Several Pakistan cricket stars are likely to play their first international series at home ground against Zimbabwe starting from May 22 in Lahore, according to media sources.
For players like Umar Akmal, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq — all of whom have played more than 50 internationals — it will be their first chance to represent Pakistan at home since the attack on Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009.
Zimbabwe’s tour is a first by a full ICC member since Sri Lanka visited in 2009, when their team bus was attacked by RPG and machine-gun wielding militants, with eight people — six police and two civilians — killed and seven players wounded, authorities reported.
Forced to host home games in neutral venues like the United Arab Emirates, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) estimates it has lost $120 million in TV rights and extra overheads.
Even hosting Zimbabwe will cost PCB more than $1 million, half of which is for the visitors’ fees and expenses. Not much of the outlay will be recouped by sponsorships and gate proceeds.
An incident-free series is seen as crucial to Pakistan’s hopes of ending its sporting isolation, sources claimed.
But risks remain high and the massacre of 45 in an attack on a bus in Karachi last week nearly prompted Zimbabwe to pull out at the last minute.
While the March 2009 attack on the Sri Lankans forced the long hiatus, it wasn’t the first time a cricket team had been caught up in Pakistan’s militant violence, reportedly.
In 2002, 14 people died in a suicide blast outside a Karachi hotel as New Zealand and Pakistan prepared to leave for the second Test, prompting the tour to be abandoned.
The PCB now says it has “foolproof” security involving thousands of police to protect Zimbabwe as they shuttle between their five-star hotel and Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium.
The area around the venue will be cordoned off, with various security checkpoints for fans, and paramilitaries will watch the area around the clock with constant surveillance from rooftops and helicopters.
The players will not be allowed to leave their hotel without security and their movements will be restricted within the stadium.
“It is our first step towards the goal of reviving international cricket and we will leave nothing to chance to make this tour safe and successful,” PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan told AFP.
Tickets are not yet sold out, given the uncertainty surrounding whether the tour would go ahead, but officials are reporting a surge in demand.
The Zimbabwe cricket team landed in Pakistan in the early hours of Tuesday, becoming the first Test-playing nation to visit the militancy-wracked South Asian country in six years, Lahore airport officials said.
Zimbabwe are set to play two T20s and three ODIs in a mini-series under high security involving 6,000 police and constant surveillance by commandos and helicopters.