The roar of the crowd

When 60,000 delirious voices screamed fervently into the night at Gaddafi and the result mattered not

All that matters is that cricket, the most beloved of all sports in the country, is back. PHOTO: SHAFIQ MALIK/EXPRESS

LAHORE: The stats do not lie — Pakistan are the only team to have never lost a T20 at home.

Ok so they may not tell the truth either. But that doesn’t matter.

Pakistan’s frustrating problems once again came to the fore as one dropped catch, two missed stumpings and several extra runs conceded through sloppy fielding gave the Zimbabwe side a defendable total of 172. But that doesn’t matter either.

After a superb start from young openers Ahmed Shehzad and Mukhtar Ahmed, the team’s inability to finish off matches was again a cause of concern as the match was allowed to get much closer than it should have, needing a Shahid Afridi boundary in the final over when four were required off four balls. But that too doesn’t matter.

All that matters is that cricket, the most beloved of all sports in the country, is back. The legendary Muttiah Muralitharan was the last man to send down an international delivery in Pakistan — the fourth ball of his fifth over before the end of day two in THAT Test. It took more than six years for that drought to end but it finally did when Anwar Ali ran in to bowl the first ball to Zimbabwe opener Hamilton Masakadza. He may be no Muttiah Muralitharan, but for that precious few seconds when Anwar came running in, he was even more loved than the greatest off-spinner to grace the game.

For six long years, there had been deafening silence in the empty stands of Gaddafi; but not tonight, not anymore. The first ball hit Masakadza’s pads. Anwar Ali went up half in appeal, Sarfraz Ahmed also enquired politely. The crowd though just kept on cheering. They didn’t bother joining in the appeal. Instead they shouted and danced and celebrated and jumped up and down in ecstatic frenzy, looking at each other almost in joyous disbelief — the first ball had been bowled.

It was clear then that the result mattered not — inconsequential numbers to be added to the lists of statisticians and the unlucky few deprived of all sentiment and passion. For the rest, there was much more to cherish.

Anwar’s neat first over was followed up by Muhammad Sami, who was dispatched for a boundary off the first ball. The most celebrated of Pakistani batsmen over the years could have understandably been envious of the cheer that followed Masakadza’s piercing shot through the covers. The next ball cleared mid-off and reached the boundary also, again the roar was just as deafening.

Ab chakka maray [I hope he hits a six now],” said one of the spectators. Such treasonous thoughts would have been akin to blasphemy for a notoriously partisan crowd just a decade or two ago. But few could blame him now — it had been a long time since he had seen one hit here.

That six finally came in Bilawal Bhatti’s first over. 60,000 voices screamed into the night. The next ball almost went straight up into the air. Two fielders came running in. The first wicket perhaps? It fell short. No one cared. Screams, shouts, cheers, selfies and dancing. Everything but a groan or a hint of disappointment at the bad luck.

It seemed the crowd could not have been any louder. Then Sami got the first wicket. The roof almost came off, the ground trembled and cricket realised it had never left the nation. Pakistan loves itself some fast-bowlers and those fast-bowlers love themselves some bouncers. So it was fitting that the wicket came off a quick bouncer that got too big on Vusi Sibanda.

Masakdza’s stumps were shattered on the very next ball. The spectators had lost all control by now; whipped into a frenzy of delirium — uncontrolled, unabated, unabashed.

So it continued until the halfway mark. A daunting total of 173 had been set but while there was room for a lot of emotions, there was none for apprehension. Today, nothing could go wrong, they were sure of it.

Their confidence was not ill-founded as Mukhtar took a liking to the juicy long hops and half-volleys the Zimbabwe bowlers fed him. A 140-run opening stand left the hosts needing 33 from 42 balls with 10 wickets in hand.

But then Pakistan threatened to make a meal of it as only Pakistan can. When the situation got tense in the final over, the fans’ throats had by then gone hoarse with the shouting. The spirit was willing but the body was not. So they took to slapping plastic bottles on the seats, in tandem with Tinashe Panyangara’s footsteps during his run, creating a din that must have drowned out all noise a mile all around the Gaddafi, sending shivers down the spines.

Afridi smashed it straight back down the ground for the winning boundary. The crowd managed to impossibly muster up one final deafening roar and with stupid grins etched on their ecstatic faces, headed towards the exits — having finally scratched an itch that had been aggravating them for six long years.

On March 3, 2009, an immense beast was put to sleep. On May 23, 2015, it awoke again, as formidable as it ever was. May its roar forever echo through the streets of Pakistan.

Cricket had been missed, so had been the roar of the crowd.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2015.

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