Pakistan’s emergence from international purgatory is slowly but surely coming to fruition. In recent years the growth of the PSL, and the willingness of its overseas stars to put themselves forward for the knock-out stages in Karachi and Lahore, has helped to accelerate a process that culminated, late last year, in Sri Lanka’s arrival for the first Tests on Pakistan soil in more than a decade.
Bangladesh too have decided the time is nigh to get the show back on the road, with the second Test of their two-part tour due to take place in Karachi in April, after last week’s innings win at Rawalpindi was lit up by a hat-trick for Pakistan’s latest teenage sensation Naseem Shah.
But for sheer symbolism, few matches will resonate more than the one taking place under the Gadaffi Stadium floodlights on Friday, when Kumar Sangakkara leads his MCC side in a T20 contest against Lahore Qalanders. In doing so, he will return to the scene of the most shocking atrocity to be visited on an international sporting team since the Munich Olympics in 1972.
The events of March 3, 2009 are all too well known to cricket’s tight-knit global community. As the Sri Lanka team bus approached the stadium for what should have been the third morning of the second Test against Pakistan, they were ambushed by 12 gunmen on the Liberty Roundabout, sprayed with bullets and subjected to rocket and grenade assaults, in an attack that left six policemen and two civilians dead, as well as the driver of the minibus carrying the match officials.
Heroically, the Sri Lankans’ bus driver, Mehar Mohammad Khalil, kept their vehicle moving towards the stadium compound despite having his tyres shot from beneath him, but amid the chaos, seven of the team suffered shrapnel and gunshot wounds – most seriously, Tharanga Paranavitana and Thilan Samaraweera, who only the previous day had completed his second double century in a fortnight.
Sangakkara himself had a shockingly near miss. As he related in his MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture in 2011, in the very moment that he turned his head to attend to Samaraweera, he felt the wind of a bullet fizz past his ear and strike his seat. The last time he and his team-mates departed the Gadaffi Stadium, it was as evacuees in a military helicopter. His return, more than a decade later, provides closure on the one hand, and hope on the other.
“I don’t think I need any flashbacks, because I remember that day and those moments so very clearly,” Sangakkara told ESPNcricinfo, on the day of the team’s arrival in Pakistan. “It’s not something I relive or wallow in. But it’s an experience you should never forget, because it gives you perspective in terms of life and sport, and you learn a lot about your own values and characters, and those of others.
“I have no reservations about talking about it, it’s not something that upsets me, but these sorts of experiences can only strengthen you. Today I consider yourself very fortunate to be able to come back here to Lahore, and at the same time remember the sacrifice of all those who lost their lives that day.”
The emotions among the Sri Lankans ran understandably wild in the immediate aftermath of the attack, though as Sangakkara recalled, their innate resilience shone through first and foremost, along with a certain grim humour too. Within minutes, Ajantha Mendis, himself injured in the attack, was reaching for his poker chips and setting up a card school, while Sangakkara’s own thoughts somehow kept coming back to Paranavitana’s terrible first taste of international cricket – a golden duck on debut, and now hospitalised with a bullet in his chest.
“I think everyone deals with it in their own personal way,” Sangakkara said. “But at the same time, what really unites us is that you face adversity and you face challenge, and you have to get past it, and you’ve got to do that successfully. It’s about moving forwards and upwards and being part of cricket. Being Sri Lankan you learn those lessons quite well, because throughout our civil war, cricket was a unique vibe.
“We speak about the attack at various times,” he added. “We even have a laugh about it, in terms of what we went through, because it helps sometimes to look at it with a bit of humour, even though there was a tragic loss of life, and other serious injuries within that incident.
“And I think for us also, it’s brought home the fact that being a cricketer on the international stage, you are not immune to real-life situations and the experiences of other people that you might not otherwise connect with. It’s really a strengthening experience for us, a humbling one as well, and it puts a lot of things in perspective.”
That said, Sangakkara had no reason to think he’d ever come back to Lahore after the attack, certainly once it became clear that international cricket would not be returning to Pakistan before his retirement in 2015. But as MCC president – an office that speaks, in his words, of “stewardship and legacy” – he felt a compunction to lead a side back to the country to help to spread the word that one of the game’s “powerhouses” is open for business once again.
“There is history and tradition galore at MCC but to actually use that to benefit the game, not just in the UK and within the club framework, but beyond that, internationally, will edify the philosophy of MCC,” Sangakkara said. “We feel we have a role, not just as the guardians of the spirit and laws, but of the game itself. We leave a legacy of trust and support in all the countries that we tour.”
The 12-man squad, which will be coached by Ajmal Shahzad and also features the likes of Ravi Bopara, Ross Whiteley and Roelof van der Merwe, is due to play four fixtures in the space of six days – three of them in the leafy environs of Aitcheson College, the so-called “Eton of Pakistan”, which counts Imran Khan among its most illustrious old boys.
Most of the trip, in fact, will be a far cry from the hustle and hype of a full international tour, and Sangakkara was at pains to point out that MCC’s presence was not about pointing fingers at any Test nations that might still be having doubts about committing fully to a return to Pakistan – least of all the next scheduled visitors South Africa, who are due to tour the country next month, pending security clearance.
“Our message is very simple,” said Sangakkara. “We are here because we are confident that we will have a great tour. There’s been a huge effort by Wasim Khan [managing director] at the PCB, and the government, to get us here, and once we are able to show that this tour has gone off successfully, that message will resonate beyond Pakistan, and go a long way towards strengthening the purpose of other sides who are making the decision to come back.
“These things take time. You have to build confidence by sending the right message, then you need the right protocols and the right arrangements in place. But it’s great to see it all gathering momentum. More and more teams are talking about it, and more teams are coming back.”
As for Sangakkara’s own return, his first 24 hours back in Pakistan have turned out to be improbably relaxing.
“I did spend some time thinking what it would feel like, coming back to Lahore, going to the ground and staying at the Pearl Continental Hotel,” he said. “But the reception at the airport was brilliant, everyone was so passionate about us coming here. It really made us relax, getting into the bus. It feels lovely to be back, and I’m glad I made the decision to come back to Lahore and be part of this tour.
“It’s about reigniting the passion and the spark of inspiration for young Pakistani boys and girls, who want to be able to watch their heroes, playing at home in front of them in the flesh. The best in the world, competing and winning and doing great things.
“There’s no greater legacy can be left behind than that, and for MCC to be part of that effort to bring international cricket back to Pakistan, I think we can all be quite proud.”