The team have been granted VVIP (very, very important person) status throughout their three-week tour, comprising seven T20Is – the first four in Karachi, the last three in Lahore. The Shahrah-e-Faisal Road between Jinnah International Airport and the Movenpick Hotel was closed to the public, with armed guards flanking the convoy throughout the journey.
When England last came to Pakistan in 2005, only one member of this squad (Moeen Ali) had made a professional appearance. In the years since, they have played three ‘away’ series at neutral venues in the UAE and their return for this tour marks a significant moment ahead of a three-match Test series in December, after the T20 World Cup.
Their arrival was unobtrusive as they were escorted through the back entrance, past the outdoor pool and through the lobby with minimal fuss, but their status was underlined by what was not obviously visible: snipers stationed on nearby buildings, more than 300 additional security guards at the hotel, and at least 5000 additional police officers on duty across the city.
“That’s the initial challenge as players, just visually, it being very different. After a day or two you get used to that, focus on the cricket and look forward to playing.” They will train for the first time on Friday night at the National Stadium, ahead of the first T20I on Tuesday.
Off-field preparations for this tour started around eight months ago, with England’s last-minute withdrawal from their scheduled two-match series last year still fresh in the memory. An ECB delegation travelled in July to review arrangements and the touring party were given a detailed briefing last week, led by security advisor Reg Dickason and Rob Lynch, the Professional Cricketers’ Association chief executive.
Both men are with the team for the start of the series along with Rob Key, who worked on Australia’s tour in March as a broadcaster before becoming the ECB’s managing director of men’s cricket, writing in an Evening Standard column that he had been “blown away” and had encountered “the kindest, most welcoming and gracious hosts I’ve ever experienced”.
The players know what to expect. Exactly half of England’s 20-man squad have played cricket in Pakistan before thanks to the PSL – Dawid Malan, now a senior player in the T20I set-up, was among the first, flying into Lahore for the 2017 final – while others experienced similar high-security operations on England’s tour to Bangladesh in 2016.
“A few guys had some questions but it is great to have someone like Reg who can answer them,” Buttler said. “We have a number of players who have played in the PSL and been here recently as well, and that allayed some concerns. When you know people have been here recently and played… that seems to make things feel okay.”
At his arrival press conference, Buttler was greeted by around 25 television cameras and a ballroom – featuring three chandeliers – filled with local reporters. “It’s great to be back as an England cricket team after a long time,” he said. “We’re delighted to be here.” At this stage of the tour, he is filling a diplomatic role as much as a sporting one.
Buttler announced a donation – understood to be a five-figure pound-sterling sum – from the players to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal, which will be matched by the ECB, amid the floods that have devastated parts of Pakistan and left millions of people in need of urgent help. “It won’t be enough, but any small part we can play is important,” he said.
He drew a parallel with the curtailed IPL season in 2021, which started while India was experiencing the brutal effects of a second Covid-19 wave. “I played in that IPL… whether it was right or wrong, the narrative was the pleasure it was giving to people, and it being a bit of an escape, watching an IPL game every night. Sport can do that.
“Sport has a great power to unite people: it has a great power to give a distraction at times of need; it has a great way of bringing people together to show respect. As human beings, we’re all just as conscious of what’s going on around the world as anyone else. Just because we play cricket, that doesn’t mean we don’t watch the news.
“We know the tough times that the people of Pakistan are facing at the moment. We hope that us being here can shed light on that, and people can see that people need help. Hopefully, some exciting games of cricket will be a small tonic to raise some spirits as well.”
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98