ISLAMABAD - International cricket returned to Pakistan Friday for the first time in more than six years when the country hosted Zimbabwe in a Twenty20 match, which the host team won.
Pakistani spectators cheered players of their national and the visiting Zimbabwe teams as they entered the packed stadium in the eastern city of Lahore to play the day-and-night match.
Security was extremely tight with thousands of police and paramilitary forces deployed around Gaddafi Stadium and roads leading to it, while two helicopters hovered over the venue.
Spectators turned up in large numbers even though they were asked to take their seats long before the match started for security reasons. Up to 30,000 people endured frequent security checks and temperatures of 110 degrees Farenheit (43 Celsius) before finding their seats to watch what they described as an historic moment.
Zimbabwe is the first of 10 top test-playing countries to set foot on Pakistani soil since a deadly March 2009 terrorist attack on the touring Sri Lanka team near the same stadium.
Despite pressure from regional and international cricket associations not to undertake the tour for security reasons, Zimbabwe’s team volunteered and landed in Pakistan earlier this week.
Acknowledging the African nation's contribution to reviving international cricket in Pakistan, officials urged support for both teams throughout the series, irrespective of who wins or loses.
Zimbabwe’s team captain, Elton Chigumbura, speaking just before Friday’s match, said he was pleased with the security measures.
“Definitely we have been safe," said Chigumbura.
The crowd cheered when he was told that Pakistanis have decided to give them home support during the series to thank Zimbabwe for its gesture.
"Yeah, it feels great," he said. "Obviously it is a good crowd, so hopefully to be on our side the whole series."
Pakistani captain Shahid Afridi also declared it a historic moment for his nation, hoping it will encourage other countries to send their teams to Pakistan.
“It is a great occasion not just for me, [but] for my team and for my nation as well," he said. "I was waiting for this occasion, and I think, [God willing], maybe in future the cricket is going to start [in Pakistan]."
The attack on Sri Lanka’s team six years ago killed eight Pakistanis, mostly policemen. Several members of the visiting team were wounded. The violence prompted all foreign teams to cancel prospective tours to Pakistan until this week.
The terrorist act happened at a time when Islamist insurgents frequently perpetrated suicide bombings and other attacks across the country. Authorities, however, pledged "foolproof" security to avoid a repetition of the 2009 incident, and insist counterterrorism operations have since improved security.
Critics are skeptical about whether other foreign teams will follow Zimbabwe’s lead because a few days before the African team arrived in Pakistan, suspected Islamist militants ambushed and killed 45 people in the country’s commercial hub of Karachi. The victims belonged to the minority Shi'ite Ismaili Muslim community.
Scheduling all matches between Pakistan and Zimbabwe in the same city also underscores prevailing insecurity in other cities that could host international matches.
Organizers say tickets for both Friday’s and Sunday's Twenty20 matches were sold out within two days of going on sale this week. The teams will also play three one-day international matches.