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Lahore's welcome to cricket

Updated March 05, 2017

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A WORKER at the Gaddafi Stadium uses a stencil and sponge to print numbers on the freshly-painted seats in the most expensive Fazal Mahmood enclosure in preparation for the big game.—Photo by writer
A WORKER at the Gaddafi Stadium uses a stencil and sponge to print numbers on the freshly-painted seats in the most expensive Fazal Mahmood enclosure in preparation for the big game.—Photo by writer

TWO days ago was the eighth anniversary of the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team near Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium. When no other cricket team was willing to play a series in Pakistan, the Sri Lankans came. After all they, too, had been through similar circumstances. In the 1996 Cricket World Cup, hosted jointly by Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, some teams refused to play matches in Sri Lanka due to security concerns — the Pakistan and India teams travelled there to play an exhibition match in place of a regular match. But unlike 1996 when Sri Lanka, the country no one wanted to travel to, finally lifted the World Cup, Pakistan’s 2009 story was grim.

There have hardly been any big international cricket matches in Pakistan, while all our home series take place in the UAE. In 2016, the first Pakistan Super League (PSL) with multiple foreign players featuring in the five city teams was also staged in the UAE. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) came under criticism for not holding the event in the country. They had after all pulled off a smooth series with visitors Zimbabwe a few months before. The PSL could have only built up on that confidence.

In the second edition of the PSL currently under way, the final is planned in Lahore, at the Gaddafi Stadium. Everything was in order, too, until that explosion in Defence on the morning of Feb 23. The mass hysteria that followed meant that many events happening in the city were cancelled or postponed.

But at Gaddafi Stadium, the men who come to work every day were busy preparing for the big match. The fragrance of freshly cut grass lingered in the air around the grounds. “Please try and stay off the grass as we have just applied fertilizer,” requested one of the groundsmen in his turquoise uniform. There were several of them, busy in the outfield, under the warm winter sun, planting grass in the patches where it had died. “We have faced hopelessness for years,” said Rafiq Masih. “It was our bad luck that there have been no international cricket matches played here but things can change now.”

“Our country is peaceful. We are peaceful, bighearted people who love cricket,” said another groundsman planting fistfuls of grass. “We want to give a big welcome back to international cricket at Gaddafi. We know that this one PSL match will open the door to international cricket in Pakistan.”

As the temperature rose, there was not a frown to be seen. Today, whether the Quetta Gladiators or the Peshawar Zalmi wins, these people are already the winners. When I visited, everyone was busy making the ground look its best for the final. “Inshallah! The excitement will return to Gaddafi,” said Sunny Masih, who was on his knees, diligently washing the stairs. “There may be bad elements wanting bad things to happen but there are also good elements with the best of intentions, wanting good things to happen.”

The men stencilling numbers on the freshly-painted seats in the enclosures aired similar sentiments as they dipped their sponges into buckets of white paint. It having been so long since the stadium was packed to its 25,000 capacity, it was difficult to visualise spectators filling up these enclosures.

The cheapest tickets costing Rs500 are for the stands in the Saeed Anwer and Sarfaraz Nawaz enclosures. The next least-expensive ones are the Rs4,000 tickets for the enclosures named after Zaheer Abbas, Saeed Ahmed, Majid Khan, Inzamam, Nazars, etc. Tickets for the Abdul Qadir and Rajas enclosures cost Rs8,000 each while the most expensive ones, Rs12,000 each, happen to be for the Fazal Mahmood and Imran Khan stands near the pavilion, and the newly constructed Waseem and Waqar enclosures at the College End. A PCB official, on the condition of anonymity, said that they used to get requests for free passes earlier, which has not happened this time around. “People just want to come and enjoy a good match. There are also many willing to pay even more than this and will gladly buy tickets in the black [market] from outside, we know,” he said.

For days after the unfortunate blast in Lahore, the PCB looked to the government of Punjab for answers. Having received the guarantee, they decided to go ahead. The match must go on. To quote PSL Chairman Najam Sethi, who also tweeted a reminder that 13,500 troops were deployed in London to secure the 2012 Olympics, “Please bear with our security arrangements for [the] PSL final.” Yes, the people of Lahore have had to reschedule their plans around it. Yes, the area around the stadium is cordoned off. Yes, there is going to be an endless series of checking, roadblocks, detours and lots of inconvenience. But this is Lahore, and Lahoris once watched dogfights in the sky during the 1965 war and placed bets on who would win.

Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2017