All of us who pass by the Gaddafi Stadium often wonder when we will see the floodlights lit up again. A sense of loss pervaded the city after that attack on the Sri Lankan team now almost a decade ago.
I recently vowed to not miss a single match being held in Lahore so I went to see the first eliminator held at the stadium this past week. I couldn’t get the passes or tickets for the second one.
We parked our car in the Punjab University’s parking lot. We had to pass through four or more check-points with scanners and women Rangers for security. The ticket was checked at every step. Then we had to take a crowded shuttle which had separate seats for women.
The traffic was anxiety-inducing. Many of the roads were blocked and the roads parallel to them became two-way. And the scenes that followed were precarious — empty streets being cordoned off, cars trying to move in all directions at cross-sections and one road jammed by red shuttle buses taking the cricket aficionados from the parking lots to the stadium.
The stadium looked delightful, what with the floodlights — it was almost like white daylight and, after a while, it gave me a headache.
We were in the Raja’s enclosure which is on the opposite side to where the players and the coaches were sitting. This was the first PSL match I saw until the end. I noticed that the pitch was much smaller and my friend pointed out that the 20-20 field is smaller.
The teams arrived amidst fireworks — the Peshawar Zalmi in yellow, and the Quetta Gladiators in a blue dress with golden strips that sparkled. I decided to support the Gladiators because of this additional glamour in their uniform.
The national anthem of Pakistan was played. We stood up, and recited it way too loud. I waited for another country’s anthem to be played before realising that there would be none because there was no foreign team around.
Both Peshawar and Quetta represent the western urban centres of Pakistan which most Lahorites haven’t visited. We all know the majority of Pakistan’s population is based in the east, and the western half has additional issues. But then, both the teams didn’t have many players from the cities or even the provinces that they represented. And now everyone in the stadium owned at least one of them and was ecstatic to watch them play.
We were enjoying the lovely wind. I had just had my first share of photos and selfies. But then it started raining. The covers came on, and the teams escaped. The raindrops were visible in the floodlights. It was like a dream except that we now feared there might be no match.
We moved to the chairs at the back which were under the roof. We had already been sitting on those thick paper leaflets they had given us to cheer whenever there was a six or a four. The thick, plastic-like material came in handy for escaping the wetness of the seats.
The rain stopped a few minutes later. And the teams returned. Peshawar Zalmi batted first. Darren Sammy got a warm welcome. The whole stadium cheered for him.
The pitch was smaller and there was a green gap between the pitch and the enclosures. Many celebrities emerged on this green patch from the press gallery to go to the other side and meet the players. One of them was former skipper Ramiz Raja, dressed in a white shalwar and black sherwani-style coat that ended at his knees. He was moving across swiftly. He didn’t respond to our chants and started chatting with someone. But just before he walked on, he swiftly turned around and waved at us, sending the crowd into frenzy. Sports anchor Zainab Abbas also passed by a few times but didn’t wave back at us.
The crowd had some women and families but mostly young men. If people had brought children, they were also almost always boys.
There were ice-cream sellers. There was an ice cream stand in the enclosure. One could buy pizza, fizzy drinks, and chips but had to go outside for them. There was that spicy “Daal wala” who offered daal in a notebook page, and the gentleman sitting next to us gave it to us as a treat.
Some people came in costumes; they usually walked from enclosure to enclosure, pausing to pose for selfies. There was a very tall man wearing a costume with Pakistan’s flags all over his dress, and a large hat. Some Sikhs were also there; they were sporting green turbans.
The police chief of Lahore passed through the enclosure, surveying the crowds and waving to his fans. Hassan Ali, the young bowler, was standing at the edge of the pitch. Everyone yelled out his name. People really want the players to look their way so that they can cheer.
The camera would move towards the enclosure periodically and the crowd would become more animated. Also, there was the nuisance of some sponsors throwing free promotional T-shirts into the enclosure. The crowd went berserk to the extent of becoming distractive. This inane marketing gesture was repeated several times. One astute fellow managed to escape with an entire box of the shirts and everyone was later begging him to give them one.
The two children and their father sitting in front of us were grim creatures. They gave us dirty looks when we asked them to sit down, and wouldn’t let anyone pass by them. A bespectacled young boy, apparently less than ten, was an expert at making and flying paper planes. He made many large and exotic ones, which took a long flight. We all cheered for him each time he flew a plane. But this made him blush and hide behind his father.
There was a rowdy fellow on the mike who asked people to tell various things and even raise or lower their cell phone with its torchlights on. People followed his instructions without thinking through. Sometimes people exploded into cheers for no reason.
Occasionally, a song played between the overs, and the people would begin to dance hysterically as if they were starved for this kind of entertainment.
The Zalmi gave a weak total of 157 and the Gladiators were slow but steady. However, in the last over, something unusual happened. The Gladiators were short of 26 runs and they reduced this margin to just three by consecutive sixes and fours. However, their last batsman was caught close to the edge of the field.
We assembled in lines and went out. Everything was very organised and the security was remarkable. We took a shuttle back to the parking lot by midnight. Most of us were too dazzled to feel drowsy. It was a night to remember.