The Script That Took 17 Years: Karachi Leg

Rarely do bilateral T20s get as exciting as the Pakistan-England contests in Karachi. They lived up to the hype & more.

For a city that never sleeps and is always loud, to say Karachi roared last week is an understatement. Something extraordinary transpired in the middle of the city under floodlights last week, and more than 100,000 came to witness it live in person.

When the England cricket team landed in Pakistan on the 15th of September, it still felt a little surreal that the England tour of Pakistan was actually happening. After watching New Zealand abandon their tour at the last minute last year and England pull out of theirs soon after, cricket fans in Pakistan had all the reasons to still find it a little unbelievable. The occasion seemed too big and too real to be believable. Perhaps that is why when Pakistan and England’s captains walked out for the toss at the National Stadium Karachi on Tuesday, 20th September, the stands had almost already filled up. It was a working day, but the people of this city had turned up in numbers because there was only one way to make sure this was not a dream – to watch it happen live in the stadium.

Thousands got to their feet in the enclosures when the two teams took the field for the national anthems. Respect was paid to England’s national anthem, and the Pakistan national anthem was sung in a chorus along with the recording. A white flag with a red cross and a green and white crescent flag stood tall side by side on top of the main building of the National Stadium and swayed to the tune of the anthems while Karachi’s famous evening wind rose to the occasion. These moments and this day were going down in history, and objects – living and non-living, both – appeared to have understood it.

GETTY/Alex Davidson

Chants of “Welcome England” and “Pakistan Zindabad” made waves around the stadium when the men in red took the field and an English bowler in his country’s jersey ran in on Pakistani soil after 17 whole years to bowl a ball to a Pakistani batter. Mohammad Rizwan played it for a single. But the crowd cheered nonetheless. And they continued to do so throughout the game, not shying away from cheering for the tourists just as much as the hosts.

Pakistan ended up losing that game, but not a single Pakistan fan in the stadium was disappointed. The crowd was still cheering and caroling when the game ended with England successfully chasing down the target of 159 with four balls to spare. The occasion seemed to be too big for anyone to really care about the result of the game. England had just played a game on their soil after 17 whole years. Match reports printed an England win, but everybody in the stadium believed otherwise. Because there was more to this game than just the result. A message was delivered to the world, a sense of belief had returned among Pakistan fans, and doors that promised a full-fledged return of international cricket were now open.

The second T20I also arrived on a weekday. But Karachiites had their priorities sorted for this series because the stadium was already buzzing before the players took the field. England chose to bat first this time. And they began well as their opening pair got 42/0 from five overs. The fans in the ground, who were a little more into the game this time, finally out of the trance of the big occasion from the first game, were slightly quieter. They still chanted to motivate their players and even clapped for the English players, but while the grandness of the occasion was celebrated in the first T20I, their fortress had been breached, and it was time to reclaim authority. And almost like the message was conveyed and telepathy was at play, Dahani took two in two in the sixth over and ran towards the fans, celebrating; the crowd came alive. The noise was ear-splitting as chants of “Dahani! Dahani!” took over the entire stadium. Pakistan had arrived in the game.

But England, being well led by their captain, who scored 55* of 23, ended their innings on 199/5. It was a good score but not entirely ungettable. But if Pakistan were to really chase this down, their openers – Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan – needed to step up and begin the chase from ball one. The players knew it, and so did the fans in the stands, which is why as soon as the duo walked into the ground, more than 30,000 people in the stadium began chanting “Babar! Babar!” and “Rizwan! Rizwan!” They needed their favorites to know they believed in them. Riding on the rhythm of the chants and claps, the two maestros took the reins and began the chase. Boundaries came frequently, which meant the crowd was often on its feet. There was an unsaid understanding between the two at the crease as they made up for each other’s slow phases, and while a few words were shared at the end of each over, more was said through their nods and eye contact.

Powerplay, middle, and death overs – these two seemed to have come prepared for all three phases today. Different Pakistan players padded up in the dugout during different stages of the game to prepare for their entry, but entry was closed. Because the two on the field didn’t know of any exits. No bowler was spared as they continued the rampage, and in the 18th over, when Babar Azam ran a single to get to his 100 that had come off just 62 balls, the lion jumped up in the air and roared, and the whole stadium rumbled with him in echo. The atmosphere was electrifying. Seats seemed to have lost all purpose in the enclosures as everyone was on their feet. Hearts raced while cheers, chants, and claps were now louder than ever – once again, this city celebrated a Babar Azam masterclass as it has done often in recent times.

GETTY/Alex Davidson

It was the third ball of the last over when Babar finished off the chase with a four. Pakistan’s famous opening pair had shared another record-breaking partnership to win the game for their team by 10 wickets. It was another full house at the National Stadium, and the game had delivered. The game that just took place was one for the archives, and a full house at the stadium had experienced it live.

That Thursday night in the City of Lights was loud. It was deafening. It was ear-piercing. But so much happened that night in the National Stadium Karachi that it is hard to confirm where the noise really came from. Was it the Babar Brilliance that took place on the crease, was it Pakistan’s powerful opening duo’s hammering of records that sent a message to their critics, or was it the fans in the stands who had the time of their lives watching it all unfold in real-time in front of their eyes? Nobody can say for sure. But one thing was for certain – Pakistan had done it again. The thing they do when the stakes are high against them. The thing they do when the criticism is too loud. The thing they do when they are threatened. They had called for complete silence without saying a word.

