Wed. Jul 6th, 2022

The crowd around me in Karachi’s National Stadium bellows, and a joyous cacophony of plastic vuvuzelas dissolves into the Arabian Sea breeze. Before us Shaheen Afridi, the 6ft 6in bowling sensation, lumbers forward, accelerating as he attempts to dispose of not only Australian batter David Warner but the demons that have plagued Pakistani cricket for years.

It is Australia’s first cricket tour here since 1998. A spiral of violence in the country after the 2001 war in neighboring Afghanistan led international sides to boycott it for years on security fears. A suicide bomb went off outside New Zealand’s hotel in 2002, and gunmen attacked Sri Lanka’s bus in 2009.

International cricket has crept back in recent years, with teams including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and South Africa all visiting, though New Zealand and England canceled tours last year over alleged security threats.

Australia is the first of cricket’s “top three” nations – which include England and India – to travel to Pakistan since 2006. This brings more than just relief for the cricket-loving country of over 200mn people. It is an opportunity for Pakistan, led by former cricketer Imran Khan, to tell the world the worst days of destabilizing insurrections and terrorist massacres that plagued it over the past two decades are over.

“A whole generation grew up without coming to the stage and watching their heroes. It was a huge loss, ”says cricket writer SM Hussain. “This series is a game changer.”

Cricket has remained central to the appeal of Khan, who captained Pakistan to its 1992 World Cup victory. Even as double-digit inflation and accusations of mismanagement batter his popularity, voters carry nostalgic memories of the prime minister as cricketer-in-chief. “The same cricketer still lives in him,” Safee Ul Hassan, a doctor attending the match with friends, tells me with a giddy grin. “His political talks are just like those of a cricket captain.”

The tour is an opportunity for newer stars such as Afridi and batters Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan to prove themselves. They nearly tasted glory last November, reaching the semi-finals of the short-format Twenty20 World Cup after thrashing arch-rival India. Australia’s visit also paves the way for England and New Zealand to return later this year.

Pakistan says it has given the Australian team security usually reserved for heads of state. Black-clad armed police overlook the stadium from neighboring apartment blocks and military helicopters reportedly keep watch over the team bus.

Australia’s arrival in Karachi is also symbolic. The port megapolis is Pakistan’s economic engine, yet for years was deemed one of the world’s most dangerous cities. But a crackdown by the controversial special forces police helped bring homicides down from around 2,000 annually a decade ago to fewer than 500 last year, according to the local Citizens Police Liaison Committee.

Naveed James, a medical-equipment salesman, is bringing his children – Tanisha, 22, and Nathaniel, 15 – to see Pakistan after a generational hiatus. “When I was young, I came many times,” he says. “It’s the first time I’m bringing my family.”

Yet the situation remains tense. The authorities have long been accused of tacitly allowing extremist groups to operate in Pakistan. And while Khan welcomed the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan last year, it has emboldened domestic extremists. The number of terrorist attacks jumped 42 percent in 2021 year on year, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies think-tank. On the first day of play between Pakistan and Australia near the capital Islamabad, an Isis-K suicide bomber slaughtered over 60 people at a Shia mosque 100 miles away in Peshawar.

A cricketing renaissance may not be enough to save Khan’s innings. Inflation and depleted foreign reserves have led to an economic crisis, with opposition parties filing a fresh no-confidence motion to dismiss him. Political analysts expect a tight vote this month.

My day at the ground was anticlimactic for Pakistan. Afridi and other bowlers struggled to break apart Australia’s batters, who established a commanding lead that extinguished the hosts’ hopes of triumph. Yet the crowd was lively and showed generous enthusiasm for Australia’s achievements, including the century scored by Pakistan-born batter Usman Khawaja. They had waited 24 years for this moment.

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