When an intense two-day police operation to arrest former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in the eastern city of Lahore came to a halt, it was cricket that came to the former cricket star’s rescue.
Police had surrounded Khan’s residence in the provincial capital of Punjab province since Monday to arrest him for failing to turn up to court on corruption charges, but they retreated on Wednesday afternoon following court orders to suspend the operation until the next day.
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Before stepping into politics, Khan’s popularity was based on his illustrious cricket career, which ended after he led Pakistan to its only International Cricket Council (ICC) Men’s World Cup title in 1992.
A senior police official told Al Jazeera earlier on Wednesday that forces deployed outside the cricketer-turned-politician’s house were withdrawing in order to allow the knockout matches of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) cricket tournament to be played as scheduled.
“Since the teams have to reach the stadium a few hours before the match and the routes need to be cleared out, the security personnel at Zaman Park have stepped back for a short while,” said the officer, who did not want to reveal his name.
Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium, which is hosting a PSL match between the Lahore Qalandars and the Multan Sultans on Wednesday evening, is 9km (5.6 miles) from Khan’s residence in Zaman Park.
Cricket fans in Pakistan took to social media to express their delight when PSL confirmed that Wednesday’s match will be played as planned.
— PakistanSuperLeague (@thePSLt20) March 15, 2023
“There is nothing to worry about, PSL 2023 will be played as per schedule. The police & all other security forces around Zaman Park have stepped back from the operation to arrest Imran Khan due to PSL 8 playoffs completion in Gaddafi Stadium Lahore,” one Twitter user said.
Breaking News: There is nothing to worry about, PSL 2023 will be played as per schedule. The police & all other security forces around Zaman Park have stepped back from the operation to arrest Imran Khan due to PSL 8 playoffs completion in Gaddafi Stadium Lahore. #LQvMS #HBLPSL8 pic.twitter.com/P1uqXSmZt4
— Ahmad Haseeb (@iamAhmadhaseeb) March 15, 2023
Sources claim that police & rangers have moved back from Zaman Park because of the PSL match tonight in Lahore & will not make a move to arrest Imran Khan until the match ends. Meanwhile, all eyes on Islamabad and Lahore High Courts where petitions of Imran Khan are being heard.
— Wajahat Kazmi (@KazmiWajahat) March 15, 2023
Cricket is the most popular sport in Pakistan and the PSL is its premier domestic cricket competition, which also attracts international cricketers to the country. However, the PSL was played in the United Arab Emirates from 2015 to 2019 due to security concerns in Pakistan.
The game’s administration has been historically embroiled in politics as the top posts of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) undergo a change with every successive regime change in the country.
Current PCB Chairman Najam Sethi is one of Khan’s fiercest rivals and was appointed by the current government after Khan was deposed from the country’s helm.
Earlier this week, Khan announced a public gathering at Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan monument on March 19, the same day as the PSL final.
Sethi has publicly asked the Punjab province’s chief minister to ensure security for the tournament’s final.
“@MohsinnaqviC42 HBLPSL8 multi million dollar Final on 19 March will be played before 25k people at Gadafi Stadium & 100 m across the globe,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is Pakistan’s finest showcase. Punjab govt must ensure failsafe security & smooth traffic flow to facilitate peoples access to stadium.”
@MohsinnaqviC42 HBLPSL8 multi million dollar Final on 19 March will be played before 25k people at Gadafi Stadium & 100 m across the globe. This is Pakistan’s finest showcase. Punjab govt must ensure failsafe security & smooth traffic flow to facilitate peoples access to stadium.
— Najam Sethi (@najamsethi) March 14, 2023
As per the court’s order issued earlier on Wednesday, the operation to arrest Khan will be halted until 10am on Thursday (05:00 GMT), nearly 12 hours after the PSL match in Lahore.