The uncertainty over Lahore Lions' participation in the Champions League Twenty20 has come to an end after the team was issued their Indian visa. Lions are Pakistan's domestic Twenty20 champions and earned a spot in the CLT20 qualifiers to be held in India later this month but the fragile political relationship between India and Pakistan had thrown doubt over their ability to take part in the tournament.
Lions are led by Mohammad Hafeez and have other big names like Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad in their line-up. They begin their qualifying campaign against Mumbai Indians on September 13, before taking on Sri Lanka's Southern Express and New Zealand's Northern Districts in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. The team will depart for India on the morning of September 9.
"We are departing with confidence," Hafeez said. "We all know how important the first stage is so we are focusing on qualifying for the next round. We, as a team, have been playing some exciting cricket in the last two years and the squad has gutsy players from our domestic circuit so we have an ability to fight at the top level."
Lions had been practising at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore and were forced to train indoors because of excessive rains.
"With a recent spell of heavy rain we weren't able to get the practice we required but we have done ample indoor sessions so there should not be any problem," Hafeez said. "We have the experience of six international cricketers and have quality players from our first-class set-up, who have an urge to represent Pakistan. So we have the right spirit in the team and we are ready for the challenge."
Faisalabad Wolves, Pakistan's domestic T20 champions last year, participated in the Champions League in 2013 and had a nightmarish experience during their stay. They were forced out of their city hotel in Chandigarh and were moved to the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium because their visas were valid only for Mohali.
Hafeez, however, was not worried. "Both India and Pakistan love cricket and we are hoping to have a very good time there," he said. "We are going there with a message of love and I know how much they love Pakistan and its cricketers. Our aim is not only to play good cricket but also to play well off the field."
When asked if the absence of the Pakistan players from the Indian Premier League had affected the level of T20 cricket in Pakistan, Hafeez said that although the players were missing out on the experience of playing in the league, there had not been an impact on the quality of cricket played by the side. He stated that Pakistan were ranked No. 3 on the ICC rankings and that the presence of Pakistani players in the IPL would lift the standard of the league.
"It's not the big gap but still we do well at the highest level, doesn't matter if we are not playing the IPL," Hafeez said. "There is no doubt that the IPL is a platform where the players enhance their skills in all aspects of the game and as cricketers we know that it's always great to come and play the IPL.
"For the last five-six years, the Pakistan players are not playing and we are missing that as cricketers but I don't think it is in any way affecting Pakistan cricket because the talent is always there. We are still No. 3 in this format in the world. So our performance is always great in that form. But yes, if the Pakistan players come to the IPL, it will boost the standard of the league and the players will also enjoy playing in India."
Lions will be the third team from Pakistan to participate in the Champions League, after Wolves in 2013 and Sialkot Stallions in 2012 in South Africa. Both teams had failed to qualify for the main round.
If Lions progress to the main phase of the CLT20, their main team will have to miss out on the National Twenty20 Regional Tournament, which starts in Multan on September 15. In that case, Lahore Lions' B team will take part in the regional tournament, but if Lions are knocked out early from the CLT20, players from the main team will return to participate in the domestic competition.