Seen from the roof of Karachi’s National Stadium, the city stretches as far as you can see in all directions, up into the hills one way and out into the sea the other. Around 18 million people live here. Only the soldiers stand out. They are conspicuous in their black uniforms, as dark and numerous as the kites overhead, and as watchful, too.
The Pakistan Cricket Board has spent so much on the security for this tour it will not make money from it even with all the corporate sponsorship. It is a loss-leader for the country, meant to reassure the English that this is a safe place to visit, and the world that Pakistan is a safe place to do business.
Before Tuesday’s T20 international you could pick out the three-man sniper teams stationed around the stadium, one on the roof of the Indus University, another on top of the huge billboard advertising Strawberryade, a third above an apartment block silhouetted by the setting sun. The Spidercam, which is supposed to provide aerial pictures for the TV feed, had been taken down overnight. The story went around that it was removed when the security team realised it would make it impossible for the army helicopter that follows the team to land on the outfield if needed for an emergency evacuation.
On the outfield, the England team were having their customary warm-up kickabout. It was as far as the players had been from their security detail all week. “Every time I go to the toilet, there’s somebody following me,” said Harry Brook. “I’ve never really had that before.”
The players were disconcerted by it at first and discussed the security situation in a team meeting. It was explained that the guards needed to stay within a few paces so they could intervene if anyone came up with a knife or gun. Which, like all of this, has the effect of making you at once feel more protected but somehow less safe. It magnifies your sense of threat, as if the lobby of their five-star hotel, which is filled with well-heeled businessmen drinking tea and well-to-do families attending weddings, was actually a den of potential assassins. Extraordinary lengths have been undertaken to make Karachi feel like an ordinary place to play cricket.
There’s another side to the city, waiting right outside the metal gates. Moeen Ali knows. When he came here to play in the Pakistan Super League in 2020, he brought his family and they moved around freely, went to cafes, restaurants and shopping malls.
The rest of us have been able to do exactly that this week, too. Out there, Karachi is full of good things to eat and see and do. Everywhere you go people want to know how you are finding the city.
They ask whether you’re enjoying yourself and are anxious to know whether they can do any more for you. It’s a sign of the stigma they felt during those years in exile from international cricket and how wounding it must have been.
One day, international teams will be able to experience the country the way Moeen did. But for now, the PCB has no choice but to shutter them off from it. It has been seven years since Zimbabwe came to play two T20s – the first visit from a Test-playing nation since 2009 – but the last few months have been their most high-profile stretch of fixtures yet.
In March, Australia came for the first time in 24 years, England this month for the first time in 17, next January, New Zealand will come back to resume the series they abandoned in 2021 after their government received what was described as a credible threat to the team’s security.
In 2002, the New Zealand team were staying right here in this same corner of Karachi when a bomb went off outside their hotel. Their physio was injured by flying glass and the match was abandoned. Their captain, Stephen Fleming, spoke about how shocked he had been by the way the city (which had already endured a decade of sectarian violence) carried on with its business in the aftermath.
But this is another age. London is a victim too these days and it’s easy to forget that the 2005 Ashes and the 2017 Champions Trophy, were played in England in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in the city.
The PCB has to go above and beyond what seems normal because it cannot risk anything going wrong. And the reminders of what can go wrong are all around if you want to look for them. Ahsan Raza is standing as one of the umpires in this series. He still has the bullet scars in his chest from where he was hit during the 2009 terrorist attack on the Test in Lahore and will show them to you.
The country’s governing body has grand plans for the next few years. It is launching a Women’s Super League and is recruiting some high-profile investors, as well as a Pakistan Junior League, in which 66 under-19 players from around the world will take part in a T20 tournament in Lahore.
Some 175 foreign players have registered to be part of the draft for that, including 10 from England, such as the two leg-spinners Archie Lenham and Rehan Ahmed. The hope here is that it will be the first of many trips to Pakistan made by that generation of players and that over the years the PCB will be able to peel back those layers of security so that by the end of their fledgling careers, their country will be a destination like any other.