Imagine returning home after living a nomadic life for years. Imagine returning to the comfort of your home, welcomed by the warm embrace of your loved ones. Imagine the jubilance. That was the sort of jubilance which was shared by players and fans alike as Pakistan played their first international game on home soil in more than six years. It was the sort of match where the result didn’t really matter. But the fact that their team managed a last-over win in the high-scoring thriller was like a perfect icing on the cake for thousands of fans, who thronged the Qaddafi Stadium on a hot and humid Friday evening last week.
It was certainly a memorable sight, the sort of sight that had not been witnessed on Pakistani soil for years. It didn’t matter that the rival team was Zimbabwe, regarded among the minnows of world cricket, because for the cricket-starved Pakistanis the mere fact that they were witnessing international cricket in their own backyard sufficed.
It was heart-warming to see youngster Mukhtar Ahmed, a 22-year-old from Sialkot featuring in only his second international, making the most of the opportunity. He is now a household name, an overnight success with his match-winning 83. The big-hitting opener played the key role in a 142-run opening stand with Ahmed Shehzad, the so-called ‘selfie king’, who has finally managed to shrug off his indifferent form.
It was also heart-warming to see Mohammad Sami, once regarded among the world’s fastest bowlers, maki`ng his international comeback after three years and picking up three wickets.
But the most heartwarming sight was the joy and passion of thousands of fans who braved Lahore’s sweltering heat (the mercury touched 43 last Friday) to witness the return of international cricket to Pakistan. The iconic Gaddafi Stadium was packed as the fans walked through multiple layers of security to watch their favourite cricketers in action on home soil for the first time since 2009.
It was back in March that year when a tragic incident, which took place not too far away from the Gaddafi Stadium, turned Pakistan into an international sporting pariah. Heavily armed terrorists ambushed a convoy carrying Sri Lankan cricketers and killed eight people, mostly policemen. Several visiting players and officials were injured. Many international teams had stopped visiting Pakistan even before the Lahore attack. None visited this country after it, not until Zimbabwe said ‘yes’.
One must hail the Zimbabweans for their brave gesture. Many suspect that they are here for the money but I don’t think so. Money might have been one of the reasons why they have agreed to visit Pakistan but a bigger, more important motive is cricket. Just like Pakistan, they too are desperate for international cricket. And if the opening Twenty20 International is any yardstick then one can hope that they are here to give Pakistan a run for their money.
Once the series concludes on May 31, the big question for Pakistan will be: what next?
Ask Shaharyar Khan, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman, and he will tell you that the country’s cricket authorities will be making all out efforts to make sure that Zimbabwe’s visit won’t be a one-off success. The ex-diplomat will stress that the PCB will try convincing teams like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to come and play in Pakistan. Such promises were also made by his predecessors but thankfully they do not sound as hollow as they sounded in the past. By delivering the home series against Zimbabwe, Shaharyar has proved that unlike his predecessors he means business. One hopes that he and the PCB are well aware of the fact that the ongoing series is merely a baby step towards the return of international cricket to Pakistan. Many bigger strides will be needed before our country’s status as an international cricketing destination is regained. Teams like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka should visit but we also need other cricketing-playing nations like India, England, South Africa and Australia to come and play in Pakistan. Only then can we truly say that international cricket is back in Pakistan.