How Karachi welcomed England - From the Streets to the Stadium

How (and why) the Pakistan vs. England T20I series was anything but normal for Karachiites

The morning of September 15 was a normal Thursday morning for most people, but for Pakistan Cricket fans, there was more hope than just the sunlight as the England Cricket team arrived in Karachi, the “city of lights,” to play four T20 matches, ending a 17-year drought.

With this series, International cricket was to continue its return to Pakistan. A journey that began with Zimbabwe’s tour of Pakistan in 2015 and was carried on by the Pakistan Super League matches as well as the most recent tour by the Australian Men’s Cricket team.

When the unfortunate attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team occurred, and cricket was subsequently banned in Pakistan, the question of precisely how long fandom remains in exile remained unanswered in my mind after having been coined by Imran Ahmed Khan. After witnessing the excitement of the people of Karachi like if it was a festival, I began to think that the answer to my question was right around the corner.

The National Stadium Karachi was simply the place to be on September 20. People started pouring into the stadium three hours before the game to see their heroes warm up for the main stage. Soon, a large crowd of 35000 people had gathered, regardless of ethnicity or faith, with only one thing in common: ‘Pakistan.’

What transpired was simply more than just a cricket match. It marked the realization of a dream that many Pakistan Cricket supporters, like me, had seen while watching the England cricket team play on television, be it in the ICC World T20 in 2010 or in the 50-over World Cup in 2019.

Everyone knew before the game even started that both sides would get equal support since English players had experienced Pakistani hospitality firsthand, an experience that had been forgotten while this cricket-loving country was deprived of international cricket.

The first T20 ended in favor of the visitors with opener Alex Hales announcing his return to International cricket with a brilliant half-century, guiding his team home. The series moved on to its second encounter; this time, England had decided to bat first. What followed was pure brilliance from the English batsmen, who played fearless attacking cricket posting a huge total of 199/5 in their allotted 20 overs.

Mohammad Rizwan and Babar Azam, Pakistan’s numbers 16 and 56 and the current number 1 and number 3 in the world, walked out to the National Stadium’s pitch in response to the chants of 30,000 fans who were all still thinking about that outstanding opening partnership against South Africa at the Centurion in 2021. What occurred next was no different, as they made obvious from ball one. Babar and Rizwan appeared to have never looked back as they responded to the raucous applause of the Karachi fans by hitting the English spinners with slog sweeps and pull shots for boundaries. The Karachites knew they were in for a treat.

In the 17th over, Pakistan’s skipper Babar Azam completed his second T20 century, transforming what many refer to as the “City of the Quaid” into the “City of the Kaptaan.” Only “Babar! Babar!” could be heard echoing across the National Stadium as the crowd erupted in joy. Babar Azam rose to the situation this year at the NSK for the second time, with the first being his match-saving 196 against Australia. This time, he saw his team home as Pakistan romped to a record-breaking 10-wicket win.

With the series level at 1-1, it was always expected that both teams would come out roaring. The Karachi crowd also didn’t disappoint as it was another full house. Batting first once more, England was led to a massive 221 runs with the help of two players who have been seen playing in the Pakistan Super League. Harry Brook of Lahore and Ben Duckett of Quetta added a 139-run partnership, smashing the Pakistani bowlers all over the place. As a spectator, one could only marvel at how both of these batsmen shuffled in their crease and supported their ability to play unorthodox shots in pressure situations tangling with the mind of the skipper as to where he should place his fielders and with the length of the bowlers.

Blind faith in their team is a characteristic that all Pakistan cricket fans have, in addition to their love of the game. This conviction was on full show when, despite a batting collapse and the team being in trouble at 25/4, the majority remained seated in anticipation of an unforeseen miracle. Just like their supporters, the Pakistani players also tend to never give up as Shan Masood and Khushdil Shah took on the English bowlers, playing some brilliant shots and giving the fans hope. However, Pakistan stumbled to a loss and were down 2-1.

It was always predicted that Karachi’s fourth and final game would be a blockbuster. I had imagined that by sticking to my schedule of getting to the stadium at 4 PM, I could safely escape all the lengthy lineups at the entry and other hassles. But I was mistaken since what I had seen resembled what I experienced back in 2017 when the Pakistan Super League final was played in Karachi for the first time. It appeared as though the entire city had decided to watch what was expected to be an enthralling game of cricket.

On the streets leading to the National Stadium Karachi, I could only see little children with the Pakistani flag painted on their faces and adults sporting the jerseys of their favorite cricket players. This was when I realized that fandom definitely could not exist in exile for long.

With the stadium full beyond its utmost capacity, fans positioned themselves on the stairs. The Pakistani cricket team didn’t disappoint, though England were on top for much of the game and appeared to be the obvious favorites to win going into the last two overs. However, Haris Rauf had other ideas, quickly turning the game in Pakistan’s favor with back-to-back wickets.

This time, fans’ hopes for a miracle produced just that as the last man was run out in epic fashion! The moment the bails had lit up, the crowd erupted in ecstasy. Everyone leaped up from their chairs to dance and celebrate. There could not have been a more spectacular way to finish off a brilliant leg of four sold-out matches with a record attendance of 95.3%.

It would be fitting to say Karachites welcomed cricket – from the streets to the stadium.

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