
“We've got to a place where everyone hopping on the plane is comfortable with where it's all sitting,” Australian skipper Pat Cummins said ahead of the team's departure from Sydney.
“It's been a really thorough body of work that the security and the logistics teams have worked through.”
More than half of Pakistan's 220 million people were not even born the last time Australia toured — the median age is 22.8 — but stadiums are expected to be packed as the country emerges relatively unscathed from the Omicron stage of the Covid epidemic.
The teams will play three Tests, three one-day internationals (ODIs) and one Twenty20 match before the Australians depart on April 6.
Pakistan are due to host eight Tests, 11 ODIs and 13 Twenty20 internationals in the next 13 months.
Players feeling 'incredibly safe', says Cummins
Australian Test Captain Pat Cummins, while addressing a virtual news conference, said the players were feeling “incredibly safe” after arriving and raring to dish out their aggressive brand of cricket.
“We've been really well looked after by the PCB (Pakistan Cricket Board).
“Upon arrival, there's been lots of security. We were straight off the plane and straight to the hotel.
“We've got a pretty good set-up here and we'll be confined to the hotel except for games and training.”
The 28-year-old ruled out any apprehensions among his teammates and said they were focused on the tour.
“It's comforting and we're really lucky to be surrounded by so many professionals,” Cummins said.
“There's lots of things around which might be a little bit different to what we're used to but we know it's been taken care of so we can just really enjoy ourselves here ...
“Pakistan is an incredible cricket nation. We feel lucky to get to come back here after a whole generation didn't get the chance to play any cricket over here.”
Cummins oversaw Australia's 4-1 Ashes romp against England in his first series in charge and the speedster was confident they could be as assertive against Pakistan captain Babar Azam's side.
“I really hope so. I was really proud of how we performed throughout the Ashes summer back home in Australia, and now that's the challenge to continue that and be just as relentless on an overseas tour.”
The tourists have roped in Pakistan-born former Australian international Fawad Ahmed as a spin bowling consultant to boost their preparation.
“He's got a wealth of experience here and he knows the venues quite well and he's always great fun for the group,” Cummins said.