It is 0200 hours on the morning of Sunday, March 5. The night is crystal clear with a slight chill in the air after the heat of the day, and I am standing on the tarmac outside the VVIP reception terminal in a remote corner of Lahore's Allama Iqbal International airport. Behind me are maybe a couple of dozen armed Pakistan commandos and elite police. Five snipers are perched on the roof of the single-story building. To one side are four military helicopters, while ahead stretches the airport runway towards the main terminal, where the tailfin of Emirates flight EK622, newly landed from Dubai, stands out. A vehicle convoy, headlights blazing and red-and-blue lights flashing, has left the environs of the aircraft and is making its way rapidly towards us.
It pulls up by us, police vehicles topping and tailing the line. Sandwiched in between are two 16-seater Toyota Coaster buses, armoured to a B6 ballistics rating, and so designed to withstand bullets from assault rifles such as the commonly used AK47. There is also protection underneath from landmine-type blasts. Faces peer through the windows. The Peshawar Zalmi cricket team has arrived in the city to contest with Quetta Gladiators the final of the Pakistan Super League T20 competition.
The small convoy, joined now by the armoured bus I am in, makes its way through three security gates, plain-clothes close-protection officers running alongside. Beyond, a maelstrom of flashing lights and military presence, is the convoy that will take the team to the Pearl Continental hotel. We move forward, and are surrounded by the main body of the cavalcade that will deliver the team. In the last 24 hours, the route we will take has been swept for explosives and a practice run made.
The whole route, one of two alternatives and chosen at the last minute, has been lit with temporary floodlights every 100 metres. Officers likewise are staged every 100 metres and police vehicles every 200. Each kilometre sees a pair of motorcyclists, members of the new 670-strong "Dolphin" rapid-response teams, linked to a control centre by mobile cameras and GPS, and with the capability to upload and download visual information. Housing alongside the route has been swept and occupants vetted. Intermittent rooftops have snipers installed. Hospitals are on alert and safe houses have been readied. A helicopter throbs above, with others on standby for evacuation if necessary. All intersections are sealed off to a distance of 200 metres from the route and any cars not driven away voluntarily have been removed by forklift truck (as they will be from the environs of the Gaddafi stadium): the route is entirely free of traffic and scanned by perhaps the most advanced CCTV system in the world.
A cavalcade of 21 vehicles forms with the two team buses at the centre. In the vanguard is a motorcycle traffic "pilot" and behind him two traffic vehicles, each containing a high-ranking traffic officer. The buses are surrounded on either side and in front by seven vehicles containing elite heavily armed troops, the one in front armed with a light machine gun. Behind the rear bus comes an ambulance and a fire truck, and to either side of these, a vehicle that can jam signals and another containing the senior officer in charge of the operation. Two more elite vehicles and a rear traffic pilot complete the main cavalcade, while two more elite vehicles will run parallel to it down the other side of the dual carriageway that will be employed.
We move off, at high speed. The journey from the airport to the PC hotel generally can take up to an hour, such is the traffic. Here it takes precisely six minutes to reach Gate 3 of the hotel, which opens. The close-protection officers decant from their vehicles and take up their positions alongside the buses and escort them into the hotel grounds, where the team steps down from their bus and into the hotel lobby.
The hotel itself has been secured. Individual guests have been vetted for the duration of the team's stay. All booked functions have been postponed. Armed police are everywhere, and plain-clothes special-branch officers are by the lifts and occupy positions on the dedicated floors. No one can move around without protection at hand. It is close to 3am by the time the team get to bed, with a game starting in 17 hours.
I am in Lahore at the invitation of the Pakistan Cricket Board as part of an ICC security delegation, which includes representatives from Australia, the UK, South Africa, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the ICC itself. My brief from the ICC was to spend some time beforehand talking to the various experts with a stake in the very high level of security that was being put into place, and at the end of it all, make an honest and independent personal assessment on how I, placing myself in the shoes of an overseas cricketer, felt during that time. Did I feel secure in the knowledge that the security provided was intended to be, and was, of the highest standard, or despite this, did I still feel uneasy, particularly given the recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Lahore in particular? I was being paid for my time but not, I insisted as a condition, to write an ICC or PCB public-relations piece. I was fully aware of the proposal for a series of matches between Pakistan and a World XI to be played in Lahore in September 2017, and knew that the successful staging of the PSL final, with the security road-tested, was an integral part of the plan. I had travelled to Lahore with assurances but still less detailed security information than the two finalists had been given.
It is the afternoon prior to the team's arrival and we are at the Punjab Police Integrated Command, Control and Communication centre (PPIC3), a white block building set in a compound in central Lahore. The manner in which Punjab is policed has been redrawn in the wake of the attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009, and restructured in the past 12 months into the Safe Cities Authority, which includes, among other functions, integrated emergency response and counter-terrorism. Incidents of terrorism, we are told, have declined dramatically since the inception of this body, from 43 in 2012 down to seven last year.
We are in a wood-panelled first-floor conference room, and through plate glass see below a vast space with perhaps 50 or 60 screens on the wall, each monitored 24/7 by pods of specially trained IT graduates. This, we are told, is considered the most advanced and comprehensive CCTV coverage of a city in the world, the installation of which was overseen by the Metropolitan Police of London. Fifteen-thousand cameras monitor Lahore, 8000 of which are fixed at 1800 sensitive locations across the city, and the remainder mobile, including those assigned to the Dolphin teams. Fifteen-hundred kilometres of optical fibre were installed. The whole thing cost US$137 million. The capability and clarity are hugely impressive.
