LAHORE - Lahore once again proved itself to be a city of joys. Electrifying atmosphere within the walls of the Gaddafi Stadium, which hosted its first-ever Twenty20 International and marked the return of international cricket, has clearly sent the message to the world that it’s a nation unwilling to bow to suppression.
From teary-eyed, overjoyed spectators in the stadium to millions of fans across the country glued to their TV screens, everyone celebrated as cricket comes home.
Guarded by thousands of police, Gaddafi Stadium was filled to capacity with deafening cheers greeting the game’s return to Pakistan. The crowd of 27,000 endured frequent security checks to reach their seats long before the Twenty20 match between Pakistan and Zimbabwe, the first Test-playing team to visit this country since gunmen attacked the Sri Lanka team outside this venue in 2009, cancelling all major tours to Pakistan until now.
Fans waited in long queues in temperatures of 43 degrees Celsius without complaining while hundreds of fans – mostly youngsters – wandered around outside seeking the prized tickets.
Pakistan has pledged blanket security to the visitors, with at least 9,000 police and paramilitaries deployed to avoid a repeat of the 2009 attack. Dozens of CCTV cameras have been installed in the surroundings of Nishtar Park, where the Gaddafi Stadium is located. Spectators were asked to bring identity cards.
The extraordinary security also saw spectators passing through at least three checkpoints before entering the stadium after a walk of at least 800 metres.
Tickets for both Friday’s and Sunday’s Twenty20s were sold out within two days after they went on sale earlier this week. Even the fans who came as early as five hours before the match, waited for another two hours before entering the gates.
Zimbabwe coach Dav Whatmore, who coached Pakistan until last year, tweeted: “5.5hrs till game time & can’t wait to experience the return of int’l cricket to Pakistan... Go Zim!” Pakistan's Test captain Misbah-ul-Haq was also ecstatic. "I am thrilled," said Misbah. "These are good times for Pakistan cricket and although I am not part of the Twenty20 team I am feeling like I am playing." Misbah, appointed captain in 2010, had never led his country out in a home match. "This is something I miss but I hope and pray that soon we have a full Test series in Pakistan."
President Mamnoon was introduced to both teams before the start of the match. And there were emotional scenes all around the stadium. Fans were mostly carrying the placards thanking Zimbabwe for coming to Pakistan, supporting both the teams fully. Zimbabwe captain Elton Chigumbura was also impressed by this fantastic crowd and thanked them for their support to his team.
Pakistan's number one fan Sufi Jalil, famous as Chacha Cricket, and another well-known fan Chacha Twenty20 Zaman Khan, who bought the ticket from black market, were also among the fans.
"I am born again today," Jalil said waiving the green and white Pakistani flag. "It's the happiest day in my life as I waited for 2,269 days to be exact – from March 3, 2009 to this day. We want to give the message that Pakistan is a country of peace-loving people and a few people who have negative thoughts will not succeed in their efforts and that the Pakistani flag will wave always," Jalil said.
"I came from Dubai yesterday to watch this momentous match," Zaman said. "This is my first match in Pakistan as I have been watching all matches outside Pakistan."
The extraordinary security also means the people of the city facing huge hurdles but they are equally supportive to the cause. On Ferozepur Road near Muslim Town Morr where the traffic wardens had stopped traffic for the movement of Zimbabwe team, not even a single person retaliated. People are used to cursing the VIPs during such moments of botheration but they have accepted the same for the cricketing cause with an open heart.
“Bring the cricket back and clear the name of Pakistan whether we have to suffer for even one month,” said a motorcyclist Nawaz to a traffic warden. “We want Pakistan to remove the stain of Sri Lankan cricket team attack and bring good name to Pakistan.” And most of the others backed him by nodding in affirmation.