x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A fantastic Friday for cricket fans

Some 12,000 spectators withstood a sandstorm at Zayed Cricket Stadium to watch Pakistan and Sri Lanka slug it out.

Spectators came out in large numbers to the Zayed Cricket Stadium expecting a Pakistan win, but nonetheless enjoyed their day out.
Spectators came out in large numbers to the Zayed Cricket Stadium expecting a Pakistan win, but nonetheless enjoyed their day out.

In the end, even the sandstorm decided to go away. How could it stay if the very people it was meant to inconvenience were not paying it the slightest attention? All day the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi seemed set to be engulfed by sheets of sand.

Between lunch and tea during the Test match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, it was hard to keep your eyes open for all the sand flying around. And yet, by the day's end, between 7,000 and 8,000 fans were sitting mostly in the south stand but also filling up the beautiful grass mound on the west, unaffected by the sand. Not to be left out, even the east end had a sprinkling of life.

Some estimated up to 12,000 had turned up. Most agreed that, in the small sample of Tests here, it was the biggest crowd. There have been Test match days in Pakistan where this many have not turned up.

Nothing spreads like the smell of victory, so the vast majority of the crowd were Pakistanis.

A fair sampling provided an echo of the current sounds of cricket in Pakistan. A gaggle of about 20 fans were accosted by a Pakistani TV crew currently in the UAE outside the stadium.

A wishlist of demand and frustration was presented before the first question was asked.

"We request the PCB [Pakistan Cricket Board] to save the game from corruption," demanded a man who assumed himself to be the leader. "We want the corrupt to be kicked out," he continued, a catch-all demand.

And then the most resounding, about a man who is not here. "And we want [Shahid] Afridi back!"

The anchor tried to remind them of the Test, of a probable Pakistan victory. They were not having it. "We still remember how our heads were down after the World Cup semi-final loss to India," they said.

Inside the ground, matters were calmer. Mohammad Ajmal Khan, 26, from Muzaffargarh in Punjab was quite happy to take in the drift of a Test. On a day off from labour work, he said: "I'm here every time Pakistan plays. It's a different emotion, whether it's a Test or an ODI, I want to be there."

But even Ajmal wants his Khan - Shahid Afridi Khan that is - back. "My heart starts beating faster when he's here. Feel someone's heart when he is on the field. It'll be racing."

That argument is difficult to beat.

Farther down the south stand (one of the best things about the stadium is that it is not very high so it keeps the spectating experience intimate) Mohammad Sagheer, a driver from Sargodha, brought the noise and colour.

Bedecked, bizarrely, in balloons and face painted, Sagheer had forsaken work to come. "Today it is important for Pakistan," he said. "I get food every day but I don't get cricket every day. And the balloons are for my players."

Sagheer was bouncing around the stands rousing up the mood. Just before he went off, he said he is on strike currently. For you know who. "If he doesn't come in for the ODIs, we don't want to attend. He is an honest man, of integrity. You can corrupt many guys, but not him."

Lest you imagine only one side was playing, hidden away further down the stand was a group of Sri Lankan fans.

A broad generalisation would be that they do not make as much noise as a people as Pakistanis might, outside stadiums in any case. This bunch seemed sombre enough, attuned grimly into the battle Kumar Sangakkara was waging on the field.

One man, with a Sri Lankan flag draped around him, was livelier. When asked why they were not making a little more noise, he said "This is not the right time."

Sangakkara was on 96 at the time of the query, at 1.50pm, a nervous moment.

Junaid Khan, who had come on to bowl to a roar, ran in and Sangakkara cut him to point to bring up his hundred. Now came the noise and the horns from the Sri Lankan fans. Pakistanis joined in heartily. Everyone loves a fight.

"I think they can save it," whispered TM Anuragunasekera, a shopkeeper in Khalifa City.

"It's a holiday and we've been here since the morning but we've enjoyed it. There's a good lively atmosphere and it's great to have it at a Test."

On the way out, a young Pakistani boy stood with a friend. With full throat he began a chant. It was about Ijaz Butt, the former Pakistan board chairman. It was not particularly complementary.

Victory was not theirs on Friday. But, undoubtedly as Sagheer started another chant somewhere, the day was.