Lahore: Pakistan staged its biggest cricket match in almost a decade on Sunday, as a packed stadium in Lahore watched the final of a Twenty20 league organisers hoped would restore faith in the country’s ability to safely host foreign teams.
The scoreboard showed a one-sided win for domestic side Peshawar Zalmi over rival Quetta Gladiators — though for many the result was less significant than the fact the match took place in the militancy-wracked nation at all.
Thousands of police and troops patrolled the area around the Gaddafi Stadium and military helicopters whirred overhead in heavy security more commonly associated with visiting heads-of-state.
It was just outside this ground almost exactly eight years ago that Pakistan cricket suffered its worst blow when Islamist militants opened fire on a bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers, killing eight people and wounding nine, including six visiting players.
The attack effectively snuffed out international sporting fixtures at home, with no major teams visiting the country since.
Holding the final in Pakistan had drawn criticism from some quarters, after a series of militant attacks in February left 130 people dead and broke a long lull in violence that had encouraged authorities.
Fears of a fresh incident threatened to overshadow Sunday’s final, as major draws like Quetta’s Kevin Pietersen and Luke Wright pulled out ahead of the clash despite featuring in the group stage of the event held in the United Arab Emirates.
But West Indian Darren Sammy, skipper of Peshawar Zalmi and the most high-profile foreign star to play in the final, credited his appearance on team mate Shahid Afridi, who was forced to miss the match with a hand injury.
“My good friend Lala said: ‘If we get to the final, you should come to Lahore’,” Sammy told a presenter, using a nickname for the flamboyant former Pakistan allrounder.
“I am glad I came to experience the atmosphere here. Even though Peshawar came out on top, cricket was the real winner in Lahore,” he added after his side’s victory.
Fans at the stadium enthused about the match, described as “a momentous occasion for Pakistan” by legendary paceman Wasim Akram.
“I felt no fear and I just came to give a message to terrorists that Pakistanis are not afraid of their cowardly acts,” said Mohammad Nauman, who paid $40 for his ticket.
Others held up patriotic banners, such as: “Pakistan wins today.”
Peshawar Zalmi rode on a 32-ball 40 by in-form Kamran Akmal who clobbered six boundaries and a six to reach 148-6 in their 20 overs.
Skipper Sammy meanwhile hit two sixes in his 28 not out, while fellow West Indian paceman Rayad Emrit took 3-31 for Quetta.
In their reply, Quetta were shot out for 90 after being rocked by left-arm spinner Mohammad Asghar who finished with 3-16 in his four overs.
Quetta finished runners up for a second time after losing last year’s final to Islamabad United.
Eight security experts meanwhile attended the game including officials from the International Cricket Council.
The presence of high level delegates from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh was also noted, as both teams are due to play Pakistan this year and are rumoured to be candidates for a possible tour of the country.
“We will give good news to fans soon that an international team will come to Pakistan,” teased Najam Sethi, the tournament’s chairman, though previous vows made in recent years have gone unfulfilled.
Peshawar and Pakistan international fast bowler Wahab Riaz hailed the security forces on duty. “U have shown by risking ur life but making it possible for the people of Pakistan n around the world that how much cricket means to us,” he tweeted.
Cricket-starved fans were equally happy. Giant screens were placed in market places around the country while social-media users tweeted under the hashtag #CricketComesHome.
“And we won the battle against terrorism today,” said user @ManalAyub4, echoing a common sentiment.