Six years is a long time to have empty grounds, dusty seats and no international cricket in sight. It has been a tough six years for Pakistan cricket fans. And it has been a week of ambiguity, the tour never really confirmed. Would Zimbabwe take a chance? There were prayers, tears, cops and a desperate hope as we descended to watch the first T20 international to be hosted at the Gaddafi Stadium.
I receive a frantic phone call. Several of the flights from Karachi to Lahore have either been cancelled or delayed. My bags are packed, tickets in hand, whistles, flag, paint and pom-poms all safely tucked away, and yet the uncertainty surrounding domestic travel makes Lahore feel all that much farther away. All I can do is pray.
We are at the airport. There is only one flight departing that will make it in time for the match. There's a frantic rush at the counters. The flight is booked to capacity. Our tickets are confirmed but there are boys in green jerseys pleading for seats. They wanted to be a part of history.
We have 30 minutes to get to the ground. Security is tight, traffic is currently at its peak and there have been several text messages about the gates closing at 6 pm. I'm shaking as we near the stadium. The term "heavy jazba" (passion) is being thrown around frequently. There are balloons, wigs, paint, posters and selfies being taken on the walk to the stadium, and security unlike anything I have ever witnessed before.
The lines are long. The heat is intense. The spirit is very much intact. Whistles are being blown everywhere; chants have already begun before we've even entered our stand. I saw a group of boys in a country obsessed with manhood walk in with tears in their eyes. Later, they admitted how overwhelming it was: all these years it had felt like cricket wasn't meant for us anymore; they didn't believe the Gaddafi would get a second life.
The flags are out. The teams have walked out. I look around and see almost every fan in my section with their hands on their chest. That was probably the loudest the Pakistan national anthem has ever been sung at a stadium. Amid the sea of green, you can see specks of Zimbabwe jerseys and posters of their players. There was heart and sportsmanship, and a real love for cricket. It wasn't the men in green who were our heroes; it was the boys in red we were hailing.
The first ball is bowled. I cry. The exile is over. The sights, sounds and feel of a home ground had become such a faded memory, I was afraid we would always be left chasing that feeling. There are three different chachas in the stands today, each unique, with his band of followers. There are too many different slogans being chanted to follow. It is 43C and no bottled water of any kind. There is only lassi available for those desperate for reprieve.
The entire stand is chanting "selfie" in unison as Ahmed Shehzad takes his position near our boundary. There is bhangra between the overs. Four men seated in front of us had flown in from Multan. They were only interested in seeing Shahid Afridi play and were blown away with how beautiful the Gaddafi Stadium was. I had to agree; for someone more used to the National Stadium, Karachi, where matches are watched through cages, these seats were intact and the ground rivalled any I had been to abroad.
Zimbabwe has been ahead in the first innings. Showing their strength, hitting boundaries, keeping wickets in hand. They set a target of 173, a tall ask for a team with a poor history of chasing and the added burden of sentimentality for the day.
The second innings is absolute mayhem. The crowd is on its feet as the opening pair of Mukhtar Ahmed and Shehzad has it raining fours and sixes. Pakistan is cruising to victory. The run rate well ahead of what is required. People can be heard discussing whether Mukhtar can make a century.
Fans begin to leave, expecting the team to take it home easily. It takes eight balls for two wickets to fall in succession and suddenly, the road gets a little bumpier. People are cheering for wickets, anything for their captain to make an appearance in the match.
And then the match begins to move for Zimbabwe.
We are ready to go home. Our stand has tired, and thirsty fans are anxiously waiting to watch the winning runs but, quite typically, nothing ever comes easily with our team. In six overs Pakistan lost five wickets, and you can feel the tension in the air. It is almost a comical procession of batsmen, the familiarity most fitting.
It is the final over. Afridi scores the winning runs. This is what the fans were waiting for. Bottles are being thrown everywhere. There is an excited rush near the gate as we head towards the exit. Shouts of "Pakistan zindabad" can be heard in several areas surrounding the ground. People give interviews, lots of pushing, peace signs, loud proclamations of how incredible it was to finally witness cricket at home. Policemen are being relentlessly thanked for their service. They made it possible.
We are headed back to our hotel. The family in our shuttle is talking about how they bought tickets at twice their original value because not being at the game was not an option. We have paint smeared on our faces, we have lost our voices, our jerseys are drenched, but the significance of today is not lost on us.
Zimbabwe has given Pakistan cricket a new lease on life. I have remembered what it feels like to watch a game live, to feel the patriotism and fandom associated with the sport. Our love for cricket supersedes all. It would be heart breaking to have to wait another six years to witness it again.