And Cricket Finally Returns Home…

International Cricket in Pakistan has been on tricky grounds ever since the infamous attack on the Sri Lankan Cricket team in March 2009. After that incident, international teams refused to visit Pakistan, forcing the team to play their ‘home’ matches away from home. Playing international teams on better wickets did help Pakistan reach the top position in Tests and T20s but it was unjust to the spectators. They waited for 10 years to welcome an international Test side to Pakistan and although Zimbabwe and the West Indies visited Pakistan, they were not the best sides in the world when they visited the “Cricket Locked Country”. With the mighty Sri Lankans arriving in September 2019, their wait was over. What went away with the Sri Lankans, was back with them and one hopes that International Cricket never goes away from the cricket crazy Pakistan.

They Came, they Played and they Conquered Hearts!
It was like a fairytale ending to Pakistani spectators’ wait for International Cricket. They didn’t care who was touring for Sri Lanka and who wasn’t; they braved through monsoon rains to buy tickets for the first One Day International between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which went down in history for the rainy reason. It became the first ODI match since 1971 to be abandoned because of rain at the National Stadium, Karachi giving both teams a chance to get their planning right, and the abandonment seemed to help the hosts more than the visitors in ODIs. Pakistan went on to win the second and third ODI against the Sri Lankans, winning their first series at home after a long time.
Babar, Shinwari Won the Second ODI for Pakistan
In what was Pakistan’s first big match after the Cricket World Cup that ended in July, Pakistan went with its full-strength team, including Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz who were recalled for the mega event, after their initial non-selection. Along with the two left-armers, there was Usman Khan Shinwari who wasn’t part of the World Cup despite proving himself at all levels. Babar Azam's timely century and Fakhar Zaman's half-century helped the hosts give the spectators in Karachi something to cheer for. Batting first, Pakistan scored as many as 305 runs for the loss of 7 wickets in 50 overs. Babar Azam’s 11th century in 73rd match was too much for the visitors who were dismissed for 238 runs in the 44th over. The man who caused the maximum damage for Pakistan was Usman Shinwari who ended with 5 wickets for 51 runs. He took the important wicket of Shehan Jayasuriya who missed his century by 4 runs and helped Pakistan take the lead in the three-match series.
Abid Ali Proved to be the Main Difference Between the Two Sides
Sri Lankan Captain Lahiru Thirimanne decided to post a target instead of chasing one and that's why the visiting team decided to bat first in the final ODI of the series. Thanks to Danushka Gunathilaka's 133, the visitors were able to post a fighting target on the scorecard. Dasun Shanaka's rapid 43 helped Sri Lanka reach 297 runs for the loss of 9 wickets, a target that would have been ideal had the Lady Luck been with Sri Lanka. It was instead on Pakistan's side, and more importantly, with Abid Ali, the recalled opening batsman who has always delivered when recalled in place of the usually slow Imam ul Haq. 
Chasing 298 to win, Pakistan began at an incredible pace thanks to Abid Ali who managed to score 74 runs off 67 balls with the help of 10 fours. Not only did he add 123 runs for the first wicket with Fakhar Zaman but also laid the foundation of a superb chase. Fakhar Zaman followed suit and scored 76 runs, taking Pakistan to 189 in the 32nd over. Then it was all on Haris Sohail's shoulders who displayed his brilliance by scoring 49-ball 56 and was dismissed when Pakistan was just 11 runs short of the target. Iftikhar Ahmed's cameo ensured the hosts took the ODI series 2-0 and went into the T20 series with their heads held high. For his match-winning performance, Abid Ali was dropped from the T20 squad, and that is where things started to go downhill.
And Then There was the Disappointing T20 Series
Anywhere else in the world, Abid Ali would have been included in the T20 squad after his match-winning performance in the final ODI. However, he was dropped from the already announced T20 squad, and that is where things took a turn. Ahmed Shehzad was recalled in his place and the place of Imam ul Haq went to Umar Akmal, two cricketers who should be far far away from the team because of their lack of fitness, team ethics and performance. However, Coach and Chief Selector Misbah ul Haq thought of bringing the two back and the step backfired as the whole team went into chaos. The world’s best batsman Babar Azam was unable to perform in the series, and the same goes for Fakhar Zaman who was dropped from the first match and seemed to have lost his touch in the next two. The Captain who led Pakistan to T20 glory Sarfaraz Ahmed found himself with a team that was unable to hold on to catches, take wickets and score runs against a Sri Lankan side that had far less experience.
The visitors must be commended for doing a brilliant job though; they seized the confusion in Pakistan camp and their players delivered what would be their career-defining performances. In the first match of the series played in Lahore, the new-look Sri Lankans made a comeback despite being on the receiving end in the final overs of their innings. Due to Danushka Gunathilaka's timely 57 off 38 balls, the hosts managed to post 165 runs for the loss of 5 wickets in 20 overs. Three of those wickets were taken by Mohammad Hasnain, the quickie who didn't play a match in the World Cup despite proving his mettle. He pulled off a rare hat-trick against the Sri Lankans, becoming the second Pakistani to do so after Faheem Ashraf. But with Ahmed Shehzad opening the innings and Umar Akmal coming at number 3, Pakistan was doomed from the start. The only players who managed to cross 20 were Iftikhar Ahmed (25) and Captain Sarfaraz Ahmed (24); the rest failed miserably as Pakistan was bowled out for 101 in the 18th over. Nuwan Pradeep and Isuru Udana took six out of the ten wickets as the visitors went 1-up in the series.
The story was more or less the same in the second and third T20 international where Sri Lanka impressed and Pakistan couldn't. Umar Akmal's comeback lasted 2 balls in 2 innings and he couldn't score a single run. Ahmed Shehzad did try to score a few runs but he looked lethargic, and in discomfort against the Sri Lankans. Apart from Imad Wasim in the second T20 and Haris Sohail in the third, none of the Pakistani batsmen batted like they were to win it. Their haphazard batting and lazy fielding was topped by unimaginative bowling as they went for runs when the visitors could have been contained. The Sri Lankans outplayed Pakistan in all three formats including batting, bowling and fielding, and that cost Pakistan the series.
Impressed Sri Lankans to Return to Pakistan for Tests Later this Year
Pakistan Cricket Board and the Armed Forces especially Pakistan Army must be commended for hosting Sri Lanka and providing them with fool-proof security both in Karachi and Lahore. Both the cities – most importantly the roads leading from the airport to the hotel – were decorated with posters of Sri Lankan and Pakistani players who were part of the squads. The road from the hotel to the stadium was cordoned off when the team’s bus was en route on the match day and the spectators were asked to park their cars at designated places, and travel to the venue through the shuttle service that functioned perfectly. Even at the venue, strict security measures were taken by the Rangers officials who stood guard at the gates, in the stands and also near the dressing rooms, making sure no one disturbed the players on the match day.
If that isn’t impressive, I don’t know what is as all stops were pulled out to ensure that nothing went wrong in and around the stadium, the hotels and the route the teams were taking when reaching the city, or leaving it. The successful demonstration by the Law Enforcement Agencies must surely have been mentioned in the Sri Lankan manager’s report, and that’s why the Sri Lankans will be returning for a Test series later this year. One hopes that by that time, their management convinces their main players to travel to Pakistan so that two of the best teams in the world could have a showdown in front of Pakistan’s cricket fans who love nothing more than to watch the best players battle it out on the cricket field.

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