Thousands of spectators turned up at the Rawalpindi stadium to watch their national team players in a domestic Twenty20 tournament. (AP Photo)
Islamabad: The three schoolboys jumped a barrier and walked nearly a mile to buy tickets to a Twenty20 game at Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium.
Truth be told, 14-year-old classmates Azizullah Khan, Zubair Khan and Noman Khalid would have been happy to walk almost any distance to see their heroes up close; Saeed Ajmal and Umar Gul taking wickets and Umar Akmal whacking boundaries.
The boys had only ever seen them on television for the last three years, ever since foreign teams refused to tour Pakistan after gunmen attacked the Sri Lanka team bus on the morning of a 2009 Test in Lahore.
The ambush killed six police officials and a van driver, wounded and scarred members of the Sri Lanka tour party, and shut the door on Pakistan hosting international cricket.
"I have not seen international matches here," Azizullah said as he bought three tickets for 300 rupees ($3) from a makeshift ticket booth in a container beside the road.
"Everyone here is thinking, when will international cricket return to Pakistan?"
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) still hopes it will be next month.
Bangladesh accepted an invitation to visit Pakistan in April for the first time since 2008 and play three one-day internationals or two ODIs and a Twenty20. A high-powered Bangladesh delegation — led by the country's cricket board head Mustafa Kamal — was briefed on security by top officials of the Pakistan government. But the PCB is still waiting for a response from Bangladesh.
In the meantime, the PCB and government have been working to make cricket a safe haven for their own people.
For the Super Eight Twenty20 tournament in Rawalpindi, which featured most of Pakistan's international players, all eight teams were given beefed up security.
About two dozen armed guards in two vans escorted each team from the hotel to the stadium and back, and 1,400 security personnel were posted in a three-kilometre (two-mile) radius of the stadium.
Everything went off without a hitch, except for the fate of the home team, the defending Super Eight champion Rawalpindi Rams, who were knocked out after losing their group matches to the Sialkot Stallions and Lahore Eagles.
"(For) the last three years there has been apprehension regarding security measures," said Malik Matloob, a senior Rawalpindi police official. "Whether it's a local or international (event), we consider it as an international challenge for us, that's why we're arranging (security) like it is an international cricket event.
"Now we are in a position ... we can make any arrangements for national as well as international cricket."
New Pakistan coach Dav Whatmore and fielding coach Julian Fountain regularly watched the sold-out matches from VIP boxes and the PCB felt the tournament served a dual purpose in delivering high-class matches to local fans.
"I think it's very important for our own survival to have these events," PCB director Zakir Khan said.
"It's for the international community to see that cricket is safe and at the same time we are producing quality cricketers and we are competitive in the world arena.
Pakistan Test spinner Danish Kaneria, who played for one of the two teams from Karachi, hoped Bangladesh will come to Pakistan and help break the ice.
"Once a smaller team (like Bangladesh) comes to Pakistan then automatically the other teams will get to know what our security is like," Kaneria said. "The security provided by the PCB and the administration over here is wonderful. They are taking care of us as if we are playing international matches."
PCB hired DGM Securities to liaise with local police. The company has worked with the PCB for 10 years, looking after stadium security for series against New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, India and the 2008 Asia Cup.
"After 2001 (and the 9/11 attacks), things changed," company chief executive Syed Nadeem Mansur said. "We have started to install metal detectors to scan every single visitor at every entrance and then we have started to scan their luggage with X-rays, too."
Closed circuit cameras are also around the stadium to watch the crowd.
"Anybody can come here and see the security measures, and if they find any gap in the security measures we would be surprised," Mansur said.
He added he briefed the Bangladesh delegation and said the visitors were convinced the security was sufficient.
"If somehow they don't come ... I am always interested to know if it is a security matter," Mansur said.
Shariq Ahmed, a fan at the Super Eight wearing the green jersey of Pakistan, believed the tournament's successful security should send positive signals abroad.
"This gives us a chance to show international players that Pakistan is a safe country," Ahmed said. "There's a huge response from the crowd with the stadium full in every match, and that's a good sign for Pakistan cricket."