'Cricket is back in Karachi, chances are slim we're letting it go'

A fan makes an appeal for more cricket in Pakistan AFP

We've all heard the clichés. "Cricket is the heartbeat of the nation", "the unifier", "the country's alternate religion", "our one true passion". But have you ever spent eight days living these?

I love cricket. And over the past week, it's been the slogan of Karachi, and the 20 million people who call the city home. Whether or not you love the game, PSL fever has well and truly taken over the city and the excitement that nearly got several of us fired at our jobs, has been palpable.

Mammoth installations mimicking mini stadiums lined Shahrah-e-Faisal, the city's main artery, as well as other roads. Families, and their friends, camped out at hotels where the teams have been staying, hoping to get their bats signed and pictures taken. Armies of fans gathered every night, taking selfies with life-size player cut-outs, dancing ecstatically to the music as though in acknowledgment of our being a step closer to regaining year-round cricketing action in our backyard.

And there was the indescribable thrill at the prospect of bumping into your favourite player at a restaurant. This is all relatively routine in most cricket-playing nations, but it's become a novelty here.

From pizza brands to home security, every billboard, text message, digital-marketing campaign has had PSL 2019 at its centre. Lunchtime chatter at offices has revolved around obtaining tickets, gauging betting odds, and playing pundit to predict this year's finalists.

Tickets, meanwhile, became a rare commodity with seven of eight games sold out well in advance. Fans, therefore, have been willing to shell out up to three times the original ticket price for a chance to watch their favourite team in action.

During a recent visit to a salon, a hair-stylist told me how she took her television to the terrace of her house so her entire family and community could gather to watch a PSL game. I cannot remember a time when the PSL bug had bitten every person in my city the way it has this time around.

On the eve of the first game in Karachi, traffic plans had been made public; pretty much all points near the National Stadium were inaccessible, so we began to mark out our routes to get around the city for the next eight days. Traffic congestion has been at an all-time peak, taking commuters double the time to manoeuvre across Karachi.

Then there were the rumors that did the rounds on Twitter and WhatsApp that the gates to the stadium would be closed three hours prior to start of play. It wouldn't be until match day, though, that the tittle-tattle would be put to rest.

As we parked our cars and walked to our stand, a sea of children sporting Karachi Kings jerseys emerged before us. Close to me stood a man in his 60s recounting his most memorable moments at this ground. A young couple nearby were narrating to their ten-year-old son how they used to rush straight from school to this stadium to watch Tests, and a visibly animated fan in his 30s, standing not too far from them, spoke zealously of why it was important to support the PSL.

I have always shared a strong emotional bond with the National Stadium. With the PSL this year, perhaps it grew stronger, for it made me realise an entire generation has grown up without watching cricket at home. Distance, as they say, makes the heart grow fonder, and now that cricket is back in Karachi, chances are slim we're letting it go.

"Whether or not you love the game, PSL fever has well and truly taken over the city and the excitement that nearly got several of us fired at our jobs, has been palpable."

If the atmosphere in the stands through the games has been anything to go by, perhaps you will see how dearly Karachi wants to hold on to cricket. I have seen men hobble through crammed stands to paint our faces, T-shirts being launched into the crowd, caps distributed, whistles and trumpets blown; the verve, the passion among the fans has been next to none.

The renovation of the National Stadium itself has been incredible: the roof, the chairs, the facilities available; food, water, ask what you want, and you have it there. One must admit, the PCB has got this spot-on, and the security arrangements in place, too, have been impressive. Spectators have been frisked at length as they made their way through the turnstiles, but I don't remember seeing anyone grumble. This was, perhaps they realised, a small price to pay to watch international stars like Shane Watson, Alex Hales and Colin Ingram, among others, play.

The night Usman Shinwari's magical last over won Karachi the thriller against Quetta Gladiators, the city - and the traffic - came to a standstill. Fans, armed with flags, descended on the streets and danced away till 3am in the morning. If unapologetic celebration had a face, it would have looked like Karachi's.

Most people I know - myself included - never grew an affinity to our home side, Karachi Kings. Some did, but struggled to sustain it. I supported Multan Sultans for Shoaib Malik, others loved Quetta for Sarfaraz Ahmed, and at large, there weren't many who felt connected enough to buy PSL merchandise, let alone of Karachi's.

The knockout game against Islamabad United, however, changed that outlook completely.

A mad scramble for jerseys ensued in the lead-up and Karachi made its loyalties clear through the sea of blue that met the eye at a packed National Stadium that night. The players didn't disappoint. Thirty thousand fans cried themselves hoarse, chanting the name of Umer Khan, Babar Azam and Mohammad Amir in unison. I had attended two games earlier in the season, both full houses, but neither equalled the hysteria that accompanied the highs and the heartbreak of that match.

What really is the appeal of the PSL? How deep does it run in the city's fabric?

Can it be summed up by the image of a Pathan security guard at a restaurant listening to the radio and cheering every wicket and run for Peshawar Zalmi? Does the silence of the empty homes during the Peshawar v Quetta qualifier tell a tale about its occupants who thronged the stadium that evening? Can the never-ending queues outside the TCS (a courier service) centre, or the hustle at 2am to buy tickets online ever truthfully depict how ardently we've embraced cricket as it came home this PSL?

The past eight days have been a lifeline to cricket in Pakistan, a nation whose attempts at keeping the sport on home soil have met with several challenges. But Karachi's craze around PSL 2019 has been such that the silence of the empty stadiums in Dubai now seems like a thing of the past. And if the roar of 30,000-odd fans is anything to go by, rest assured not a soul in the city is going to let go of cricket again.