Pak team returns to warm welcome, Afridi critical of Malik

Karachi/Lahore: Notwithstanding the loss in the high-voltage World Cup semifinal encounter with India, the Pakistan cricket team on Friday received a rousing welcome on its return home even as the country`s media heaped praise on its remarkable performance despite "facing much hardship in recent times".

Skipper Shahid Afridi and his men, who were not among the favourites at the start of the Cup but managed to reach the semifinals, were cheered when they arrived in Karachi with die-hard fans greeting them at the airport.

After being mobbed at the Karachi airport, Afridi was accompanied by legions of fans to his home, some 10 kilometres from the terminal.

Afridi, who had inspired his men still recovering from the spot-fixing scandal in London last summer, was critical of Interior Minister Rehman Malik on his remarks warning them against match-fixing on the eve of the Mohali encounter.

"I think the statement made by (Interior Minister) Rehman Malik, I don`t think the timing was right. He telephoned me three or four times and he tried to explain things but I could not understand what he was saying as I was busy with my work.

I think he made a mistake and I hope such mistakes aren`t made by anyone in future," Afridi said.

On the high-pressure match which Pakistan lost by 29 runs, Afridi said his fears of a batting collapse came true.

"I think the way we have been struggling with our batting, there should be a coach to work out with the batsmen," he said.

"I think I had a fear that our batting could collapse, our batting had been struggling from the first match to the last. I will give credit to the bowlers from the first match to the last," he added.

Afridi was also critical of pacer Shoaib Akhtar for announcing his retirement in the middle of the World Cup.

"His timing was not right and he should have properly consulted and spoken to us about his decision. He should have either announced his intention to retire before the start of the tournament or after it, it made no sense to announce his retirement in the middle of the World Cup," he said.

The players were showered with flowers and welcomed with banners and buntings. A similar welcome awaited them when many of them reached Lahore by another flight.

Politicians also joined fans in welcoming the team in Lahore. The ministers were led by Chief Minister of Punjab province, Shahbaz Sharif, at the Lahore airport.

"It is a historic moment in Pakistan cricket that the Chief Minister himself has taken the initiative to come and welcome our players," Pakistan Cricket Board chief Ijaz Butt said.

"You have done us proud by reaching the semi-finals after beating bigger teams. Victory and defeat is part and parcel of the game and we accept it," Shahbaz told reporters at the airport.

"The people appreciate your hard work and hope you will continue to perform and improve in the same manner," he said while announcing a grand reception for the players on April 5 in Lahore.

The Punjab CM has already announced cash prizes of Rs five lakh for each player and official for their performances.

The Pakistan squad reached Karachi from India via Dubai early this morning.

While Afridi, Younis Khan and Asad Shafiq left for their homes in Karachi, the rest of the players flew to Lahore.

The warm reception was a welcome aberration for the Pakistan players, who had been been subjected to ridicule and abuse by angry fans on many occasions in the past.

Butt said he was happy to see the response of the people.

"I am happy to see the welcome given to the players because they need our support and encouragement to perform better in future," Butt said.

The media lavished praise on the team, saying that the side could hold its heads high.

"The Pakistan team will not be carrying a trophy as it arrives back home from its World Cup outing in India but the players should carry their heads high," The `Express Tribune` newspaper said in its editorial.

"Regardless of the semi-final loss to hosts India at Mohali, Pakistan has performed remarkably well for a team which has suffered so much hardship in recent times," it added.

"The Pakistan team has done its country proud and deserves to be treated as champions who have excelled both in their demonstration of spirit and of skill, and as ambassadors of peace. They deserve a round of standing applause," the daily said.

"Afridi spoke with maturity and good grace as he praised the Indian effort and apologised to his nation," The Express Tribune said in its editorial `Stand up for the champions`.

The News, in its editorial, said Pakistan`s "brave cricketing performance at the World Cup should make us all proud".

The Frontier Post`s editorial lauded the Pakistan team for overcoming its reputation as underdogs going into the tournament following the banning of three top players — Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer — for spot-fixing charges.

The newspaper also praised the team for defeating reigning champions Australia in the group stages.