RAWALPINDI: Cricket-starved fans in Pakistan had to wait in long lines for stringent security checks before entering the stadium for the first Test in the country in more than a decade.

The 17,000-seat Pindi Cricket Stadium was heavily guarded by police and army personnel on Day 1 of the match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka on Wednesday. By stumps, the stadium was half-full and containing mostly youngsters as Sri Lanka reached 202-5.

“I didn’t mind that I waited for around four hours [to get in] when I compare it with Pakistan’s 10 years of isolation from hosting a Test,” said Dayan Mehdi Butt, a 20-year-old student. “I will definitely come tomorrow, too, no matter how long I have to wait in queue.”

Sri Lanka were the last team to play a Test in Pakistan, in a series in 2009 when terrorists attacked the touring team’s bus in Lahore. The ambush killed eight people and left several Sri Lankan players and officials injured.

Pakistan has since played its home Tests in neutral territory, mostly in the United Arab Emirates, because international teams didn’t want to visit Pakistan for security reasons.

It was symbolic that Sri Lanka was the first team to play a Test back in Pakistan after a 10-year absence, with the stadium in Rawalpindi hosting its first major international match since India played a Test in the city in 2004, which Pakistan lost by an innings.

All of Pakistan’s current team are now playing their first Test on home soil.

“I came straight from the school because I have been waiting for so long to see Pakistan batsman Babar Azam live in action,” said Usama Bhatti, a college student who came with his friend. “But it’s not just Babar. We also want to support both teams, no matter who wins or loses.”

Around 8,000 fans chanted slogans and sang national songs as home team captain Azhar Ali tossed the coin to open proceedings.

“Of course, a historic day in Pakistan cricket and we all are excited,” said Azhar. “We want to make this occasion memorable by winning.”

Sri Lankan captain Dimuth Karunaratne, whose team was presented with special caps to mark the occasion, agreed. “Exciting day so we are all excited and once the game starts the focus will be on cricket.”

He was impressed with the appreciation his team received from fans. “The spectators gave us good support and I also saw some boards, telling us welcome,” Karunaratne said.

The fans were over the moon. “Thank you Sri Lanka for coming to play Tests in Pakistan,” said 21-year-old Shaista Naveed, a university student from neighbouring city Islamabad.

After a wicket-less opening session, witnessed by only a few spectators, when Sri Lanka cruised to 89-0 against the new ball, Pakistan had their most productive period between lunch and tea as the visitors lost four wickets for 31 runs and slumped to 137-4. Pakistan’s teenage fast bowler Naseem Shah led the hosts’ recovery with 2-51.

The 16-year-old Naseem, who played his maiden Test against Australia at Brisbane last month and is also included in Pakistan’s squad for next month’s Under-19 World Cup in South Africa, said he was excited to play at home.

“I enjoyed a lot and the whole crowd was supporting me,” he said. “Whenever I bowled a good delivery, they supported me. I was very excited that I was playing before the home crowd and got two wickets. I am thankful to the crowd that they spared time and came to the stadium today.”

Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2019