Blow-dryers were whirring inside a salon at the team hotel in Lahore. On the morning of Pakistan’s most important game in the last eight years, several Pakistan players trooped in for a makeover. Imad Wasim’s hair was whooped over to a side-flick partition, and a trimmer ran down the chin of Fakhar Zaman.
Tuning in to Pakistan news channels gives an idea about the frenzy that has gripped a nation that for long has been deprived of international cricket action. Over the last couple of days, exhaustive cricket reporting — tracing every activity of the World XI players — has dominated Pakistan media. Since the time the players woke up on D-Day, nothing went unreported. We know that while the majority of Pakistan cricketers had their breakfast in their rooms, the world XI players trooped out to the buffet area. The breathless voice-over talks about a great juice spread — pineapple, guava, apple, mausambi — and players enjoying “parantha, omlette, and halwa poori ka Lahori naashta”.
Ramiz Raja, a former Pakistan cricketer and a proud Karachite, couldn’t help taking a gentle dig. “I have never seen Lahore so clean!”. Hoardings of the players have gone up everywhere in the city. The passion hasn’t been restricted to Lahore, of course. Nadeem Omar, the owner of PSL team Quetta Gladiators, and a patron saint of Pakistan cricket in many ways, couldn’t get to Lahore but was struck by the passion in the streets of Karachi. “Jashn hai idhar. Big screens have gone up around Karachi to show the match live for the benefit of people. We pray that everything goes well and more importantly, this can lead to one day a match between Pakistan and India in Karachi and Lahore . how great that would be?”
But in the here and now, South Africa, in particular, is being celebrated in the knowledgable circles in Pakistan. A £75,000-a-man tour fee has been paid to the World XI players and there is an element of gratitude towards them but also an insightful look into why of all the countries, it’s South Africa who have sent their current players to Pakistan for this game.
In a discussion on national television channel PTV, Rashid Latif and his co-panelist Kamran Muzaffer, a cricket observer, zoom into the situation. “If you see South Africa, you know the history in which they came back to cricket,” Muzaffer says. “They were out due to apartheid and understand what it means to be out in the wild. All the players when they were kids grew up in this atmosphere. I won’t say it’s a love for Pakistan but ek cause sey mohabbat hai.”
Latif adds in, “Can there be world cricket without Pakistan? There is a great value for Pakistan in world cricket among fans, and PCB doesn’t have an idea about it. Pakistan should also start stressing about it, like how India does.”
India continues to be in the heart of the Pakistani people. And its cricketers in particular. Speaking to The Indian Express, Basit Ali, a former player, doesn’t mince words on the topic. “While it’s great that the World XI team is here for this series, cricket in Pakistan, I feel, will be back to normal only when India come and play here. I would have loved to see a few Indian players in the World XI. There is so much love on either side of the border for Indian and Pakistani cricketers. There used to be a huge fan following for Javed Miandad in India, and I am a huge Rohit Sharma fan. After Gavaskar, I think he’s the one batsman I enjoy watching the most.
“But sadly, whenever there’s talk of India and Pakistan, the first word you hear is Kashmir. Why do they have to always bring siyasat (politics) in the middle whenever there’s talk of sport? Kashmir ka kya lena dena? Khel ko alag rakhna chahiye. Khel se hi dono desh saath aa sakte hai. Can they differentiate between my blood and your blood and say this is Indian and that is Pakistani? Terrorists have no insaniyat, humanity. They cannot and should not be tagged as being part of any religion.”
Meanwhile, there has been heavy security cover – 1,000 commandos have enveloped the team hotel — to thwart any incidents like the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan bus in Lahore which left Pakistan cricket severely wounded.
People had started to trickle into the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore at around 2 pm. It wouldn’t have been easy.
They couldn’t have driven their vehicles or taken buses straight to the stadium. Various check points and 100 shuttle buses have been deployed at areas where people would embark from their private vehicles or public transport. They would be transported in these shuttles to the stadium for the final lap.
“We journalists have been here at the stadium from 4 pm,” says veteran journalist Shahid Hashmi. “People too have started to come early, and due to security checks, it will take a while for them to get in. But it has to be said that the situation when Zimbabwe came for three matches in 2015 was far more severe. Security that is. I remember we had to get into the stadium by 2 for an 8 pm game. This time it’s more lenient I would say — relatively. And hopefully, things can progress like this and next time we can have a more normal atmosphere. Big screens have sprouted in prominent places in Lahore for those who can’t make it to the stadium. There is a feverish atmosphere in the country I would say.”
It’s that feverish cricketing atmosphere that former Pakistan captain Younis Khan feared about a day after the attack in 2009. “Our future as a nation is in our youngsters’ hands. Sport helps to make good human beings. If the sport is not there, the children can do silly things.
Nobody wants to see children going down a bad path and finding themselves involved with bombs and things like that …When I was a boy, I loved watching Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram playing against great teams from overseas. It is because of them — seeing them play — that I also played the game. But what if no one comes to Pakistan? How will the youngsters know about the game? What will they do?”
It’s a question that Faf du Plessis, the skipper of the world XI, tried to answer couple of days back. “I can’t imagine being a youngster and not seeing my heroes play in person and so me and the players understand we’re playing for something a lot bigger than us,” he told Guardian. “I’d like to look back at the end of my career and think I did something that made an ‘impact on people’s lives.”
That’s the sentiment now staring at the the rest of the cricketing world. Zimbabwe in 2015 was the beginning, the PSL final earlier this year was the’ kickstart, and this series against the World XI could well turn out to be the factor that normalises things in this abnormal situation. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s the hope in Pakistan.