KARACHI: International cricket of a sort returns to Pakistan this weekend for the first time since the Sri Lanka team were attacked in 2009, but a resumption of tours by overseas sides remains a distant prospect.
An International World XI captained by Sri Lankan legend Sanath Jayasuriya and featuring several former South African and West Indian Test players will take on a Pakistan All Stars side led by Shahid Afridi in two Twenty 20s in Karachi on Saturday and Sunday.
It is the first time top foreign cricket players are in Pakistan since a deadly attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore in March 2009, which prompted overseas sides to stop touring the cricket-mad but troubled country.
After a three-and-a-half year drought, enthusiasm for this weekend's games is high, with fans snapping up tickets and players talking up the short tour, a personal initiative of the sports minister of Sindh province Mohammad Ali Shah.
“I took it as a challenge,” Shah, himself a club-level cricketer, told AFP.
“I don't claim it will instantly revive international cricket in Pakistan but I am sure that these matches will change views on our country.”
The Lahore attack, which left eight Pakistanis dead and seven of the Sri Lankan contingent injured, turned the Pakistan team into cricket nomads, forced to play “home” series at neutral venues in England, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates.
While security in much of Pakistan has improved since 2009, bombings and shootings are a near-daily occurrence as the country battles homegrown Taliban, and the chance of any high-profile tours looks very distant.
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) almost convinced Bangladesh to tour in April this year, only to have their hopes dashed by the Dhaka High Court, which blocked the tour on security grounds.
Ehsan Mani, the former president of the International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport's governing body, hailed this weekend's matches as a step on the way to normalising Pakistan's position.
“This is a commendable effort,” Mani told AFP. “The visiting team has some well known players and I am sure when they return they will tell people about Pakistan and it could prove a small step in a long process.”
But the PCB has done its best to keep this weekend's matches at arm's length, terming them “unofficial” and insisting it bears no responsibility for security, fearful that any breach would set back the rehabilitation process.
Indeed, since the Bangladesh humiliation the PCB has been very reluctant to say anything about its efforts to persuade overseas sides to visit, leading many to wonder if they are making any efforts at all in this direction.
Mani criticised the PCB for its apparent lack of a clear strategy.
“I don't think they have gone about reviving cricket in a normal way,” he said. “It seems they are making efforts on an ad-hoc basis and not getting involved in these matches in a big way. It is disappointing.”
PCB chairman Zaka Ashraf said luring international teams back to Pakistan was not easy, but insisted the board was taking measures to restore confidence.
“We have planned to build a huge stadium (in Islamabad) along with a hotel within the premises that will allow surveillance with heavy security and teams will be carried from the airport to the stadium with the help of helicopters,” he said.
Jayasuriya, 43, the big-hitting opening batsman who helped Sri Lanka to their historic World Cup win in 1996, was optimistic as he arrived in Karachi on Thursday.
“I am happy to be part of these matches,” Jayasuriya told reporters. “It depends on country to country (whether they tour Pakistan) but in my opinion Pakistan is a safe country.”
West Indian double World Cup-winning batsman Alvin Kallicharran, who is coaching the international side, was similarly bullish.
“I think they (other countries) will have to have a look,” he said. “With the success of these matches there will go a good message.
“Pakistan is a part of world cricket and we are here to show that Pakistan is a place to play cricket.”
It is encouraging that players such as Jayasuriya, and South Africa's Andre Nel and Nantie Hayward, are willing to come, and a successful weekend will undoubtedly send out a positive message about the country as a cricket destination.
But the top names on the International World XI team sheet are all players at least five years past their peak. Bringing a high-profile team such as England or Australia, would be a very different prospect.
While minnows such as Bangladesh balk at visiting, it is hard to see how bigger name teams will be persuaded.
Whatever the long-term chances, for now Pakistan's tens of millions of cricket nuts are just delighted to have a couple of games on their doorstep.
“It will surely be fun,” said Usman Siddiqui, looking for tickets. “At least we have some cricket on our grounds, which have been completely unused. Let’s keep our fingers crossed, we will have big teams some day.”