Babar Azam, Pakistan's new ODI captain, has likened the challenge of facing down Covid-19 to the decade-long absence of international cricket in his country. Until last year, Pakistan were forced to play home internationals overseas as a result of the 2009 terrorist attack and, with the prospect of matches being staged behind closed doors due to the virus, he warned of the consequences when "youngsters are deprived from watching their heroes live in action".
More than two months since the escalation of the pandemic, cricket around the world has been completely halted, with domestic events and international series cancelled or postponed indefinitely. The prolonged shutdown threatens a huge financial toll, with uncertainty over the T20 World Cup adding to concern about a drop in ICC revenue. In such circumstances, several boards are pushing hard to restart the game in empty stadiums following strict protocols on health and safety.
"If the world will never be the same again, how can playing and watching be the same? Let's all understand and quickly embrace this," Babar said via a video call. "It's ironic that we played our home cricket in front of almost empty stadia from 2009-2019 and now the world is heading in that direction. While the players will need to get extra motivation to perform in front of empty stadia, I fear for the growth and development of cricket.
"No youngsters attending matches, watching their heroes live in action will be a serious issue for me. I was a ballboy and got the motivation and inspiration by watching the Pakistan and South Africa Test in Lahore from arm's length. I don't see that happening in the very near future. Pakistan, however, had experience and managed to top the ICC Test Rankings, won the T20 World Cup and the Champions Trophy despite not playing any cricket at home. This is what makes Pakistan probably the greatest cricket playing nation. I think this will be the challenge for the world to match Pakistan's behind-closed-door achievement."
Pakistan are understood to have agreed in principle to touring England in the coming months, with the players promised a bio-secure environment from the moment they land in the country through a schedule of three Tests and three T20Is. Plans will involve flying the 25-28 man Pakistan squad into the UK on a chartered flight in early July and allocating them one venue as a base, where they will not only carry out their training and intra-squad practice games but also spend the mandatory two-week quarantine period put in place by the UK government for all visitors from outside the country.
The PCB has started discussions with the players about the proposal to travel to the UK, which has been among the worst-hit countries in the world by the coronavirus pandemic. Pakistan's trip still depends on a number of factors, foremost among them how the UK continues to move slowly and gradually out of the lockdown imposed in the country since late March.
"Luckily, that decision-making is the responsibility of the Pakistan Cricket Board," Babar said. "I have complete faith and trust in the PCB and I am confident before making any decisions, they will ensure the health and safety of their players is not compromised. I have read the PCB will take us into confidence. So, I am looking forward to that briefing session. At the end of the day, the environment needs to be safe and secure as no event or match is bigger than life.
"Honestly, my family will be more worried than me but if the PCB tells me that it's safe to go, I will definitely travel. Look, you need to consider UK-related Covid-19 facts: cases reported and deaths. So, if people are scared and worried about Covid-19, they will naturally be nervous traveling into a territory that has one of the highest reported cases and casualties. But, at the same time, I completely understand and accept normal services also need to resume.
"The difficult decision for the administrators is what is the right time to resume sport activities. Also, we still need to know what guidelines the UK government will provide in terms of foreigners' travel and quarantine, etc."