Haji Bashir has been preparing the pitches at Gaddafi Stadium since November 1959 when the ground hosted its first Test. He has had many proud moments, but the excitement he is feeling at the start of the short five-match series against Zimbabwe — that brings international cricket to Pakistan after six years — is “without parallel”.
“I’m lucky that I’m around to greet a [Test-playing] team in Pakistan,” Bashir, in his 80s, tells Dawn as he stands pondering over the wickets he has prepared for the series.
“I’ve been praying to God to unlock the doors closed on Pakistan cricket [following the terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team in 2009]. My prayers have been answered. I’m sure other teams will also return soon to play cricket in Lahore and other Pakistani cities.”
Six years is a long time, and Lahore is dressed up for the occasion. Banners have been hung along roads across the city, welcoming the visitors. “I can’t wait for the matches to begin,” says Shahid Khalil, an executive in a private company. “My friends and I have waited for this moment for a very long time and we just can’t miss the game. I don’t care if Zimbabwe aren’t one of the top-notch teams. What I care about is that they are here at a time when no other team is prepared to play with Pakistan, in Pakistan.”
The attack on the bus of the Sri Lankan team near Gaddafi Stadium that killed eight people, including six policemen, brought to a sudden close international cricket in the country. Seven visitors and a Pakistani umpire sustained wounds in that raid.
Since then, many attempts at bringing a Test-playing team back to the country have failed because Pakistan isn’t considered a safe destination. Immediately after the attack, the International Cricket Council (ICC) relocated the ICC Champions Trophy from Pakistan to South Africa and moved the World Cup 2011 fixtures to venues in the three other host countries. It has declined to send match officials for the games against Zimbabwe now, allowing Pakistan to appoint its own umpires and a match referee as a special case.
A day before the start of the series, the stadium is in the grip of frenzy and excitement as the preparations for two T20 and three One Day games were being given final touches.
“Indeed, we are all very excited,” says Subhan Ahmed, the chief operating officer of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). “The first T20 is totally sold out and we are expecting a packed stadium on Friday evening. I don’t have the exact number, but I think the second T20 is also nearly sold out.”
He says the Zimbabwe tour is the first step towards the complete revival of international cricket in Pakistan. “It will help us convince other cricket-playing nations that it is safe to play in Pakistan.”
A PCB official, who declined to give his name because of official reasons, says the successful organisation of the home series with Zimbabwe would help bring a non-Test playing European team — either Ireland or the Netherlands — to Pakistan. “If we succeed in hosting a European team, it will open up the country to international cricket,” he says.
The Punjab government has taken elaborate security measures for the series, involving more than 6,000 policemen and tight aerial surveillance. The Nishter Sports Complex, where Gaddafi Stadium is located, has been cordoned off. Every day, the police comb different localities around the stadium. Strict vigilance is maintained everywhere, from the hotel where the teams are staying to the route to be taken to reach the stadium. The whole city is on alert.
The anonymous PCB official justifies the security arrangements, saying: “If the police had implemented such security arrangements in 2009, we would not have had to see international isolation today.”
“We cannot take any chances,” PCB director security Col Mohammad Azam says. “We know the security arrangements being put in place are causing some inconvenience to the public, but it is something that we all will have to bear with for a few days for the sake of cricket.” He adds that everyone has to pass through a four-layer security arrangement to get to the stadium.
Hit for six long years, Pakistan cricket needs to spend time at the crease. It needs to have the perseverance of Bashir, who has been around for half a century and more.
Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2015