Early on Sunday morning, I received a message from a friend. He had heard a rumour about terrorists planning to attack the Gaddafi Stadium using rockets during the upcoming Independence Cup – a three-match Twenty20 series between Pakistan and a World XI. The rumour was without any further details, but it caused a sense of panic in me.
For all the joy that the return of cricket brings to Pakistan, there is also the constant fear and risk of what would happen if any such incident transpires. The inherent risk is that it would take only one incident to set cricket in Pakistan back by several decades.
Pakistan is not a country at peace. Many wars, particularly in the ages gone by, took place on battlefields and eventually sorted out clear winners and losers. But in this decade-plus war of attrition and guerrilla tactics, it is very difficult to decide when victory has arrived. There is no doubt that the situation is far, far better than it was as little as three years ago. But at the same time, this is no Battle of Panipat – one can’t declare victory when the other army retreats. Instead, we must find symbols that represent victory. And hosting an international team is perhaps one of the best articulations of that victory.
If Pakistan manages to host three incident-free matches, it wouldn’t mean that it has rid itself of terrorists, or that people are now completely safe or that it has no more ideologies threatening to rip society apart. But it does mean that the state is reasserting its dominion and that the authorities can take major steps. There is reason to hope.
There are other smaller, but poignant victories to note too. There are now teenagers and young adults who have spent their entire youth without ever having seen their country’s most popular sport being played in front of them. They will be at the Gaddafi. There are people who have followed Pakistan for a decade only from behind the TV screen, rather than behind the sight screen. They will be at the Gaddafi. There are parents who remember the carnival atmosphere of cricket matches and want their children to experience that magic too. They will be at the Gaddafi. There are people who have spent the entire year slaving away for little returns, who know that watching one six land in the stand they are sitting in would melt those struggles away. They will all be at the Gaddafi.
Because that is the power and the magic of cricket. Very few things mean as much to all of Pakistan as cricket does, and it is something that this country has had to do without for so, so long. In other places, it might have seen the sport die out but such is the passion and genius for cricket in this country that this lost decade has seen a world title and the Test mace visit the Gaddafi.
Indeed, the high of the recent Champions Trophy win has a lot to do with the excitement surrounding this series. Two years ago, when Pakistan hosted Zimbabwe, the series wasn’t just about bringing cricket back but was also a way for Pakistan to stay in the race for the Champions Trophy and World Cup qualification. This time around, the home crowd will support a side that just eviscerated their arch-rivals in a final. The anticipation is thus at a very different level, and as such the potential of this series includes the ability to help bolster a team on the rise.
And in a weird way, it is reassuring to hear the stories around the start of the cricket series that I grew up with. There is, as always, confusion regarding the sale of tickets, with some confused where to buy them from and others complaining about last-minute changes. There are those complaining about how expensive the tickets are, and those cribbing that the Pakistani state is repeating its favourite bias of championing Lahore over the rest of the country. These are all important conversations, but they are also symptomatic of cricket returning home.
For all the risks of rockets and routs, it is these mundane frustrations that remind one how integral, how crucial, the success of this series is to the Pakistani society. It allows us to assume the roles we once played. It allows us to relive the moments we once took for granted. It allows us to be the people we once were, and hopefully, will be again.