Back in 2003 Pakistan ended what now appears so brief and partial an isolation that it is hardly worth calling an isolation. The effects of 9/11 and, more directly, a bombing at the Karachi hotel where New Zealand were staying, in May 2002, had brought that on. A couple of series were grudgingly relocated to Sharjah but never did it feel permanent, and by the end of 2003, it was over.

Bangladesh came first and then South Africa, but what really felt like the proper return was the series with India at the start of 2004. There could be no more emphatic message that Pakistan was safe than India's arrival; India with whom Pakistan's then president had attempted war not five years previously. The euphoria of that tour was so potent it can still be summoned today. Soon after, even England - though alas not, and never, Australia - thought it was fine to play in Pakistan.

Maybe it says a tiny bit about the gulf between the PCB and the BCCI, and the PCB and the Big Three, that it is impossible to imagine India or England returning anytime soon. Far, far more, instead, it says how much Pakistan as a country has changed in such a short time - just over a decade, remember - that it is Zimbabwe who mark the end of Pakistan's isolation. Zimbabwe have their own compulsions and until the day they fly back safe from what is, in any other context, a low-key tour, it will be impossible not to be moved by a combination of the jitters and immenseness of the occasion.

So much more violence and all of it closing in. In that time three people, of varying degrees of closeness to me, have perished to violence that, while present even back then, was then more sporadic and somehow more distant. (And I'm still more fortunate than millions). To a Karachiite, concerns over Peshawar when negotiations for the India tour's itinerary were underway could be justified. Concerns about Karachi just felt overblown, and ultimately both cities were found safe enough to host an ODI each.

Hostage to that violence, an entire character has changed or is in the process of changing. So overwhelming has it been that, just imagine, some days, the return of democracy after a military dictatorship looks like the least of Pakistan's transformations in the last decade.

In Pakistan, history has been compressed, like the bellows of an accordion, the scale of it warped. Too often a week has carried the weight of decades. Too often years of history have culminated in one horrific day

If we temporarily accept history as a culmination, it is so of little daily murmurs. In those countries that are lucky, history is a surreptitious enterprise, occurring and building all the while away from attention, until one day its force can be packaged and understood. They should be grateful because in Pakistan there is no such luxury. To be aware of history's creep on a daily basis, to be in the frenzy of history's force and ominousness, weighing down and propelling each day, has been the curse of this decade. History has been compressed, like the bellows of an accordion, the scale of it warped, its sweep condensed. Too often one day, two, a week, have carried the weight of decades. Too often years of history have culminated in one horrific day, at the same time creating years more of history. In the present, that sense of history has been out of our grasp, floating in time and space, in hope that a future grabs and makes sense of it.

When those bellows expand and release who knows, and who knows the nature of that release?

Meanwhile, cricket. As ever, it has been entirely in line with this trajectory. Single days have borne the epic curses of history - August 28, 2010, March 3, 2009, March 18, 2007, August 20, 2006. The full consequences we don't yet know, not least of the day this visit resonates with the most, the second in that sequence above.

What has been the effect of no international cricket for six years in Pakistan?

The easiest impact to measure is financial, and that isn't easy, mostly because the PCB has never sought to make public any study it may, or likelier may not, have undertaken. As an estimate, a figure of US$100 million has been thrown around, a little casually - and arrived at narrowly, from the broadcasting losses of two series at home against India in the last rights cycle.

Whatever the figure, add on plenty between 9/11 and 2009.

That number is amplified many times over in its impact on stadium revamps, on first-class cricket, on little and large economies that run on cricket. Has a lack of international cricket stymied the development of PCB officials, who no longer benefit from regular interaction with officials of other boards, or from arranging home series? If those attacks had been prevented, might the much-delayed Pakistan Super League (PSL) be up and running now? That would have had its own impact. As would have done the hosting of the 2008 Champions Trophy and 2011 World Cup.

Would Pakistan have had more leverage when the Big Three came huffing and puffing?

What of its players, who have had to adopt a new foreign home, elongating the treadmill on which they exist? How much fuller might the careers of Umar Akmal and Junaid Khan be right now had they had the comfort of playing at home? Those who will only play domestically, how much more distant do they feel from international cricket now that geography and not just skill and fortune separate them? Could Pakistan have produced a local competent sports broadcaster in that time? Nobody knows how fans feel, other than that they must miss being able to go to a stadium and watch if they want. How about those who aspire to become cricketers? If Pakistan ever documented participation figures, what would they show? These are questions to which responses may never be calculated; instead they might be sensed 20 years down the line, once the accrual of history is clearer.

Zimbabwe may be low-key opponents (not, let's be reminded, low-quality ones) but that cannot mask the bigness of this moment. A Full Member is visiting Pakistan, after six years during which it was impossible to know when the next such visit would be. And as big as it is, it must necessarily be the first small step of many to a fuller return. Zimbabwe today, a high-profile Associate later. Then, perhaps, the PSL with some international stars and maybe an Asian opponent. A drip-drip return seems the most feasible approach, especially as many of these steps remain dependent on factors outside the PCB's control. From a distance it cannot be conclusively determined that Pakistan is less or more volatile than in 2009, when Sri Lanka were attacked. But a new reality is in play and it will require new adjustments. It took one attack to stop international cricket in Pakistan, but it will take a few attack-free tours to bring it back fully. There is no precedent but this is how it needs to work.

The one similarity between India's arrival all those years ago and now Zimbabwe's is that it comes under an administration once again headed by Shaharyar Khan. Probably it's no coincidence - the diplomat inside him helps as much as it hinders him within the PCB, but to the outside world there is comfort and familiarity in his avuncular presence. His return last year was, in many ways, an indictment of establishment thinking about leadership, but at a broad level his intentions are difficult to argue against.

History will record his contributions as it will May 22 as another of the many days that take so much out of the Pakistani - an emotional one, a nervous one, and above all, hopefully, a safe one. International cricket is returning to Pakistan, words which, though typed easily enough and read likewise, will take time to sink in. The undiluted hope is that it stays.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket