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Published on September 11th, 2017 | by Arunabha Sengupta

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The return of international cricket to Pakistan is a step towards normalcy

It took place on 3rd March, 2009.  Yet, it is known as the 9/11 of cricket.

The convoy was driving to the Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, and amongst it was the bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricketers. They were on their way to beginning the third day of the second Test.

And then it happened.  12 gunmen, so far hiding near the Liberty Square, came out into the open and started firing.

The Pakistan police escorting the team returned the fire. Six policemen and two civilians were killed in the exchange. The militants fled but left rocket launchers and grenades in their wake.

A rocket had been fired at the bus. It had missed the target and struck an electric pole. A grenade had been thrown under the bus as well, but it had exploded only after the vehicle had passed over it.

Six members of the Sri Lanka national cricket team were injured. Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranavitana were hospitalised, captain Mahela Jayawardene, vice captain Kumar Sangakkara, Ajantha Mendis, Chaminda Vaas, Suranga Lakmal and assistant coach Paul Farbrace received minor cuts and shrapnel wounds.

Behind the bus there had been a minivan, bearing the match referee Chris Broad, umpires Simon Taufel and Steve Davis, TV umpire Nadeem Ghauri,  the reserve umpire Ahsan Raza, the umpires performance manager Peter Manuel and liaison officer Abdul Shami.

The militants fired at this minivan as well. The driver was killed. Ahsan Raza was shot twice and Broad threw himself over the reserve umpire and kept his hand on the wounded man’s chest to slow down the bleeding. A police officer climbed into the van and drove it to safety.

Needless to say, the Test match was abandoned.

After that Test and One Day International cricket in Pakistan ground to a seemingly endless halt.

Saeed Ajmal has been one of the greatest cricketers to play for Pakistan in recent years. A late start to his career notwithstanding, he finished his days in the sun with 178 wickets in 35 Tests at 28.10 apiece, arguably pipping Saqlain Mushtaq as the greatest off-spinner produced by the country.

Not one of his Tests was played in his homeland. His career has unfortunately come to an end, which means he will never be able to play at home. A perusal of his record shows 23 away Tests and 12 in neutral venues. Well, those 12 were in the United Arab Emirates, the foster home where the orphaned offsprings of Pakistan cricket were granted sanctuary.

Perhaps Ajmal will remain the greatest ever cricketer not to have played a Test at home.

There have been other stalwarts, like the leg-spinning wizard Yasir Shah; the phenomenally talented young paceman with that controversial past called Mohammad Amir; the consistent face at the top of the order Azhar Ali. None of these men have played at home, ever.

But all that looks likely to change now.

Unlike the unfortunate Ajmal, the other men who have made their marks on the cricketing world after that bleak March day of 2009 can actually think of playing international cricket at home.

Equally importantly, the hordes of cricket lovers who throng the country will now be able to watch their national heroes in flesh and blood, performing in their own backyard.

The troubled land has remained cricket mad. Willow and leather have been as much part of the image of the nation as militants bearing weapons of death.

And thus, only one measly limited overs cricket series against Zimbabwe in 2015 is hardly a fare that can sustain the appetite for the game. But that is all they have been able to get in the last eight years, after the regrettable terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan tour bus.

But now, after aeons, an international side has landed there. The World XI led by Faf du Plessis, and bearing names like Hashim Amla, George Bailey, Paul Collingwood, Tamim Iqbal, Morne Morkel, Thisara Perera, and others, will be contesting three Twenty20 matches in Lahore.

There are players from 7 countries who will be playing against Pakistan.

It is symbolic indeed. The world is back at Lahore, the very place where the incident had taken place, driving international cricket away from the land. The matches will be contested at the same Gaddafi Stadium.

With international cricket back in the land, perhaps we will be looking at official tours very soon.

Cricket in particular, and sport, in general, does provide a bridge across conflicts and cultures and is often a great diplomatic asset in the arsenal. However, it will perhaps be too puerile and rather callous to predict that the return of the game will work wonders to bring down the volatility and tension in the country. That is a serious field of study and requires specialised analysis.

However, for the common man in Pakistan, the one who is like any other normal guy in the world, who is busy with his regular job and has grown up basking in the exploits of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram, Inzamam-ul-Haq and all the other great names, for that man it will be a welcome relief to sink back into something resembling normalcy.

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About the Author

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Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and the author of Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets @senantix.



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