Lahore: Pakistan tightened security in the city of Lahore ahead of a hugely anticipated final of its domestic cricket league on Sunday, pushing ahead with a rare high-profile match despite a recent spike in extremist violence.
The government had wavered momentarily on whether to host the Pakistan Super League (PSL) final after a series of militant attacks killed more than 130 people last month, including a suicide bombing in Lahore in which at least 13 people died.
Pakistan has only hosted one international series since militants attacked a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009. Six players were hurt while two civilians and six security officials were killed in that attack.
A tour by Zimbabwe's cricket team in 2015 was almost disrupted when a suicide bomber killed two security officials near a stadium. While the Pakistan Super League is in its second year and boasts a television viewership in excess of 50 million people, all matches have been played in the United Arab Emirates.
Rana Sanaullah, law minister for Punjab province, of which Lahore is capital, told Reuters the government had "prepared a fool-proof security plan" for the night-time game, expected to finish after midnight (1900 GMT).
Sanaullah said nearly 4,000 police and paramilitary Rangers would be patrolling the area and fans would have to pass five security layers before reaching the 25,000-capacity stadium where the Peshawar Zalmi will be playing Quetta Gladiators. But not everyone has been convinced.
Citing security fears, some high-profile foreign players such as former England captain Kevin Pietersen, who plays for the Quetta team, decided to skip the final. West Indian World Cup winner Darren Sammy, who plays for Peshawar, will be on the field.
On the morning of the match, cricket-obsessed Pakistanis were brushing off security worries and relishing the chance to once again savour big-game cricket on home soil.
"For the last several weeks, we were not going to restaurants because of threats of terrorism. But celebration of the PSL final has brought us out," said school teacher Maleeha Rizvi, 48, dining with her family near the stadium.
"I guess this event has defeated terrorism," she added. Pakistan has been desperate for international cricket events to return but some media commentators have accused officials of risking lives by staging an event during a period of heightened security threats.
Officials, however, say security in Pakistan has greatly improved over the past few years and the recent bout of violence was a temporary blip.