KARACHI: Deprived of hosting international matches since a deadly attack on the Sri Lankan team bus three years ago, Pakistan hopes a high-profile new Twenty20 league can lure back overseas players.
No international team has played in Pakistan since the March 2009 attack in Lahore, which left eight people dead and several visiting players wounded, and the national team has had to play its “home” matches abroad, mostly in the United Arab Emirates.
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is still waiting for Bangladesh's response to an invitation to play a limited-overs series later this month.
If Bangladesh are reluctant to come, it is inevitable that bigger-name teams like Australia, India, England and South Africa will continue to stay away while any doubts linger over players' safety.
Passion for cricket in Pakistan remains undiminished, however, and corporate interest has reignited the PCB's efforts to start a Pakistan Premier League (PPL), modelled on the megabucks Indian Premier League.
Nine teams are competing in this year's IPL, the fifth edition of the tournament, with defending champions Chennai Super Kings led by Indian captain M.S. Dhoni again emerging as one of the sides to beat.
But Pakistani players, who are usually a major draw in India, have been kept out of the tournament since the second edition, reportedly due to security fears.
Four companies, including one from India, are expected to give a presentation to the PCB this week on how to stage the PPL, with a UAE-based bank and two telecoms companies interested in taking up team franchises.
“It's exciting to have a very good initial response from corporate companies on the PPL,” PCB chief operating officer Subhan Ahmed told AFP.
“We are looking at the viability of a Twenty20 event involving some foreign players, and it would be great if it comes about,” he said.
A British Universities team played two limited-overs games in Lahore last week —at the Gaddafi Stadium that hosted the fateful Sri Lanka Test in 2009 —and Ahmed said the visit should encourage other foreign sides to follow.
“The security situation has improved and is improving. That is why the British Universities team toured Pakistan, and we have stringent security plans for the safety of the foreign players.”
But convincing foreign players to come to a country still battling militancy will be no easy task —particularly with the IPL on the doorstep offering huge salaries and reliable safety.
Ehsan Mani, a Pakistani who was International Cricket Council (ICC) president from 2003 to 2006, admits there is a lot of work to do and warns it will take time to persuade overseas players it is safe to come to Pakistan.
“The PCB should have a strong security plan and engage the ICC, ask them on what benchmarks of security they will send their officials,” he said.
“They should start a league in which very few overseas players come initially, and confidence should be built gradually.”
It is not the first time the PPL idea has been floated. Former PCB chairman Naseem Ashraf wanted to launch a league to rival the IPL, but he had to quit after military ruler Pervez Musharraf was ousted and the idea was dropped.
“We gave a detailed plan about PPL and shared it with the top brass of PCB in 2009 and they expressed great interest and took our business model, but it was not pursued,” said Salman Ahmed, the co-partner in Portfolio World, a company which also deals with managing players.
Ahmed pointed to the success of the inaugural Bangladesh Premier League earlier this year as evidence that there is room for more than one Twenty20 league in South Asia.