Pakistan's hopes for Test cricket to return to the country have suffered a substantial blow, as ten prominent Sri Lanka cricketers have refused to travel to the country for the forthcoming limited-overs tour.
By hosting the limited-overs series first, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) had intended to prove to Sri Lanka players and officials that the nation was secure enough to host Test cricket, starting with the teams' World Test Championship matches, presently scheduled for December. But with Niroshan Dickwella, Kusal Perera, Dhananjaya de Silva, Thisara Perera, Akila Dananjaya, Lasith Malinga, Angelo Mathews, Suranga Lakmal, Dinesh Chandimal and Dimuth Karunaratne all pulling out of the limited-overs tour PCB's plans have been significantly dented.
Even if this tour goes off without a hitch, Sri Lanka's frontline Test players may remain unconvinced about the December tour. And, if that is the case, Sri Lanka Cricket is almost certain to refuse to play those Tests in Pakistan. While in this case the board is prepared to send a weakened limited-overs side to the country, it is unlikely to do so for Tests that have championship points at stake.
SLC had held a meeting on Monday with the players who were part of the preliminary squad for the tour, to inform them about the security arrangements in Pakistan, which the board itself is largely happy with. In fact, a former Sri Lankan Air Force Commander had conveyed his confidence in those arrangements to the players. But the board has ultimately respected the players' wishes. According to an SLC release, chief selector Ashantha de Mel had told players that refusal to tour Pakistan on this occasion would not affect their selection for future series.
Both the present ODI captain, Karunaratne, and the T20 captain, Malinga, have refused to tour.
For its part, the PCB has had to accept the decision of the Sri Lankan cricketers, while confirming that the tour will go on as planned. "The PCB understands and respects it is the prerogative of Sri Lanka Cricket to select the best available players for the upcoming tour for white-ball cricket. As far as the PCB is concerned, the tour is on and we look forward to welcoming the Sri Lanka team in Karachi later this month," a spokesperson said.
This is not Sri Lanka's first trip to Pakistan since the Lahore attack on the Sri Lanka team. In fact, they had played a solitary T20 there in 2017, also with a weakened squad. But Thisara, who captained the Sri Lanka side in that match in Lahore, is this time among the players who have refused to travel. This, however, is understood to largely be because of his commitments at the Caribbean Premier League with the St Lucia Zouks. He did not make the XI for Sri Lanka's two most recent ODIs, nor their most recent T20 squad, in any case.
Of the players currently in the frame for selection, only Suranga Lakmal had been on the team bus that was attacked by gunmen in 2009. Nevertheless, many younger players will have heard of the ordeal from former players, some of whom remain scarred by the experience. Among the arguments this current group of players mounted their refusal on, is that some other team should be the first to resume Tests in Pakistan, rather than another Sri Lanka side.
The PCB will be especially disheartened at the development, because they had been the first to send a team to Sri Lanka following this year's Easter Sunday attacks. There was a time, in the weeks immediately following the bombings, when cricket tours on the island faced an uncertain future. But the PCB had sent its Under-19 team to Sri Lanka for five ODIs only a month after the attacks, which helped demonstrate the improved security situation. Since then, Sri Lanka has hosted Bangladesh and New Zealand at venues around the country.
But although SLC had at one stage said it had received "very positive" feedback from the security team it had sent to assess the situation in Pakistan, their players have ultimately made their own decisions. The PCB will hope there is still a chance the limited-overs tour can still be a springboard to hosting Tests at some point in the near future. But the chances of Sri Lanka being that touring Test team have diminished significantly.
The limited-overs series, which features three ODIs and three T20Is, is set to run from September 27 to October 9. The ODIs will all be played in Karachi, before Lahore hosts the T20s.
Additional reporting by Umar Farooq