The current Aussie team has broken a two-decade-long spell of not playing cricket in Pakistan for security reasons. Pakistan's cricket legends say it's a good sign for the future of world cricket.
Last Sunday, on their arrival in Islamabad for what is Australia's first cricket tour of Pakistan in almost 24 years, the visiting players must have felt like Alice in Wonderland.
They were ferried to the hotel from the airport, surrounded by thousands of security officials. The security, according to insiders, was tighter than is accorded to visiting heads of state. None of the men in the touring party, including skipper Pat Cummins, would have had such a surreal experience in the past.
Cummins later commented: "We know this isn’t a normal tour…It’s a special moment in our lives and careers."
It is indeed a special tour which comes after a very long pause. Australia's last Pakistan tour was in 1998. Shaheen Shah Afridi, Pakistan's star fast bowler, was born three years later. Pakistan opener Imam-ul-Haq, who hit his maiden Test century on the first day of the series opener in Rawalpindi on Friday, was just two years old. Cummins was only four years old when the Aussies came here with Mark Taylor at the helm.
For years, top international teams like Australia have stayed away from Pakistan, citing security fears. It became even worse for Pakistan in 2009, when the country became a pariah in the sporting world after armed men ambushed the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.
But in recent years, international cricketers have been visiting the country following an improvement in the security situation. One of the prime reasons behind the return of international action is the birth of the Pakistan Super League (PSL), a professional Twenty20 league that features both Pakistani and foreign stars. Test-playing nations like Sri Lanka, West Indies, Zimbabwe and South Africa have visited Pakistan in recent years. Still, the all-format tour of Australia is the biggest cricketing event to take place in Pakistan in quite some time.
"It's indeed an occasion to celebrate for all of us," Pakistan cricket legend Zaheer Abbas told TRT World in an interview on Saturday. "This tour should really boost Pakistan's campaign to revive international cricket at home," added Abbas, a former Pakistan Test captain.
Abbas believes that the current tour is not just a positive development for Pakistan cricket but also for world cricket.
"As it is, only a handful of teams play Test cricket. Out of them, even fewer are as good as Pakistan and Australia. That is why not having Tests in Pakistan for such a long period was also a loss for international cricket," said Abbas, a former President of the International Cricket Council (ICC).
Abbas is now hoping that the tour, which includes three Tests, three One-day Internationals (ODIs) and a lone Twenty20 International, will be held smoothly and without incident.
There have been fears in the lead up to the tour when Ashton Agar, one of the members of the Australian squad, received a death threat on social media. The threat was quickly dismissed by both Pakistani and Australian authorities but not before it made headlines all over the cricket world.
Meanwhile, when both teams were in action at the Rawalpindi Stadium on the opening day of the series, there was a grim reminder that security remains an issue in Pakistan. Dozens of worshippers were killed during Friday prayers in a suicide bombing at a mosque in the north-western city of Peshawar.
Slow and grassless
Former Pakistan Test captain Aamer Sohail believes Pakistani authorities will need to find ways to ensure that visiting teams feel safer in the future and can have "normal tours" like in the past.
"We have become too rhetorical about this tour. Yes, it's been 24 years since Australia's last visit, but instead of focusing on it [this tour], we should focus on the future," Sohail told TRT World.
"To ensure that such long gaps [in teams touring Pakistan] do not happen in the future, we need to liaison better with foreign teams. We have to make Pakistan an attractive destination for visiting teams. That won't happen overnight, but we have to start taking steps to reach a point where teams can enjoy our legendary hospitality. They should be able to enjoy Pakistan instead of just spending their time in hotels or on the cricket ground."
Currently, international cricketers visiting Pakistan are confined to their team hotels for security reasons.
The Australian team was aware of this and came fully prepared. According to the visiting captain, the squad has brought PlayStations, card games and a basketball hoop, and has also hired a golf simulator with a big projector and nets. "We’re going to roll up and take [all of it] with us around the country," said Cummins.
Tell Sohail about this, and he would say that Pakistan has much more to offer to visitors than just indoor games.
Sohail believes that Pakistan cricket's think-tank should think beyond what he calls a "one-dimensional" approach.
"Another reason why top players have seldom liked touring Pakistan is the wickets we make for our home matches. We should prepare sporting wickets instead of just banking on low, slow and dead wickets," he said.
Pakistan has prepared quite a lifeless wicket for the first Test in Rawalpindi. Experts believe pitches in Karachi and Lahore — venues of the other two Tests — won't be much different.
Apparently, the reason behind preparing such wickets is to counter Australia's potent pace attack.
Sohail said that this strategy might not work.
"Such an approach used to work in the past, but the Australians now come here well prepared for such pitches. On their last tour [in 1998], they came here fully prepared and won the series," he said, referring to Mark Taylor's Australia team, who beat Pakistan in the Test series 24 years ago.
Sohail, who played 47 Tests for Pakistan, was part of the Pakistan team that lost both the Test and the ODI series against the Aussies in 1998.
While Sohail thinks that the Aussies will be a tough nut to crack, Abbas is expecting a series-winning triumph for the Pakistanis.
"I think Pakistan have a great chance of beating Australia. They have a good team with some reliable batters and match-winning bowlers. Above all, they have the home advantage. They should give their best and go for a comprehensive victory in the series," he said.
But Abbas warned that Pakistan would need to put their best foot forward.
"I'm expecting Australia to give Pakistan a tough fight. It isn't easy for them to play on such wickets. But they have prepared hard and are here with their best players. So I expect them to give Pakistan a run for their money in the Test series," he said.
Early signs indicate a Pakistani victory. In the first Test currently underway in Rawalpindi, Pakistan's top order has so far completely dominated the Australian attack blunted by a slow and grassless wicket. Opener Imam hit his first Test ton. The seasoned Azhar Ali also played a big knock. Other leading Pakistani players, including skipper Babar Azam and his deputy Mohammad Rizwan, two of the best batsmen in the world, must also be flexing their muscles.
The Australians have been a bit subdued so far, but this could be because they have been mourning the deaths of two of their greatest cricketing legends on the same day. Rodney Marsh, one of the greatest Australian wicketkeepers, and legendary leg-spinner Shane Warne, both passed away on Friday due to cardiac arrests.
The Australians wore black armbands to mourn the death of Marsh but only found out about Warne's sudden demise on their way back to the team hotel from the Rawalpindi Stadium.
“Everyone was just absolutely gobsmacked. There was silence in the cars, and we came back," said Australian star David Warner.
The Australians might be in a state of shock, but they are regarded among the toughest players in world cricket. They are expected to bounce back, making the long-awaited series a contest to remember.