Thousands of fans filled Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium under intense security Sunday for Pakistan’s Twenty20 showdown with Sri Lanka, the first visit by a major cricketing nation since a 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team.
Sri Lanka are the first team in the top eight to visit Pakistan, eight years after they were the last — caught up in a deadly attack by gunmen outside the stadium.
The incident sent Pakistan into sporting isolation, with Sri Lanka abandoning an agreed tour in 2011 after attacks on a naval base in Karachi.
The same Gaddafi stadium was buzzing Sunday as the countries’ respective national anthems were played before a capacity 23,000 crowd.
“We are ready to host the Sri Lanka team,” Haider Ashraf, Deputy Inspector General of Punjab Police, told reporters as he oversaw the final touches to the security.
“International security consultants and a delegation from Sri Lanka are also on board. There are four layers of security checkpoints to enter the stadium and we are confident that the match will be held safely.”
Ahead of the game Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Najam Sethi said the schedule for a three-match Twenty20 series with the West Indies in Lahore would be announced shortly.
“This match is big signal to the world that Pakistan is ready for big-time cricket and in the next couple of days we will announce the schedule of Twenty20 series with the West Indies,” said Sethi.
He also announced that Pakistan would host the six-nation Emerging Asia Cup in April next year.
Sri Lanka Cricket President Thilanga Sumathipala said Pakistan should no longer be overlooked, citing his own country’s decades of isolation during its civil war with Tamil rebels.
“In those 30 years Pakistan never stopped its cricket tours so we cannot leave Pakistan in cricketing isolation,” said Sumathipala.
– ‘Back in Pakistan’ –
The city was adorned with pictures of Sri Lankan cricketers and welcome signs, as fans started to converge on the stadium from 11:00 am (0600GMT). The gates opened at 2:00 pm with the match starting four hours later.
Sri Lanka’s sport minister Dayasiri Jayasekara is also in Pakistan with Sumathipala.
Sri Lankan skipper Thisara Perera is the only player who has previously visited Pakistan — as part of an invitational World XI last month.
“It’s nice to be back in Pakistan,” he said.
Pace spearhead Mohammad Amir will play for Pakistan at his home ground for the first time in his career.
“I am delighted to play this match and it’s an awesome feeling to play before the home crowd for the first time,” said Amir.
Pakistan batsman Shoaib Malik is the only player on either side who took part in the fateful 2009 Test.
But another character present on both occasions is Pakistan’s most famous fan, Sufi Jalil, known as Chacha Cricket (Uncle Cricket).
“It’s a historic day,” said Jalil. “We hope the match is held without any problem and like always I will be in the stands raising slogans for both the teams.
Pakistan since 2009 have been playing “home” series in the United Arab Emirates.
“I am fed up of going abroad, so I want cricket to be fully restored in Pakistan,” Jalil said.