It is around the conference table that the protocols for the final are explained. The Gaddafi Stadium lies within Nishtar Park, a sporting complex containing hockey, swimming and football stadiums, as well as the cricket ground. The whole complex has already been secured and is being swept by dogs and detectors. Within the hockey stadium there is a dedicated control centre with its own bank of screens monitoring 81 on-site cameras (59 fixed and 22 with pan, tilt, and zoom capacity). There are two 20-bed temporary hospitals set up in the complex and two mobile hospitals. Contingency is in place for aerial evacuation of the teams.
The stadium is expected to be full to its 22,000 capacity. Tickets for the event have been sold through special outlets such as banks, with biometric identification required, and identities verified through the National Database and Registration Authority. The biometrics will be used again when spectators enter checkpoints in each of the four concentric zones with the stadium at the centre. There will be body searches and scans at each stage. Within the crowd, plain-clothed police and special-branch officers will mingle.
For the journey from the hotel to the stadium, the same cavalcade will form and again take one of two routes. Two hundred and twenty-seven cameras have been installed at 71 sites to monitor progress. The journey, as with that from the airport, will take around six minutes.
Now, though, we have some confusion. The team have been told that there will be a 4.30pm departure (three and a half hours before the match, although there is a closing ceremony first), while our delegation, due to travel in the same convoy, has been told it is half an hour later. The difference is split, but outside, in the hotel forecourt, it becomes chaotic. The players are installed in the buses, but a tidal wave of team owners and sponsors with their families and guests also disgorges from the hotel. Buses are boarded and disembarked again. There are too few places for everyone. At one point, some of the Pakistani players in the teams are placed in an unarmoured bus, which is far from satisfactory; the overseas players were unaffected and perhaps oblivious. It takes 20 minutes to sort it all out, all within the confines of the hotel grounds, but that, and the melee inside the hotel as the teams leave, will need rectifying in future. The cavalcade to the ground is rapid and uneventful.
Inside the stadium, the ground is already filling fast when the teams arrive, but it is some time, after the entertainment of the closing show, before they take the field and walk a lap to greet the crowd. The perimeter of the playing area is around 20 metres from the fencing in front of the stands, but there were perhaps a hundred people within that area: performers, VIP guests and families for the most part. At one point some players were surrounded by well-wishers and selfie-seekers, attention they might have done without. The sterile Players, Management and Officials zone that embraces the dressing rooms seems less secure than it ought.
Perhaps this is nit-picking but that, as my fellow delegates are quick to point out, is what they are here to do: be mindful of the weakest link. The vetting procedure has been immense and the level of protection within the hotel and on the roads staggering. The chaos on the hotel forecourt can easily be addressed, and likewise the limited intrusion at the ground.
Throughout, I was afforded the same level of security as the teams (a visit I made on my own to the stadium the day after the match saw my car preceded by an outrider and flanked by two vehicles of elite forces). I felt completely comfortable in regard to my own safety. I subsequently was told that in any case, intelligence service intercepts had discovered that the intense nature of the security had acted as a deterrent, which prior knowledge might also have served to ease the doubts of those who while taking their own safety as a given, were nonetheless concerned about any incidents in the crowd beyond the stadium's security blanket.
The day after the match, Colonel Azam Khan, 20 years an intelligence officer and now the PCB's head of security, said that overall he was very satisfied. The process had begun ten days previously, he said, and 90% of the objective was to secure not just Lahore but the whole of Punjab. There was still some fine-tuning, he admitted, with "maybe a lack of some coordination at some operational points". But these too could be readily addressed and not repeated.
There will be natural questions. With so many resources concentrated at this event, did it dilute security elsewhere across Lahore and Punjab? How sustainable is such a security exercise in the future?
To the first: all major sporting events anywhere in the world require concentration of resources, so Pakistan is no different, but the short answer is that bringing international cricket back to Pakistan will be a slow and lengthy process. This has been a first tentative step in the right direction. The economic benefits of regular international cricket, even as a representation of a more normal society, would far outweigh the security costs. This security is merely a manifestation of the total revamping of policing in Punjab.
To the second, the most senior officials from across the province were drafted in for this exercise, but as Colonel Azam suggested, the security of the stadium was only 10% of the objective, with that of the whole of Lahore and the province paramount. In the next few years, resources such as those for Lahore will be rolled out in other cities: Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Multan, Gujranwala and Bahawalpur.
It is my hope to return in September, and, as things stand, I will do so without hesitation or any of the apprehensions I might have had this time. Between now and then, world-class players will be approached and asked if they will participate in what will be a second significant staging post on the way to bringing regular international cricket back to Pakistan. The success of the PSL final, and the testimony of those overseas players who took part, such as Darren Sammy and Dawid Malan, should go some way to assuaging doubts, and it may be that the advice of the security advisers to the national boards will have softened somewhat.
It was a fine occasion, and a small first step, but one that needed to be taken. Pakistan, not just Pakistan cricket, deserves it.