Series was in jeopardy following bus attack in Karachi but Pakistan set to host first Test nation since 2009.
Lahore, PAKISTAN – Umpire Ahsan Raza was part of the entourage comprising Sri Lankan cricket team and match officials that came under attack by 12 gunmen in Lahore on March 3, 2009.
Seven people were killed and several others wounded, including seven Sri Lankan players.
Raza was hit by two bullets – in the liver and his right lung – suffering extensive injuries that kept him in a coma for three days, while doctors frantically fought to keep him alive.
. Then I was hit by the bullets”]
Multiple operations, 22 pints of blood, 88 stitches and 27 to 29 days of intensive care later, he fought his way back to the land of the living.
Raza has officiated in matches since but, perhaps more personally than anyone else, has seen cricket in Pakistan come full circle in the last six years.
He now prepares to head back out on the cricket pitch in his home country.
“Everything was normal, how can I say there was a security lapse,” Raza told Al Jazeera as he recounted the events of that day. “It could be, but I don’t know, I was going through my normal routine. We heard shooting, and felt something was going on [outside the van]. Then I was hit by the bullets.”
Zimbabwe will play two T20Is and three ODIs in Lahore from on Friday, the first Test-playing nation to visit Pakistan since the 2009 attacks.
“There have been many players that have never performed in front of their own people. So for me this is a very important opportunity, for me to perform in my own country, on my own soil, in front of my own nation.”
This is the day, he says, that has kept him going for the last six years and has seen him rise from a reserve umpire to a full on-field ICC umpire, with 15 Twenty20 Internationals (T20Is) and 17 One Day Internationals (ODIs) under his belt.
“The attack is like an incident that stays with you your whole life. But I didn’t let it weigh down on me. I tried to stay positive. I thought that if I stay focused on this attack, and keep looking at my wounds, then perhaps life will become very tough for me and for my family.”
For Raza, a self-confessed “patriot”, the larger issue was always of the impact on Pakistani cricket.
Since the attack, Pakistan’s national team has been forced to play its “home” matches in exile, mostly in the UAE.
“The negative of this attack was that it harmed my country immensely. It hurt the Pakistan Cricket Board, too. I saw what we had to do in order to hold matches abroad: logistical problems, financial problems. That was difficult.”
‘State guest’ security
Lahore has been abuzz with anticipation, with major roads and markets festooned with banners featuring star cricketers like Wahab Riaz and ODI captain Azhar Ali.
Online, fans and players have been tweeting using the hashtag #CricketComesHome, the sense of enthusiasm, and relief at the end of a period of exile, almost palpable.
Tickets, authorities say, are almost sold out for the entire series, days before it has even started.
“I think Lahore and Pakistan are enthusiastic about welcoming international cricket back to the country,” said Agha Akbar, the PCB’s media manager.
“Just measure it through this: despite the heat, the high security and the long walks from the parking lots, the masses are willing to buy tickets and to come to the games. This shows the real passion and enthusiasm for the game, and the connection the people have with cricket.”
And security will indeed be tight, with the Zimbabwean team being given “state guest level” security by the PCB and the Punjab provincial government.
More than 4,000 policemen have been deputed to protect the visiting team and their delegation.
Their convoy includes at least nine police vehicles (each carrying several heavily armed police commandoes), two fire trucks, an ambulance and multiple police motorcycle outriders.
In addition, groups of three policemen have been positioned along every 50m of the teams’ route to and from the hotel, located about seven kilometres from the stadium.
“Naturally the security has to be very tight because that is the issue why teams don’t come here,” said PCB chairman Shehryar Khan.
May 22 – 1st T20
May 24 – 2nd T20
May 26 – 1st ODI
May 29 – 2nd ODI
May 31 – 3rd ODI
All matches take place in Lahore
“So we have to ensure security. It does mean that the public is inconvenienced and there are barricades and roadblocks. But this is part of the medicine that we have to take.”
Tears in his eyes
Raza, who knows all too well the risks being taken, is quick to thank the Zimbabwe team for making the trip which came against the advice of that country’s sports regulatory body.
“I think as a nation we should appreciate them. If you don’t have your life, what good is money? They’ve taken such an initiative that no matter how much you praise them, it is not enough,” he said.
So how does it feel, to have seen cricket slip away from Pakistan, and to now be one of the umpires stepping out on the pitch on Friday to welcome it back?
“To be in your own country and to perform in front of your own people…,” he says, before his voice trails off.
Instead, he narrates a story, of how much the country, and cricket, means to him.
“Recently, I was officiating over a women’s cricket series between South Africa and Pakistan in Sharjah. The [Pakistani] national anthem began to play and there were tears in my eyes. That’s why I wear these sunglasses. I have to adjust them sometimes to make sure the tears don’t show.
“I had faith that this day will come, that cricket will come back to Pakistan.”
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim