LAHORE: Extraordinary security measures because of a surge in militant violence last month did not stop thousands of cricket-starved fans from flocking to the 25,000-capcity Gaddafi Stadium to watch the Pakistan Super League (PSL) final between Peshawar Zalmi and Quetta Gladiators on Sunday.
“Even if we have to pass through a dozen security checkpoints we won’t mind,” said Mohammad Afzal, a smiling 25-year-old Peshawar fan.
“It’s not a matter of who wins or loses tonight, it’s a big day for Pakistan as we wanted to show the world we can host international matches too,” said 18-year-old student Iftikhar Ahmed, who arrived at the venue hours before the game was due to start.
PSL chairman Najam Sethi, who also heads the Pakistan Cricket Board’s executive committee, said he looked at the PSL final as the opening for Pakistan to bring back international cricket.
Security officials from the cricket boards of Australia, Sri Lanka, England and Bangladesh, as well as the International Cricket Council were also present at the stadium to see security measures for themselves.
Thousands of security officials, including policemen and soldiers, had been deployed around the stadium and the route from the teams’ hotel as part of the beefed-up security.
In a tweet, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) chief Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said that sports promoted peace.
Wishing good luck to both teams, the ISPR director general welcomed the foreign players who participated in the match and foreign guests who came to Pakistan to watch the final.
Brushing off security worries, cricket-obsessed fans relished a rare chance to savour big-time cricket on home soil.
“For the last several weeks, we were not going to restaurants because of threats of terrorism. But celebration of the PSL final has brought us out,” said schoolteacher Maleeha Rizvi, 48, dining with her family near the stadium.
“I guess this event has defeated terrorism,” she added.
The air of festivity and excitement in front of the Gaddafi Stadium was palpable. Singing national songs while clapping and dancing, the crowds waited patiently without complaint, ecstatic at being able to witness the final match in their hometown.
As special shuttle buses arrived in the designated parking lots to take the visitors inside the stadium, the large number of men and women of all ages boarded the vehicles as their festive sloganeering reached a crescendo. The extra hassle of having to wait in the parking lots was met with no complaints.
The city was lit up ahead of the big match. The Lahore Municipal Corporation (LMC) had set up fairy lights in greenbelts on major roads, especially on both sides of Canal Road.
An LMC spokesperson said the reason for this was not only to decorate the city, but also to help law enforcement agencies maintain law and order by keeping an eye on people’s movement.
“This looks more like Eid that we celebrate every year… I am very happy that my parents allowed me to come see the match,” Ahmad Iqbal, a student of Lahore Grammar School, said while heading towards the Barkat Market parking lot to catch a shuttle bus.
The energy of the youth wearing shirts bearing emblems of their favourite teams was matched by the volume of the slogans they shouted. “I support Peshawar Zalmi… it will surely win,” Auan Raza said, while Dr Sharjeel Ahmad nearby weighed in: “No no, of course the Quetta Gladiators will win… I’m supporting it.”
“Zalmi, Zalmi, Zalmi,” shouted Aizaz, high-fiving his friends who cheered him on. “I like Zalmi… it is a strong team.”
A lot of the slogans the crowds shouted were for the country. They resonated deeply with the people who spoke about an overwhelming feeling of solidarity and camaraderie that had brought them to witness the match.
“I feel safe since [there are] many police officials here to protect our lives. We are [here] to see the match not only to support national and international players, but also those who have organised this mega event [in the face of] threats,” said Kamran Siddique, while waiting for his turn to board a bus. “The police officials’ attitude has been very good,” he added.
Faheem Chaudhry, a student who danced to national songs with his friends while heading towards a parking lot, said: “After many years, today’s scene reflects that finally we will succeed in overcoming terrorism. I hate terrorism and it must be eliminated by the government by hook or by crook.”
He added: “The time has come to revive international cricket that had stopped in the country after a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009.”
“[This is] after many years that I [have gotten to] see such a wonderful activity attracting the public and [infusing them with] enthusiasm, courage and emotion. It seems as if the end of terrorism is near,” said Qayyum Zahid, a senior journalist at a news agency, while walking to the venue near the Barkat Market traffic signal.
“The people’s enthusiasm reflects that we are united against terrorism,” he added. Shujaat Anwar, another visitor, appreciated the efforts of the law enforcement agencies to provide an opportunity for such an unprecedented festivity for Lahorites. “I salute our police, the army and all those, whether in the government or not, who have done such an amazing job of converting a state of fear and disappointment to a mega festivity in the country,” Mr Anwar said.