Pakistan marked the return of international cricket to the country with a rip-roaring 36-run Twenty20 victory over Sri Lanka in front of a packed stadium in the eastern city of Lahore on Sunday.
Powered by a lightning 51 off 24 balls by Shoaib Malik and a bowling attack led by paceman Mohammmad Amir, the hosts made sure the fans would enjoy a night to remember as Pakistan finally hosted an international cricket fixture on home soil after being shunned by foreign teams for eight years due to security risks.
Pakistan’s isolation began when a 2009 militant attack on the Sri Lankan team’s bus in Lahore left six security personnel and two civilians dead while six players were injured.
Since then, Pakistan have been forced to play designated ‘home’ matches primarily in the United Arab Emirates.
“I’d like to thank the Sri Lankan team... this is something we have missed for many years,” Malik said after picking up the man-of-the-match award.
“Thanks for inviting us, we really love you guys,” said Sri Lanka captain Thisara Perera, whose side were beaten 3-0 in the series with the first two matches having taken place in Abu Dhabi.
After Sunday’s game, jubilant Pakistani fans exiting the stadium danced and played drums on the streets of Lahore.
“I cannot forget that horrible day when the Sri Lankan team was attacked,” said cricket enthusiast Altaf Akram.
“They have taken a big step. All Pakistanis welcome the Sri Lankans ... who are (now) heroes of Pakistan.”
Security for Sunday’s match comprised 16,000 police officials and over 250 surveillance vehicles deployed around Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium, a police official said.
“Police have taken unprecedented security measures for (the) match,” Deputy Inspector General Haider Ashraf told Reuters, adding that aerial surveillance and CCTV cameras were also being utilised.
“Police snipers have been deployed at all high buildings around Gaddafi Stadium,” he added.
Pakistan officials hope Sunday’s match will encourage other countries to send their teams by next year.
West Indies have already committed to a tour although the dates have yet to be finalised, cricket board chairman Najam Sethi told Reuters.
Plans to bring cricket to other Pakistani cities are also underway with four domestic T20 fixtures from the Pakistan Super League (PSL) competition planned in southern metropolis Karachi.
“We want to hold two double headers in Karachi midway through the PSL and then have the final in Lahore,” he said.
“Sri Lanka, West Indies, PSL, the next slot which is open to Pakistan and any other country, there will be cricket here, I guarantee you that.”
Spinner Sachith Pathirana provided a much-needed break to his team as opener Fakhar Zaman failed to middle his very first delivery of the match, resulting in a bold.
Zaman departed after playing a pacy 31-run inning. Along with opener Umar Amin, he provided a fiery start to the hosts against Srilanka in the final match of the three-T20I series at Gaddafi Stadium on Sunday.
Earlier, Sri Lanka won the toss and opted to field first.
Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium is witnessing the return of top-flight cricket after a drought of eight years, as Pakistan and Sri Lanka face off the final T20I tonight.
The stadium is hosting its sixth international T20 game tonight.
Skipper Sarfraz Ahmed confirmed that Umar Amin and Muhammad Aamir will play today - replacing Ahmad Shahzad and Usman Khan Shinwari respectively.
Pakistan already lead the T20I series 2-0, after beating Sri Lanka by seven wickets in the opening game and winning a last-ball thriller in the second T20I. Today's match, however, is much more than just a game of cricket.
The occasion marks the homecoming of top-level international cricket as Sri Lanka become the first major cricket team to visit Pakistan since they were targeted in a deadly ambush in 2009 -- with attack survivors among those returning to the scene.
Tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed in Lahore for the occasion. They are guarding routes to the stadium, and air surveillance and intelligence monitoring is also in place as Pakistan rolls out head-of-state level measures.
Although some Sri Lankan players and officials, including their head coach, opted out of the T20 fixture, Asanka Gurusinha and Hashan Tillakaratne, who came under gunfire in 2009 and are now Sri Lanka´s team manager and batting coach, will be with the squad as it is shuttled in and out of Gaddafi Stadium under heavy guard.
Pakistan’s Ahsan Raza, a reserve umpire in 2009 who was among those shot, will also be on the field.
PCB chairman Najam Sethi has hailed the match as a "historic moment", pointing out that a generation of fans in the cricket-mad country have grown up without seeing any international games in their home stadiums.
Injury doubts loom over young bowling sensation Usman Khan Shinwari, who is suffering from a side strain which has made his inclusion in today’s playing XI doubtful, sources close to the matter said.
Fellow pacer Mohammad Amir, who has recovered from a shin injury he picked during the Test series against Sri Lanka, is likely to fill in for Shinwari.
Current members of the Pakistan squad, along with former greats, politicians and fans extended a warm welcome to the Sri Lankan team, which reached Lahore from UAE overnight.
Prior to tonight’s game, Lahore successfully hosted this year´s Pakistan Super League final and the Independence Cup series between Pakistan and World XI last month.
Pakistan: Sarfraz Ahmed (c & wk), Fakhar Zaman, Ahmed Shehzad, Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Hafeez, Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Faheem Ashraf, Hasan Ali, Aamer Yamin, Mohammad Amir, Rumman Raees, Usman Shinwari, Umar Amin
Sri Lanka: Thisara Perera (c), Dilshan Munaweera, Danushka Gunathilaka, Sadeera Samarawickrama, Ashan Priyanjan, Mahela Udawatte, Dasun Shanaka, Sachith Pathirana, Vikum Sanjaya, Lahiru Gamage, Seekkuge Prasanna, Vishwa Fernando, Isuru Udana, Jeffrey Vandersay and Chathuranga de Silva, Minod Bhanuka.