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Many Pakistani batsmen have played memorable innings across the world but my first memory of watching one such innings was at home, in a packed Qaddafi Stadium back in 1997, when Ijaz Ahmad scored a blistering 139 off 84 balls against India. This was 20 years ago, in the pre-T20 bash era, an innings that would not be out of place in today’s fast-paced cricket.

In fact, watching that innings on the idiot box would have taken so much out of that exhilarating experience. It needed to be lived. It was a night which promised to entertain, evoke a sense of passion for the sport and more importantly, act as a great leveler between all sections of society. Those chants of “Pakistan Zindabad” from the Imran Khan enclosure, the volley of sixes coming to all parts of the stadium, that delirium of having beaten India at a canter. Those were simpler days, of a day out with family, ordering pizza, watching the sport under those glaring floodlights and returning home having lost your voice.

Cricket unites this country like no religion or ideology or ethnicity does. Every household in our country has an emotional investment with our national team. The stories of our cricket’s triumphs and tragedies are part of every family’s history. Isn’t it evident that since international cricket went away we are a more divisive and fragmented society?

For a generation of fans, going to the stadium was a ritual — one that was brutally interrupted in 2009. Eight barren years without cricket has altered society and the game itself but as the World XI tour proves, cricket is all we have in terms of sport

In March of 2009, a bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers was fired upon by gunmen near this very same Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. Several players were injured and the entire international cricket community mourned the incident. The repercussions for Pakistan though were inevitable. New Zealand cancelled their tour in 2009 followed by the biggest blow: the ICC stripping Pakistan of its World Cup hosting rights due to security concerns.

It did not take long to pick Dubai as our home. Nothing gives a better example of how much cricket is in our blood or how deep-rooted cricket is in our society than our team’s performance since 2009. When one sees of what all it was stripped off it is nothing short of a miracle that Pakistan won at home (that is, Dubai) and away, became the number one Test country in the world and to top it all we won the Champions Trophy in England this summer. If there were times we played horrible cricket it had less to do with the ban to play at home and more to do with the mercurial brand of cricket that we play. As in India they would have said, “We are like that only.”

Resumption of international cricket in Pakistan is painfully slow and perhaps so it should be. Since the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team there has only been a limited overs’ series against Zimbabwe in 2015 and the return of a few international players in the Pakistan Super League final at Lahore in March this year. The recently concluded three-match tour of the World XI was another small step towards more international cricket in Pakistan.

An entire generation would find it hard to believe that during the 1980s and early ’90s, the on-tour English, Australian and West Indian players used to practice at the Lahore Gymkhana cricket ground at the Bagh-e-Jinnah without any security whatsoever. They used to play practice games there watched by a few hundred spectators sitting on the ground around the boundary. In stark contrast was the city-wide lockdown in Lahore to provide security to the touring World XI squad. Compared to today’s intolerant, extremist and militant society those days seem so innocent, so foreign. What a mess we have made of our society.

And yet, if international cricket was salvaged and managed with difficulties it was even more difficult to keep the first class cricket going since 2009. Nothing motivates a youngster more than to see his idols playing to capacity crowds or to be a ball boy for the practicing international team. The ban put paid to all that. Along with that the Test centres in the country fell into a state of disrepair. From back alleys to grassless, dusty open spaces to small grounds the first big dream of a youngster is to play a match at a Test centre. There was just no end to the adverse circumstances faced by our cricket. Add to that the fact that school and university cricket had finished long before 2009. So, today, looking at the likes of Shadab, Hasan, Rumman and Imad one can’t help wonder how deep is the resilience of cricket in this terror-torn country and how did it all happen.

If not by design than by pure good luck, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) ended up with a management team in 2014 under the leadership of Shehryar Khan as chairman and Najam Sethi as the head of the PCB Executive Committee. For the last many years the PCB had been dilly-dallying a T20 league of its own. There were vested interests that had been eyeing big money in sub-letting this lucrative business. Najam Sethi, however, formulated a management team and, contrary to all the critics’ expectations, the PSL was launched in 2016 in Dubai. It was a huge success.

Just two editions of the PSL have thrown up such an abundance of talent that it is pure joy to watch them. As most pundits have acknowledged, without the stars thrown up by the PSL, we would not have won the Champions Trophy. The final of the second edition was played in Lahore earlier this year with some international players coming over to play while others opted out due to security concerns. Plans are being made to hold some matches in Lahore and Karachi for the third edition of the PSL next year. The praise that has been heaped on Najam Sethi, even by his detractors and critics, is strictly performance driven. It is not an easy job to run cricket in Pakistan because all 220 million of us have an opinion on how to select a team and how to run cricket.

With the PSL running successfully, the next two important assignments for Sethi are, first, the resumption of international cricket in Pakistan and, secondly, the improvement of cricket at the grassroots level, school cricket, university cricket and an upgrade of first class cricket.

An entire generation would find it hard to believe that during the 1980s and early ’90s the on-tour English, Australian and West Indian players used to practice at the Lahore Gymkhana cricket ground at the Bagh-e-Jinnah without any security whatsoever.

The recently held Independence Cup with the World XI coming to Pakistan was a huge success story. There were no “phateechar” players. The World XI was led by the captain of the South African team, Faf du Plessis, and the team won the hearts of the entire country. My car pool interview with Darren Sammy revealed the love he had for the people of Pakistan. “I have a special connect with the people of Pakistan, the love we have received here is second to none,” he told me. Sammy also praised the reception he got as an international cricketer and showed support towards restoration of cricket in Pakistan.

Faf Du Plessis, meanwhile, spoke highly of Pakistani food: “I loved Pakistani food. It will be the best memory that I take back home.” The people, the food all at the centre of the Pakistani culture will be taken back as one would hope to be facilitators of a positive change in thinking when the World XI team members return to their respective countries.

From a production point of view, it was nice to have George Bailey and Grant Elliot in the commentary box enlightening the world with their views on their tour.

“For me the passion, the enthusiasm of the people towards cricket, made me realise how important it is for a country, for a community to support their sport,” Elliot said to me. “The power of sport can bring a country together and Pakistan is passionate to bring cricket back. Let’s hope that we have contributed by making this small step towards international cricket returning.” .

The good news is that this World XI squad had five current playing South African players and that augurs well for a potential Pakistan versus South Africa series in the future in Pakistan.

The career path of choice of any youngster in Pakistan is to play cricket for his or her country. Nothing else promises the glamour, the wealth and the recognition that cricket offers here. As the recent census has shown, alarmingly, Pakistan has a huge over-supply of youngsters. For any small town kid cricket stardom seems so within his grasp because he sees living examples of hundreds of rags-to-riches stories of cricketers who made it big. As inspirations go, nothing beats that.

The famous existentialist French author, Albert Camus, once said: “After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I most surely know in the long run about morality and the obligations of men, I owe to football.” In cricket, too, we have seen untutored personalities transformed on ‘morality’ and ‘obligations’. It is unfortunate that we do not offer other sporting opportunities to our youth. Until hockey, football, tennis, squash or any other sport offer the same dream to our youth, cricket is all we have.

The writer is a sports anchor and analyst. She tweets @ZAbbasOfficial

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 24th, 2017

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