Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 September 2020

'Touchdown Islamabad': Sri Lanka arrive for first Tests in Pakistan since 2009 terror attack

The squad were given a warm-reception at the team hotel, ahead of the first Test in their two-match series in Rawalpindi

Newly-appointed Sri Lanka cricket team head coach Mickey Arthur, left. AFP
Newly-appointed Sri Lanka cricket team head coach Mickey Arthur, left. AFP

The Sri Lanka cricket squad touched down in Islamabad on Monday for their first Test tour in 10 years following the deadly 2009 attack on their team that plunged Pakistan into sporting isolation.

"Touchdown Islamabad," tweeted the Pakistan Cricket Board , along with a video showing the Sri Lankan side's arrival.

The squad were given a warm-reception at the team hotel, ahead of the first Test in their two-match series in Rawalpindi, starting Wednesday.

It marks a significant milestone for Pakistan, which has not hosted any Test cricket since the terror attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore in 2009, which killed eight people and injured several players.

Sri Lanka travelled to Pakistan to play three ODIs and three T20 matches in September and October, though 10 senior players stayed home citing security concerns. The Test squad that arrived on Monday, though, is full-strength with fast bowler Suranga Lakmal a late withdrawal with dengue.

"This is my first tour to Pakistan," said Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne, who opted out of the team's recent limited-overs tour of Pakistan.

"After the 2009 incidents players were scared to tour Pakistan but in the last two years or so Sri Lanka and other teams have toured Pakistan."

He added: "We want to play good cricket in Pakistan and hope they give us some good security."

The 2009 attack slammed the door shut on international sporting fixtures in the cricket-loving nation as foreign teams refused to visit over security fears.

Pakistan have been forced to play home matches on neutral ground in the UAE, resulting in financial losses and denying a generation of Pakistan fans the chance to see their players on home soil.

PCB chief executive Waseem Khan called the Sri Lanka team's arrival a "historic occasion".

"Pakistan's losses due to non-hosting of international cricket have been substantial," Waseem told Agence France-Presse.

"Pakistan cricket supporters have been denied the opportunity to see their heroes play live in our national stadiums."

Zimbabwe became the first team to play in Pakistan in 2015, paving the wave for a smattering of Twenty20 matches ever since.

But Test matches - considered the pinnacle of international cricket - have until now remained absent. The first Test starts in Rawalpindi - where Pakistan's army is headquartered - on Wednesday and the second is in Karachi from December 19.

While most of the focus is on the guests, it marks a significant milestone for the Pakistan squad, too.

None of the Misbah-ul-Haq's squad, including skipper Azhar Ali (75 Tests) and Asad Shafiq (71), has played a Test at home.

"I am happy Test cricket has finally return to Pakistan," said fan Ashfaq Ahmed, 48.

"Cricket in Pakistan is dying and our kids aren't as keen toward the game as we were once. But one can't blame the younger generations because they haven't seen their team playing in Pakistan."

The PCB are now hoping to turn things around thanks to a dramatic improvement in security in recent years, following a wave of crackdowns on militants across the country.

The return of international games and Pakistan Super League matches - as well as behind-the-scenes diplomacy - are finally paying dividends, according to Waseem.

"The eight [PSL] matches in Karachi earlier this year ... were eye-openers for the 43 foreign cricketers who returned as our ambassadors," he said.

The series, the second for both teams in the ongoing World Test Championship, has an intriguing subplot with newly-appointed coach Mickey Arthur up against Pakistan counterpart Misbah.

Arthur was Pakistan coach until August when he was sacked by the PCB, of which Misbah is its chief selectors, following a poor showing in the Cricket World Cup in England.

The South African, 51, only took up his new post last week, and will look to pile more misery on a Pakistan side still reeling from a humiliating 2-0 Test thrashing in Australia which pushed them down to eighth in the ICC rankings.

Updated: December 9, 2019 12:28 PM

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