In days gone by, the mere hint of the presence of foreign cricket teams in any Pakistani city would send ripples of excitement through the residents. School kids, adults young and old, would enthusiastically share their experiences of running in to some top players from the visitor’s side in local shops and restaurants and pictures of foreign stars mingling with the people would make front page headlines. In short, a foreign series in Pakistan was akin to a carnival and generally accepted as the greatest show in town by the locals.
However all that changed in March 2009 due to the tragic events in Lahore and subsequently international sides refused to make any further tours to Pakistan citing fears over security. The much-hyped tour by the Zimbabwe side in 2015 brought a glimmer of hope for the cricket-loving masses of Pakistan. As crowds thronged and enjoyed the games at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, there was a feeling that after many years of isolation, international cricket was to be restored in its full glory to cities like Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore and Multan.
However, the visit by the Zimbabwe team proved to be a false dawn and despite all well-meaning efforts by the Pakistan Cricket Board, no other team has stepped on Pakistan soil since that short tour by Zimbabwe.
The lack of international cricket on Pakistani shores is why the advent of the Pakistan Super League in 2016 was not only a major achievement for attracting a fresh revenue stream for the cash starved PCB, but it also provided the Pakistan fans with a breath of fresh air with their own version of the popular Twenty20 League format.
Five franchises from the main regions of Pakistan were formed and top foreign players were drafted in, but there was one problem. None of the games of this exciting new tournament could be held in Pakistan as the international contingent of the teams were not willing to set foot in Pakistan.
From the PSL’s public relations point of view, the decision to hold games in the UAE for a league meant to enrich the lives of players and fans from Pakistan was an awkward one. In its inaugural year, the PSL management were able to ward off such criticism by asking for time to establish the league as a viable event in the global cricket calendar.
With the unbridled success of the 2016 edition, came the calls from all quarters for scheduling part of the league games in Pakistan. Succumbing to this pressure and in part driven by political pressures, the Chairman of the PSL Najam Sethi announced intentions to hold the final of this year’s tournament in the city of Lahore.
As the tournament progressed in the UAE, the PSL management held firm in their resolution to play the final in Lahore but the unfortunate incidents in Pakistan just a few weeks away from the main event created a massive hurdle for the success of this plan.
For Pakistan cricket fans and players, there is a mixture of enthusiasm but also a healthy dose of cynicism when it came to discussing this matter. The enthusiasm is the result of years of watching exciting cricket in such Twenty20 leagues being played around the world with little or no Pakistani participation.
What the PSL offers is their “own” league; something that they would be proud of. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for Pakistan’s talented young players to showcase their skills and also to learn from the experience of playing alongside some of the world’s top players.
On top of that, the excitement levels generated by the PSL games and franchise loyalty that has developed in just two years of the existence of this league is a testament to the success of the PSL. To say that the PSL in its short existence has captured the hearts and minds of most Pakistani fans would be an understatement as the reality is that this tournament is closer to becoming an obsession with the fans of the game in the country.
The sold-out ticket sales for this event in Lahore are a good indicator of the popularity of the PSL as are the near-riot scenes at ticket outlets where fans have been disappointed by the unavailability of tickets. The cynics, however, are not too sure how the PSL final without most of its foreign stars will be anything more than a glorified domestic clash which happen at regular intervals in Pakistan as is. Then there is the price that the denizens of Lahore, the city chosen to host the final will play. Road closures, restriction on movements and even schools being shut down in anticipation of the ensuing chaos which makes many wonder if the need for a PSL final is that important for Pakistan.
The stakes are, therefore, unusually high and each side is standing firm. The Punjab government along with the PSL management is intent on holding the final in Lahore with the ultimate goal of demonstrating the readiness of the country to host foreign cricketing visitors.
The legendary Imran Khan for his part has already added his voice to those opposed to this event by claiming that any unfortunate incident connected with this event in the coming few days could set-back Pakistan’s chances of inviting international teams by a decade.
Whilst the jury is out on what holding the final in Pakistan will do for the future of the game in Pakistan, there is no doubt that the PSL as a product has been a great success for Pakistan cricket. The thrill of watching their own stars perform at the level of competition witnessed in recent times during the games in UAE is something that Pakistan fans have enjoyed thoroughly.
Yes, they will complain about the disruptions to normal life brought on by extra-security or the absence of star foreign players which could dent the glamour aspect, but the fact is that none of this will ever deter them from enjoying the game on their television sets or at their beloved Gaddafi Stadium on March 5.
The PSL was born after many years of false starts but now that it is here and regardless of the venue of the final, the cricket-mad fans of Pakistan will continue to support this tournament for many years to come.
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