Lahore, PAKISTAN – Six years ago, Lahore’s Liberty roundabout was briefly turned into a war zone.
On March 3, 2009, 12 gunmen sprayed the Sri Lankan cricket team bus and accompanying vehicles with bullets, killing eight people and wounding several others.
For Pakistan cricket, it was the beginning of a dark period, which turned the country into a no-go area and forced them to play their “home” matches abroad.
On Friday, that exile ended.
Fans travelled from all over the country to witness the historic moment, Zimbabwe becoming the first Test nation to visit in six years.
Sana Kazmi travelled by bus from the capital Islamabad, more than 360km away, and spoke of her fear that Pakistani cricket fans had turned into a “YouTube nation” since 2009, forced to watch their heroes spells online rather than in the flesh.
And Kazmi wasn’t alone. Despite the 45C heat and tight security, thousands turned out to welcome cricket back home.
“I brought my children along so that they could experience this game for the first time and could support our team and Pakistan as a country,” said Rizwan Chaudhry, 35, who was accompanied by his three beaming children.”
The heat had done nothing to dim the enthusiasm of the fans who had queued up five hours before the first ball was bowled, allowing themselves extra time for the strict security measures in place for the match.
The PCB claimed that more than 4,000 police officers had been deputed to secure the ground, and on match day, that number suddenly seemed entirely plausible.
“We have been standing out here for three hours, but we don’t feel the heat,” said Shahab Ahmed, 18, a student from Lahore. “We just want to see the cricket! Look at our jazba (spirit).”
Another among the crowd at the gate was Muhammad Zaman, a 49-year-old Dubai resident better known as “Chacha T20”, who often tours with the team and has become a fan favourite since 2009.
“I have come here straight from the airport, just for this match,” he said. “It is great to watch cricket in our own country, and we must show the world that cricket is lost without Pakistan.”
Zimbabwe’s cricket board decided to undertake the tour despite the warnings from the international cricket players’ association (FICA) and against the advice of the country’s own sports regulatory body.
Inside the stadium, the decision was fully endorsed by the home fans and the roar was tremendous as the players strode out onto the field.
Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain was on hand to personally thank the visitors, just before the national anthems were played.
And that’s when the chant went up, the stadium’s 24,000-strong crowd in unison as they shouted at the top of their lungs: “Zim-bab-we! Zim-bab-we! Zim-bab-we!”
The atmosphere inside the stadium was festive, and jovial, even hours before a ball was bowled. As the moment grew nearer, the wave became almost euphoric.
It was like the feeling you get after your first drink of water, having been parched for hours. Or days. Or, in this case, six years, two months and 19 days.
Anwar Ali ran in to bowl, the young fast-bowler feeling the power of a home crowd for the first time lifting him.
The ball fires in towards leg stump, full and swinging in. Hamilton Masakadza plays forward, but is rapped on the pads. The ball rolls harmlessly away.
And just like that, the exile was over.
Thrills on the ground
Zimbabwe did well to post a decent 172-6 on the board.
Pakistan’s openers, Mukhtar Ahmed and Ahmed Shahzad, neither having played an international match at home, strode out, with the crowd cognizant of the task before them.
The pair bludgeoned the Zimbabwe attack, galloping away towards the target.
But, this being Pakistan, there was, of course, the obligatory collapse with the win in sight, just as the spectators were beginning to prepare for the last rites.
Pakistan lost five wickets for 27 runs and it came down to the last over.
Enter Shahid Afridi, Pakistan’s talisman, its biggest star and captain in this format of the game.
“Boom Boom! Afridi! Boom Boom! Afridi!” the crowd bellow, shaking the very foundations of the Gaddafi.
Four needed off four. Nerves had already crept in. But of course, Afridi smacks his first ball down the ground to seal the win.
Game over. Cricket was home.
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim