Lahore awaited the first T20 like a mother waiting for her long lost child: with arms wide open. Tickets were sold out, Lahore was as secure as the King’s castle; police, Rangers, army, politicians all working hand-in-hand to ensure safety and security not only for the two teams but also for the thousands of cricket-thirsty fans. You could feel the city breathing like a living organism, taking heavy breaths as the moment grew closer. You could sense its heart pounding but its hands stable, you could feel it being nervous inside but maintaining a calm exterior.

Gaddafi stadium is located at the heart of Nishtar Complex and Nishtar Complex is located at the heart of Lahore. Nishtar Complex has multiple entry points but most of them were sealed off. The gates that were open had people of all classes, colors, castes and ethnicities, queued up in long lines waiting to gain entry. It was unity in motion, it was an example of what a single sport can do for an entire nation. The pedestrian queue on Ferozepur road which led to the FIFA office entrance to Nishtar Complex was about a kilometer long. Three different lanes were formed and there was no jumping or jousting for positions for the head of the queue. The crowd moved in an orderly manner, something that is not generally expected from Pakistanis but it was another example of how much the people of this country have missed cricket .  It seemed as if everyone was aware of the magnitude of the event and every single person wanted to play his/her part in giving a progressive image of the country. After all, the whole world had its eyes set on Lahore. The temperature at the stadium was over 40 degrees, yet the fans managed to keep their wits. The soaring heat was one of many potential riot-triggers, and yet fascinatingly there was humor in the air; jokes were being exchanged between random people. Multiple checkpoints later, the fans finally managed to reach Gaddafi Stadium.

With an hour remaining for the match to start, the stadium was already jam-packed. Gaddafi Stadium was alive, it was shouting, it was smiling, and it was laughing. It was a like a bride on her wedding day anticipating the happiest moment of her life. It was like a student on his convocation day waiting to make his parents proud by holding his degree in his hands. Even the Indian series in 2004 couldn’t match the anticipation inside the ground on Friday.

The match hadn’t even started and there were chants of “Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe , Zimbabwe” as the tourists graced the field. Out came the two teams for their respective National anthems. Zimbabwe’s anthem was played first and the whole crowd stood up. They might not have known the words but they certainly appreciated the tourists for bringing international cricket back home. Then came perhaps the most emotional moment in Pakistan cricket since the 2009 world T20 triumph. It was time for the Pakistan National anthem: every child and every elder statesman, all stood on their feet and sang the anthem together. It echoed inside the massive stadium. You could feel the goosebumps, the love and the emotional overflow. If Gaddafi could cry it would have burst into tears of joy when “Saya-e-Khudaye Zuljalal” echoed in the Nishtar complex.

Zimbabwe won the toss and elected to bat first. 2272 days ago the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by terrorists in conceivably the most ill-fated day for Pakistan cricket . 2272 days later Anwar Ali bowled the first delivery of international cricket in Pakistan . For 6 years Pakistan lived without international cricket at home, a whole generation of players never experienced the charm of playing at home. For example Misbah-ul-Haq, one of the longest serving captains of Pakistan has never had the privilege of captaining on home soil. In fact, this was the first time Shahid Afridi captained Pakistan in Pakistan .

The crowd not only cheered for the Pakistani bowling but there was deafening noise every time a Zimbabwean batsman played a good shot. An example of the hospitality and encouragement of the crowd was when Chingumbura was given a standing ovation after having scored a fifty. Later, I asked Chingumbura in the press conference if he had ever experienced such support anywhere else on the planet, his reply was a straight, “NO”. That moment epitomized the mood of a cricket crazy nation which just wants cricket back in its borders without caring about winning or losing at this point.  

The Pakistani players were enjoying home support, fast bowlers running in with the noise of bottles hitting the seats, clapping and shouting. The likes of Ahmed Shehzad entertaining the crowd through their natural Pakistani showmanship. There were chants of “Selfie, Selfie, Selfie” from the Fazal Mahmood enclosure and Ahmed Shehzad acknowledged it by pretending to take a “selfie.” His showmanship was rewarded with further cheers and clapping. That is what it’s like to play at home. That is entertainment for the fans and players alike.

Zimbabwe managed to reach a formidable total of 172. Pakistan , not renowned for its batting especially when batting second, started off like a juggernaut. Not only did the fans put in the effort to change the image of the security in the country but the two openers Mukhtar and Shehzad tried to do the same with their batting. It was raining fours and sixes at Gaddafi and with every boundary the noise level kept rising – had it gone any higher, the roof might have come down. From the who’s who of Pakistan to the general public all stood on their feet applauding Pakistan-ism at its peak. Pakistan lost their first wicket with the score at 142 and the match almost in the bag, but, Pakistan being Pakistan , managed to botch yet another run chase. With Pakistan requiring 4 runs off 4 deliveries, in walked the apple of Pakistan’s eye, perhaps not the greatest player but the greatest Pakistani entertainer: Shahid Afridi. And he fittingly ended the match with a four straight over the bowler’s head.

Cricket has come home and Pakistan has well and truly announced that it will take every step possible to revive international cricket in Pakistan . Despite all the shortcomings of the PCB, its marketing team has done an outstanding job under the leadership of visionaries like Naila Bhatti and Shoaib Naveed who have finally made PCB’s marketing contemporary and appealing. Credit must also be given to the board overall for managing to convince the Zimbabwean team to tour Pakistan . For now, it is about the return of international cricket and nothing else.

For players, the charm of playing in front of your home fans can’t be replicated anywhere. For fans, the experience of watching your country play in a jam-packed stadium can’t be felt on TV or on radio. Terrorists took cricket out of Pakistan but could never take Pakistan out of cricket . And while it's true that Pakistan missed cricket , let's not forget that cricket also missed Pakistan .

Nations can be united by sport – and for Pakistan , that sport is cricket . Welcome home.