Exclusive: Ashraf says teams in talks about return to Pakistan

PCB chairman insists he's in discussion with two countries – and England should follow

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The Independent Online

Pakistan are in talks with two countries about returning to tour there. Despite fears about security, the Pakistan Cricket Board claims to have had direct approaches about resuming international cricket this year.

Zaka Ashraf, the recently appointed chairman of the PCB, said he was extremely hopeful that visiting teams would soon lift the blanket ban which has applied since a murderous attack on the Sri Lanka team coach in early 2009. Seven people were killed and several cricketers and officials were lucky to escape with their lives.

Although the International Cricket Council has not formally discussed the issue, Ashraf said progress was being made. He insisted it would depend on a mini-tour which Bangladesh have agreed to make in April as part of a deal between the two nations. In return for Pakistan's support for Bangladesh's nominee, Mustafa Kamel, as the ICC's new president, Bangladesh have, in principle, agreed to make the trip.

Ashraf, who was in Dubai for the ICC's quarterly meeting and to watch Pakistan's win in the third Test against England, said: "The Bangladesh cricket board are coming and they're going to have a meeting in Pakistan with our Interior Ministry. The Interior Ministry is looking at everything and fully supportive of Bangladesh-Pakistan series.

"I've already had requests from two other countries. We can't disclose who they are because it would break their confidence but they're looking at Bangladesh and if everything goes well they're ready to come."

The field is narrow and England, Australia, India, New Zealand and Sri Lanka can definitely be ruled out. South Africa have a full schedule for at least a year. Ashraf may be unduly optimistic. There is no appetite among players to return to Pakistan and advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to avoid all but essential trips. The attack on Sri Lanka has cast a long shadow.

But Ashraf said: "It is much better now and it is safe now because we are taking certain measures which at that time they were not taking. Our Interior Ministry is providing all the security. All the roads and everything will be lined up and different other security forces will be around the event.

"We have arranged all sorts of bullet-proof vehicles for the team and the match officials. I am quite hopeful that with all the security arrangements once the match goes ahead then it is fine. Then it will open up the gates for the other teams. They're completely safe.

"It all depends on the Bangladesh series. After that we will start talking to different countries and after that the western countries will also come and I'm sure England and Australia, they'll all start coming back."

If such security is deemed necessary, it may be that players will think it is not safe. Since China toured Pakistan late last year to play four hockey matches without incident, there has been burgeoning optimism in cricket circles. But it may take much longer than Ashraf supposes. Last week, Giles Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, and head of the ICC's Pakistan task force, said the elephant in the room was the attack on the Sri Lankans, which had changed things.

The proposed two one-day internationals against Bangladesh are far from certain. The ICC would have to be persuaded to send match officials, and Bangladesh too have yet to conclude that it is safe.

If the deal between the countries – a tour in exchange for support for a presidential candidate – may seem odd, it was praised as an example of openness in which everybody could see how the agreement was reached in the Woolf Report into the ICC's governance last week. If it is a sign of Pakistan's pragmatism, it also indicates their desperation.

At present they are playing so-called home matches in the United Arab Emirates. Although their form has not been affected one iota – witness their whitewash of England in the Test series – they know it cannot continue indefinitely. "The main thing is the cricket fans are being deprived," said Ashraf. "Pakistan has suffered. We have been a front-line state in the war on terror and we need international sport.

"I think we can sustain the team, our players are very talented, but when there's an international match going on, that's when young boys get thrilled and that's what attracts them to play cricket.

"I am quite hopeful this will come and Pakistan will be back on the track. We will have international cricket. With the help of the international community, the help of the West."