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Rawalpindi crowd revels in cricket's homecoming

They chanted names, they came up with slogans, and they did what they haven't been able to do for years - show their love for the game



"Dilon ka wazir-e-azam, Babar Azam, Babar Azam."
The meaning of this expression might get lost in a literal English translation. But if you know Urdu, you should be able to tell how big a compliment it is. It literally translates to 'the prime minister of hearts', and when thousands chant it in unison in Urdu, it can give you goosebumps.
Pakistan are playing only their third Test in the country since the return of international cricket to Pakistani soil, after spending a decade playing "home" matches in the UAE. It's possible that the ongoing Test has seen more people in the stands in Rawalpindi over the last three days than at all of the Pakistan matches in the UAE over the last 10 years combined. The intensity of the excitement among the crowd at the stadium may go some way towards establishing the enormity of its size.
"Halki phulki bhook main halka phulka TUC, Imam-ul-haq, Imam-ul-Haq."
This doesn't mean anything at all when translated literally. What the fans did in Rawalpindi was to pick up an ad jingle for TUC biscuits and make it rhyme with Imam-ul-Haq (who was not even playing the Test).
The Rawalpindi Stadium doesn't have a massive capacity; it can accommodate close to 17,000 fans but it benefits from being the twin city of Islamabad, the country's capital. There were phases of play over the past three days when the Test appeared to be progressing at a glacial pace but, in the stands, there was never a dull moment. Chants of "Dil dil Pakistan" and "Pakistan zindabad" rang aloud, lending testimony to how fervently the fans missed the cricket in the country over the last decade.
Even though hockey is Pakistan's national sport and inspired many youngsters growing up between the '70s and early '90s to develop a liking towards sports, it never quite had the allure of cricket. With the two Ws - Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram - at their peak, it was in the '90s era, that cricket had the most profound impact on the nation's consciousness. Pakistan has since become a largely one-sport country, the game turning into a powerful means to influencing several generations, with one of their all-time greats, Imran Khan, going on to become the prime minister.
"Thori roti bota salan Fawad Alam, Fawad Alam."
"A little bit of bread, a little bit of gravy, and then Fawad Alam, Fawad Alam." Don't go hunting for the meaning of this chant either; it's just another creative chorus the Rawalpindi crowd came up with to celebrate the return of top-flight cricket on home soil.
There was a time in Pakistan when not only stadiums would be packed during international games, but hundreds of fans would throng the grounds even during net sessions to catch a glimpse of their favourite overseas players. Traditionally, Test cricket in Pakistan may have never consistently drawn full houses, but there hadn't been any want in passion among Pakistan's cricket fans, until the connect between the sport and its followers in the country snapped in the wake of the attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009.
That era of Pakistan's "home" matches being played in the UAE won't be remembered for how the fans received it. It forced nearly a generation of them to stay glued to their television sets even for their home matches, instead of filling the stadiums and cheering for their favourite players. Pakistan played 31 Tests from 2009 to 2019 in the UAE, lost only eight of them, and achieved historic feats, but all in front of scant crowds. They whitewashed the then No. 1-ranked England 3-0 in early 2012, Misbah-ul-Haq slammed the fastest Test century at the time, against Australia in 2014, equalling Viv Richards' mark, and a day-night Test was played there in 2016 which Pakistan won against West Indies, but again, with not as many fans to witness it.
"Panjan de kulfi, dasan de chaa, Yasir Shah, Yasir Shah."
By now, you must have learnt the drill: Don't bother with the meaning; it's another food-related chant forced to rhyme with a player's name. Here's the translation, anyway: "A kulfi (ice lolly made of condensed milk) is for five, a tea for 10, and there's Yasir Shah."
When Azhar Ali got out in the first innings, the crowd erupted with the name of the incoming batsman, Babar Azam. He has already achieved the status of a hero in Pakistan and the fans' chants made Shan Masood say to Alam, who was carrying drinks: "This is the sort of thing our players haven't been able to experience for 10 years. To see your team-mate have his name chanted by your countrymen tells you everything."
All those years spent in the UAE has meant the cricket infrastructure in Rawalpindi has not been upgraded adequately. The stadium still has cemented stands with not enough chairs. That, however, didn't discourage the fans from turning up in big numbers at the ongoing Test. Could this mark the dawn of a new era, with more cricket coming back to the country on a regular basis? If the attendance over the first three days is anything to go by, the passion among Pakistan fans for cricket on home soil has received a shot in the arm.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent