The Sri Lanka T20 squad were surrounded by 'extraordinary' security arrangements upon their arrival in Lahore on Sunday morning, for the third T20I at the Gaddafi Stadium. This is the first Sri Lanka team to visit Pakistan since the terror attack targeting Sri Lanka's team bus in Lahore in 2009.
The side, which flew in from Abu Dhabi, was escorted to the team hotel in a bomb-proof bus. The routes from the Allama Iqbal Airport in Lahore were virtually sealed off with thousands of armed police deployed along the 14 km route. The streets leading to Mall Road were also deserted as the team was flanked by a large convoy of police commandos. The arrangements were similar to the security protocol followed for a presidential visit.
A Sri Lankan security delegation had visited Lahore over the last two days to oversee the arrangements. A full dress rehearsal of the security arrangements from the airport to the hotel to the stadium - involving the Pakistan army, Pakistan's paramilitary force, the Rangers, and the Punjab police - was also held.
"We are prepared to host Sri Lanka team," Dr Haider Ashraf, Deputy Inspector General (operations) of Punjab Police, told reporters at Gaddafi Stadium. "Under the umbrella of the Punjab government, and with the help of Pakistan army, rangers and intelligence agencies, we are geared up to make this event successful.
"I can assure that the entire administration from Punjab government and police is very much professional and competent to handle such event. A Sri Lanka security delegation was here and nobody has so far objected or expressed any dissatisfaction about any of our arrangements. We have adopted all the best international practices and everyone on board is satisfied. International security consultants are also on board. There are four layers of security check points to enter the stadium and Lahore administration has put a shuttle service in place to take fans from the parking area to the stadium gates. There are four parking points covering all direction of the city."
The team that landed in Sunday does not include any player or coach who was present in 2009. Sri Lanka Cricket had announced a new-look T20I squad after several senior players refused to travel to Lahore. Sri Lanka's regular T20I captain, Upul Tharanga, had pulled out, along with Lasith Malinga, Niroshan Dickwella, Suranga Lakmal and Akila Dananjaya. The team is being captained by Thisara Perera. SLC president Thilanga Sumathipala and sports minister Dayasiri Jayasekara have accompanied the side to Lahore.
Sunday's match is yet another attempt by the Pakistan Cricket Board to show the country's will and capacity to host international cricket, which had stopped for many years following the 2009 terror attack. In March 2009, the Sri Lanka team bus was attacked en route to the Gaddafi Stadium for the third day of the second Test, at the Liberty Roundabout situated 1.5 kilometres from the stadium. Eight people were killed in the attack and a few Sri Lanka players were injured. With teams refusing to tour Pakistan in the aftermath of the attack, the board had to adopt the UAE as its home venue for international cricket.
The landscape of the city, however, has changed drastically over the last eight years. The flow of traffic around the Liberty Roundabout has been altered, and the Nishtar Park complex, which houses the Gaddafi Stadium, is now well protected with huge metal gates.
In 2015, Zimbabwe became the first Test-playing nation to tour Pakistan since the attack, with a limited-overs series held in Lahore. Despite extensive security measures, a bomb blast occurred 800m away from the Gaddafi Stadium during the second ODI, killing two people. Zimbabwe stayed on and finished the series two days later, but the tour did not lead to a change in the perceptions about security in Pakistan.
The next high-profile match in Lahore was the Pakistan Super League final in March 2017. This was followed by a successful tour of the World XI for three T20Is in September, which saw a number of high-profile cricketers turn out. The World XI side was coached by Andy Flower and included five players from South Africa - including Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla - three from Australia, two from West Indies and one player each from England, Bangladesh, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. The series was officially backed by the ICC, who also hired independent experts to oversee security arrangements. Players were offered US $100,000 to play the series, which spanned five days. It was a key step for the PCB in its efforts to convince teams that Pakistan is ready to host top-flight international cricket.
The PCB is now in talks with Cricket West Indies for three T20I matches in November, but the West Indies board has not yet confirmed the series.