Twenty20 internationals (2): Pakistan 2, Zimbabwe 0 One-day internationals (3): Pakistan 2, Zimbabwe 0
The Pakistan Cricket Board's promotional hook for the country's first full international series in more than six years spoke for itself: "Igniting a passion that brings together a nation #cricketcomeshome". On May 22, at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium - where play had been suspended on March 3, 2009 following the terrorist attack on buses carrying the Sri Lankan team and match officials - the wheel came full circle.
The response of the Pakistani cricketing public went beyond all expectations. The stands were packed at the 27,000-capacity stadium for all five games, even against Zimbabwe. Spectators lined up five or six hours before the start of the first Twenty20 - a routine maintained until the last one-day international, despite multiple security checks and temperatures hovering around 42 ̊C. Inside the ground, the sights and sounds were exhilarating. Fans chanted "Pakistan is safe for cricket" and "We want more cricket". Pakistan's famous supporter Abdul Jalil - better known as "Chacha Cricket" - described the occasion as his "rebirth".
The Zimbabweans were accorded a heroes' welcome for showing the courage to come to a country which had been a no-go destination for so long. Alistair Campbell, the managing director of Zimbabwe Cricket, declared his board's solidarity with Pakistan. "It was," he said, "one of the rare occasions in the subcontinent when the opposition were also embraced."
Zimbabwe certainly had every opportunity to walk away. A week before they arrived, a sectarian massacre on a bus in Karachi killed more than 40, prompting ZC to briefly announce the tour had been suspended. Both the Zimbabwean government and the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations, the world players' union, advised them to cancel it altogether. To add to the sense of isolation, the ICC confirmed they would not be sending any of their umpires; the Zimbabwean Russell Tiffin stood alongside Pakistani colleagues.
The tour proceeded peacefully until the second one-day international, when an explosion 800 metres from the stadium killed two people and injured several others. To avoid panic, the police initially claimed the blast was an accident with an electricity transformer, but it soon emerged that a suicide bomber had detonated a gas cylinder on an autorickshaw. The Zimbabweans chose to honour the schedule, a move criticised by Tony Irish, FICA's executive chairman. "This was a tragic loss of life over cricket, and demonstrates that the security situation remains unmanageable and the risks of touring Pakistan are unacceptable," he said. "I am very surprised Zimbabwe are staying on to play the third ODI."
There was undoubtedly an element of expediency behind Zimbabwe's decision. They were desperate for more top-level cricket, having played substantially fewer internationals than any other Full Member between the last two World Cups. Reports suggested that each Zimbabwe player was paid $US12,500 by the PCB - roughly two months' salary on a ZC national contract - at a time when many were still waiting for their World Cup dues. In all, Pakistan's board topped up Zimbabwe's empty coffers by $500,000.
As for the security, nothing was left to chance. The Pakistanis provided the touring players and delegation - headed by Ozias Bvute, the controversial former ZC managing director - with measures normally reserved for heads of state. There were 4,000 police guarding the stadium and the surrounding sports complex - more were added after the explosion - and the teams' journeys to and from the ground had air surveillance.
Lessons will be learned, though: if and when the next tour takes place, the security may be less asphyxiating. Perceptions about Pakistan will change, slowly - provided there is no major terrorism. But, for the time being, fans were simply grateful to watch some international cricket.
Pakistan's one-day form had dipped so alarmingly that they risked failing to qualify for the 2017 Champions Trophy. Following their 3-0 whitewash in Bangladesh, they could not afford the slightest slip-up against a team ranked below them, and their top-order batsmen - led by captain Azhar Ali, with 227 runs - fired in all three matches. Most encouraging of all, the assured performances of 22-year-old Mukhtar Ahmed in the Twenty20 matches, and 20-year-old Babar Azam in the last ODI, demonstrated that Pakistan were still producing exciting young cricketers. For Zimbabwe, Elton Chigumbura's century in the first ODI typified an opposition stronger than some expected.
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