The trouble-free Pakistan Super League (PSL) cricket final, held in Karachi on Sunday amid a festival atmosphere, has reignited calls for foreign national teams to look past security concerns and play regular cricket in Pakistan.
The South Asian nation has largely been starved of international cricket since the 2009 attack on a bus ferrying Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore which killed eight Pakistanis as well as wounding six players and a British coach.
Pakistan’s biggest city ground to a halt for several hours on Sunday as fans packed restaurants and cafes to watch Islamabad United defeat defending champion Peshawar Zalmi by three wickets after being set a 148-9 target.
“This is a very big historic occasion,” Najam Sethi, Pakistan Cricket Board chairman told fans in the stadium just before the culmination of the Twenty20 league started.
“You have filled this stadium and shown the world that we are ready for the return of the international cricket.”
In its third year, the PSL has become a phenomenal success in the cricket-obsessed nation of 208 million but security concerns mean many of the group games and Pakistan’s international test matches are played in the Middle East.
Ahead of Sunday’s final, the first major cricket event in Karachi since the Sri Lanka bus attack, key roads leading to the stadium were closed and checkpoints erected amid tight security.
Despite temperatures soaring to 38 degrees Celsius, many fans queued for hours to get into the stadium early to catch a glimpse of the local and foreign players whose popularity has soared in the run up to the final.
“We are happy on return of international cricket to Karachi,” said Ahmed Alam, 20, an engineering university student on his way to the stadium clutching bottles of chilled water and packets of potato snacks.
“Cricket was unjustly kept away from Karachi for so long. Such matches could be held here much before.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said the successful hosting of the PSL final “was a victory of the entire nation”.
Pakistani officials are keen to repair the country’s image and reassure sceptical foreign nations, especially the more reluctant Western countries, that security is now good enough host major events.
Since the bus attack, Pakistan has hosted Zimbabwe, a World XI, and a Sri Lanka team for limited overs matches, all at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium.
Pakistan also received a further boost earlier this month when West Indies agreed to play a three-match Twenty20 series in Karachi in the first week of April.
“I am looking forward to playing more cricket here, I have enjoyed it,” Darren Sammy, a West Indies cricketer and Peshawar Zalmi captain, told local Geo Super TV channel after the game.
The fans are excited at the prospect of more cricket inside Pakistan.
“West Indies’ three matches at Karachi next month truly heralds the return of international cricket to Pakistan,” added Alam, the student. “It’s a real treat for the people of this city.”