Australia arrive for first Pakistan tour in 24 years with security tight
Australia flew into Pakistan Sunday for their first cricket tour in nearly a quarter of a century — and into a high-security bubble that will envelop them throughout their six-week stay.
Senior batsman Steve Smith posted a picture on Twitter of the 35-strong Australia tour party inside their charter flight’s cabin after it touched down in the Pakistan capital, Islamabad.
Pakistan have struggled to attract visiting sides since a fatal terror attack on the visiting Sri Lanka team’s bus in 2009. Australia pulled out of a tour five years earlier after a suicide blast at a Lahore church.
They last played in Pakistan in 1998, winning the three-Test series 1-0 and blanking the hosts in the three one-day internationals.
Having been forced to play their home games abroad — mostly in the United Arab Emirates — Pakistan appeared to have reassured international cricket authorities last year with both New Zealand and England scheduled to tour.
But the Black Caps hastily departed in September just minutes before their first match was due to start, citing security fears, and England postponed tours by both their men’s and women’s teams soon after.
The decisions incensed Pakistan cricket authorities, who felt they had done everything possible to ensure safety and security.
They say they are again leaving nothing to chance, with nearly 4,000 police and military personnel guarding the team hotel in Islamabad and the cricket stadium in the nearby garrison city of Rawalpindi.
Australia captain Pat Cummins said he was reassured by the high-level security, the sort normally reserved for visiting heads of state.
“It’s comforting,” said Cummins after being whisked to the team’s Islamabad hotel in a heavily-guarded convoy. “We are really lucky to be surrounded by so many professionals.
“Absolutely feel incredibly safe. Lots of security, straight off the plane and straight to the hotel.”
– ‘No distractions’ –
A spokesman for Pakistan’s interior ministry told AFP that “such arrangements are only made for high-level foreign delegations, (and) the president and prime minister of Pakistan,”
Roads will be blocked off when the Australians make the 15-kilometre (11-mile) commute to the stadium from the capital, with their team bus to be shadowed by army helicopters.
Snipers will be positioned on buildings surrounding the stadium, while nearby shops and offices have been ordered to close on match days, the interior ministry said.
Similar arrangements will be in place for matches in Karachi and Lahore.
The Australians will isolate themselves in their rooms for 24 hours while waiting for results of Covid tests, before intense training begins Monday ahead of the first Test starting on March 4.
“We will be pretty much confined to the hotel but we have travelled to India and places like that a lot where you probably don’t leave the hotel too much, so we are used to it,” said Cummins.
“There are no distractions other than the cricket.”
More than half Pakistan’s 220 million people were not even born the last time Australia toured — the median age is 22.8 — but stadiums are expected to be packed as the country emerges relatively unscathed from the Omicron stage of the Covid epidemic.
Cummins welcomed the return of international cricket to Pakistan.
“We always know that Pakistan is an incredible cricket nation,” said Cummins who led Australia to 4-0 Ashes win in his first assignment as captain.
“We feel lucky that we get to come back here after a whole generation didn’t get that opportunity to come and play Test or any cricket here.”
The teams will play three Tests, three one-day internationals and one Twenty20 match before the Australians depart on April 6.
Pakistan are due to host eight Tests, 11 ODIs and 13 Twenty20 internationals in the next 13 months.