|Test cricket returns to Pakistan – radio special|
|Date: Thursday, 12 December Time: 21:30 GMT|
|Coverage: BBC Radio 5 Live and on the BBC Sport website and app|
Cricket has come back home.
As a Pakistan fan, to travel halfway across the world and to be here for this – the first ball of our first Test match on home soil in 10 years, I cannot explain how lucky and privileged I feel.
While players, fans and those involved with Pakistan cricket acknowledge the awful events of 2009, when the Sri Lanka team bus was attacked and six policemen and two civilians lost their lives, they recognise it is time to move forward and appreciate the national sport is back.
I have been in Pakistan all week and there has been such a great vibe in Rawalpindi leading up to Wednesday’s first day.
Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chief executive Wasim Khan described it as a “momentous moment for the country” and that is the sentiment among the public too.
It has all come full circle, of course – it was the Sri Lanka team who played here last before Test cricket was suspended, and now it is the Sri Lanka team here again.
And the PCB could not have picked a better city to host the first Test.
‘We have been starved of national heroes’
I arrived in the city a few days ago and when I first walked into the ground, I looked over and saw legendary ex-Pakistan fast bowler Waqar Younis.
Immediately, I thought back to all of Waqar’s iconic achievements in Test cricket, and specifically those in Pakistan – the back-to-back seven-wicket hauls against New Zealand in 1990 and the 7-91 he took against Zimbabwe three years later.
Then I glanced over at the honours board inside the stadium, which brought back even more memories for me; this is where Muhammad Zahid took 11 wickets in a match to thrash New Zealand, this is the very pitch where Inzamam-Ul-Haq scored 177 against a West Indies line-up which included the pace of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.
What I then realised was that for the past decade, Pakistan cricket fans have been starved of these moments. Nobody in the current squad has played Test cricket in Pakistan before.
The country needs the next Waqar or Inzamam, they need to have national heroes who are performing at the top of their game in front of their own fans.
‘This is box office’
Sri Lanka closed the first day’s play on 202-5, with 16-year-old pace bowler Naseem Shah – who was just six years old the last time a Test was held in the country – taking 2-51.
“It was just like playing at my own house. I had great support,” Shah beamed.
And the support is huge – the whole country has stopped to watch this match. There is the feel of big fight week – as if we are preparing to watch Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz Jr all over again.
But then came the nerves – supporters are wary this whole celebration could be tarnished if Sri Lanka pull off a win.
Pakistan, who are led by batsman Azhar Ali, are under immense pressure; not only after being thrashed by Australia in both Tests down under last month, but they are back home now and with the expectation of a nation weighing on their shoulders.
The ‘Pindi boys’ make all the noise
As Mohammad Abbas marked his run-up and prepared to bowl the first ball on Wednesday morning, the stadium was filled with the local ‘Pindi boys and girls, plus those from nearby Islamabad. It created some atmosphere.
There was so much noise. I’ve been to every Pakistan game in England you can imagine, and this tops that. Even at the start of the day, when Sri Lanka got off to a good start, the home fans were still ‘mad for it’.
The ‘Pindi boys’ are a bit like the ‘Essex boys’ back home: they have a reputation of being boisterous, rowdy and enjoy a good time.
It was just electric; people were chanting and climbing over fences to get a better vantage point. They were cheering for everyone from the cameraman to the journalists walking past.
And it was great to see that local schools had organised trips for schoolchildren to come out and see the match too.
The PCB in general have done all they can to attract crowds to come along and experience Test cricket – many of the youngsters in the stadium were watching their team play in white for the very first time.
Any cricket fan who has paid £90 for one day of cricket in England would appreciate the ticket prices here – they started at just 60 rupees, the equivalent of just £0.30.
To put that into context, a ticket to go and watch Frozen II at the local cinema would set you back 550 rupees (£2.70).
So why not get a flight over for the next Test in Karachi? Come visit Pakistan, it’s a lovely place.
‘Like a bride on her wedding day’
The Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium is beautiful and intimate, yet opposing in many ways. There is a vastness about it, without it being overpowering.
It was as if the stadium was being prepared like a bride on her wedding day. They had put up brand new screens, air conditioners, there was that new paint smell.
Rawalpindi, which is in the north of the country, is the best part of Pakistan for infrastructure; the roads are all even, rules are being followed, the facilities are all up there with the best in the world.
But there has been a lot of military here; I’ve never been surrounded by so many people with guns in my life.
The majority of cricket I’ve watched over the past few years has been in the County Championship. Now, Middlesex v Derbyshire commands some stewards, and maybe the most aggressive of the stewards will be armed with yesterday’s baguette, but nobody is carrying big guns.
It took about two hours to get from the hotel to the ground; under normal circumstances it would take 15 minutes. Multiple roads were blocked off, the army were checking cars, lifting the bonnets, asking everyone for ID.
Snipers were deployed on nearby rooftops and supporters passed through at least five security checkpoints.
This has been inconvenient for the people of Rawalpindi, too – it takes them longer to get to work or their children are late for school.
But I spoke to some of the locals – some of whom had skipped school, college or work to be here – and they were all emphatic in saying they are happy to suffer such inconveniences because they understand the greater picture.
‘We will always watch the game’
Javed Miandad, one of Pakistan’s greatest ever batsman, told me he “was immensely proud of the PCB to get cricket back here and grateful for the media from around the world that has turned up” .
He was like a giddy child, walking around the outfield and high-fiving the fans. Wasim Khan talked about a “lost generation of cricket fans,” which may well be the case, but they certainly knew who Miandad was.
I was also chatting to former Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur, now coach of Sri Lanka, who had nothing but fond memories of the country.
I love it when people who were not born here or have no direct connection to the country have so many nice things to say. Mickey was telling me how immersed he was in the culture, the food, the players, the area where he lived in Lahore.
When all is said and done, cricket is like a boyfriend or girlfriend who you know is wrong for you, and us fans are like the partner who just keeps on going back to them.
Despite all the hurt, torture and pain they put us through, we go back because we love them.
We will complain about the queues for tickets, the security, the team selection, the result; but ultimately we will always watch the game.
And it’s just amazing that we have the game we love so dearly back in Pakistan.
Aatif Nawaz was speaking to BBC Sport’s Kal Sajad
Article courtesy of BBC Sport