The last international match I saw at Gaddafi Stadium was in January 2009, the infamous 234-run defeat to Sri Lanka. Pakistan were bowled out for 75 and so too from the captaincy was Shoaib Malik. That series was also a path-breaker of sorts, or more accurately, a gesture. India had pulled out of a tour after the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan was struggling to attract teams and in stepped Sri Lanka, gracious and willing as always.
Eight-and-a-half years later, Gaddafi beckoned again, another, more momentous path-breaker this time. In no particular order some notes on a return to Gaddafi Stadium.
In Lahori (it's not really a language, though, okay, it is) it is Qazzafi, not Gaddafi. Muammar Gaddafi was a Libyan dictator and sure, he was friendly with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, once Pakistan's Prime Minister, for a little while in the 1970s. We all swung that way once.
But to Lahore, and Pakistan, Qazzafi is a stadium and, in the truest sense of the word, the home of cricket.
Gaddafi Stadium is not nearly as imposing, or towering as I remember. I probably remember wrong, but the stadium was the most amphitheatric of Pakistan's venues - certainly the grandest (which it still is). The architecture, Moghul-inspired in its magnificent redesign in the mid-90s, is one reason. The red-stone façade can still demand one's gaze for longer than most works of architecture, let alone stadiums. It could also just be its history: there since the 1950s, but essentially built by the will, presence and foresight of that early-years giant Abdul Hafeez Kardar in the 1970s. It is also the scene of the only World Cup final held in Pakistan, and a sprinkling - not enough - of memorable moments otherwise.
Cricket stadiums the world over have undergone renovations and facelifts and have started looking like unblemished, pristine multi-purpose venues rather than sporting stadiums. Gaddafi still looks like it is from an older age, built from blood, sweat and memories. Where that should enhance the charm, instead tonight it exaggerates a meekness about the place. Which shouldn't be surprising given that it had one job to do, which was to host big-time matches, but which it can't. That goes and naturally, the aura, goes with it.
Babar Azam is a hero.
Liberty Chowk, where the day began, is an unremarkable but notable Lahore junction. It is here that the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked, a turn from entering the premises of Gaddafi Stadium. On Tuesday, as early as five hours before the game, fans had started to filter in, waiting to get on to specially-hired buses that would take them the short distance into Gaddafi Stadium.
A couple of men turned up, one of whom had traveled from Larkana, over 800km south-east of Lahore, in Sindh, for a game that would be over in just over three-and-a-half hours. One gentleman on the bus was a Gaddafi regular, when one could be such a thing. Back in the day, he used to walk to the stadium, unimpeded by the five (at least) rings of security checks he would have to go through today. That's how he went to watch the Test against India in 1978-79. It so happened that he worked for a well-known law firm in Lahore which had defended Salim Malik and Shoaib Akhtar. A reporter found a couple who traveled 26 hours to watch this game, having found themselves stuck at Liberty Chowk on the day of the attacks.
A young man on the bus, with hair that probably has its own TV show, told us that Virat Kohli was originally meant to be captain of the World XI side but that the Pakistani government prevented it from happening. He wasn't wearing a "Ye bik gayi hai gormint" (look it up) t-shirt, but he should've been.
Then he told us about a betting app through which he could prove how matches were fixed, even, he insisted, the Champions Trophy final. Then he and his hair left.
The stadium was not full. It was, according to most guesstimates, 16000-to-18000-out-of-25000 full. Faf du Plessis noticed it. Paul Collingwood did as well. This surprised me, even after there had been plenty of talk around of ticket sales not going well. I mean this was only the sixth international game of cricket in Pakistan since 2009 and yes the weather wasn't the best and the security an ordeal and it was a weeknight, but Zimbabwe toured in May (Lahore in May equals no) with equal, if not more oppressive security, and the stands then were bursting.
The word is that the PCB got its ticketing policy drastically wrong, specifically in the way it has priced seats and availability. We will know more only when the rest of the games take place. In the bigger picture - where the hope is that nothing untoward happens so that more games can eventually be scheduled here - that bit can be overlooked. Still though.
The crowd that was there was not subdued exactly, but… is polite the right word? Too nice? Well-behaved. Not enough edge. There was energy don't get me wrong - Collingwood, who has played in Lahore before, thought the crowd's intensity was high - but, particularly when Pakistan fielded, this could've been a friendly, stake-less game and not one with international status (not that international-status games these days automatically acquire meaning). The overriding sentiment towards the opponent, the World XI, was of gratitude where a little more tribalism and boorishness might not have been amiss.
There were flutters of excitement when Hasan Ali came on. It went silent, like after a boundary being hit against India at Eden Gardens, when Faheem Ashraf came on. A player later wondered whether this team had enough stars in it. He was reminded that Faheem was a Champions Trophy winner. Crowds, too, started leaving early: mindful perhaps of the impositions on travel plans after the game ended.