The third T20I was the very next day. People were still high from last night’s win when they showed up, and it was yet another completely sold-out game. But it was England’s day. They made full use of the batting paradise that is Karachi’s pitch and – courtesy supreme batting from Harry Brook, Ben Duckett, and Will Jacks – posted a humongous total of 221/3. The Pakistan openers failed, and the rest of the batters followed suit in the face of a blazing spell by speedster Mark Wood, with only Shan Masood making a case for himself with a 65* off 40 balls. Pakistan closed their innings on 158/8 in 20 overs and handed England a handsome 63-run win.

GETTY/Asif Hassan

The defeat was huge, but perhaps the fans were still overjoyed from last night’s game because while they did stay a little quieter throughout this game, they did not go back upset. Maybe this game arrived too soon, and the Pakistan fans were yet to fully recover from last night’s madness because while it was a let-down from the previous night, the attendees still left the stadium happy. Maybe Pakistan’s magnificent win last night allowed the fans to let England have this one. The series was still not lost after all, and this city was due another game.

The last and final T20I arrived on Sunday. There were lines of excited fans outside the stadium gates to watch the tourists take the field with the hosts one last time in this city – for now. It was bound to be louder and crazier in the stadium today. Everybody had called it. If it had been thunderous in the weekday games, the weekend game was going to be at least 10 steps ahead. And so it was. All the good-view seats were already taken an hour before the game even began, with people still pouring in. And people continued to pour in until there were no more seats left, and the only option to watch the game was to stand throughout the game, which was a sacrifice, unsurprisingly, many chose to make. If watching England play in Karachi for the last time for now meant hurting feet the next day, the people had decided it was worth it. The stadium was clearly overcrowded, maybe oversold.

England won the toss and put Pakistan in to bat first. Pakistan began their innings well as they managed to get to 82/0 by the halfway mark, which meant they had time to fire and end up with something over 200. But they didn’t. Babar Azam was caught in the 12th over, and Pakistan slowed down to a point everything went grey-scale. Shan Masood, who was sent in at three, struggled to hit out, and Rizwan slowed down too. Their partnership stretched ages, it seemed, after Shan was dropped early on, but very few runs came. The crowd got a little restless at this point and, tired of calling for a sixer, started calling for a wicket instead in hopes of a hitter coming in to take charge.

Pakistan were 149/1 in the 19th over when Shan Masood’s wicket fell, and the crowd celebrated. They knew the score was too low, and only a quick boost from a power hitter could help save them, so they chanted for Asif. Instead, it was Khushdil who walked out, and the displeasure from the crowd was apparent. Only in the last over did the crowd-favorite Asif walk out to bat, facing a hat-trick ball after Khushdil and Rizwan perished.

The crowd chanted, “Asif! Asif! Asif!” Asif stood up to deliver by launching the hat-trick ball for a six. Singles were taken in the next two balls before Asif faced the bowler again on the last ball of Pakistan’s innings. Once again, the crowd erupted with chants of “Asif! Asif! Asif!” as the bowler delivered a half-volley which was deposited high into the Karachi night sky – another six. Asif faced only three balls and managed to hit two of them for maximums, one more six than all the batters who had come in before him combined. Pakistan’s innings ended on 166/4.

The total was a bit too low to look defendable, but Pakistan tried to make a match of it by picking up early wickets, and by the end of two overs, England were 14/3 courtesy of some smart bowling by Nawaz and Hasnain. England fought back and played this game like they usually play T20 cricket – not paying heed to their wickets’ worth in a game of 120 balls and constantly hitting enough to stay in the game even as wickets fell at intervals.

The game was an entertaining battle, and the spectators in the stadium enjoyed every bit of it… until Liam Dawson took on Mohammad Hasnain in the 18th over to seal the game. Or so people thought. A hush went around the stadium. When Haris Rauf came in to deliver the 19th over, England needed 9 off 12 balls with 3 wickets in hand. Two balls later, they needed just 5 off 10 and still had 3 wickets in hand.

That was when – almost as if it were divine intervention – something happened. All of a sudden, Haris Rauf took two in two, England were 9 down, and the crowd that had been horror-struck after that game-changing 18th over with some already leaving started breathing again. The people who had begun to leave returned because they sensed a twist in the tale courtesy Haris Rauf’s magical over. Chants of “Haris! Haris! Haris!” made waves around the ground as he delivered a sizzling 155kph yorker that the batsman duly missed, leading to a loud LBW appeal – but it was missing the stumps.

When Wasim Jr. came in to bowl the last over, England required only 4 off 6 balls with just 1 wicket in hand – still anyone’s game. The first ball saw no run; 4 off 5. On the next ball, Topley tried to sneak in a run, but Shan Masood was sharp as he hurried to the ball, took a step towards the non-striker’s end, and aimed at the wicket. The bails lit up! Topley was well short, and Pakistan had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat!

GETTY/Rizwan Tabassum

Chaos ensued as the stadium erupted, with the crowd rejoicing and celebrating the miracle they had just witnessed. 5 needed off 10 with 3 wickets in hand, and their team had managed to win by 3 runs! Everybody was out of their seats and jumping up in joy; the announcer in the stadium valiantly tried to get everyone to chant together, but there was no point because nobody could hear anybody anymore – it was that loud. Agony had been dodged, and everybody was ecstatic. The series has been leveled in a riveting and epic manner.

It was a historical few days in itself without the match results. Still, the kind of games the Karachi leg saw, especially the two Pakistan wins in four days that saw the hosts play mind-blowing cricket (albeit with different styles), will see these games get special mentions for years to come. It took England 17 years to return to Pakistan, and if this was the script being written in all those years, it makes sense that it took so long. The gap, the absence for all these years, and the heartbreak last year might have written a prologue for a great book, after all. But the book is only halfway through as the series moves to Lahore. Karachi has done its part by showing up in record numbers in all four games and handing over a leveled series to their rival city. Now, it is up to Lahore to pen the ending of this book.