QUETTA: Thousands of fans cheered at the Nawab Akbar Bugti Cricket Stadium on Sunday, as Peshawar Zalmi locked horns with the Quetta Gladiators in an exhibition match in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, marking the return of cricket to the city after 26 years.
Amid tight security measures, thousands of cricket lovers, including women and children from across Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province, thronged the stadium in the provincial capital of Quetta to catch the action live as the Gladiators faced Zalmi.
Cricket has largely stayed away from Quetta owing to security fears as the city as the impoverished province has seen plenty of attacks and sectarian violence by separatist groups and militants. The last time the city saw a cricket match was in the same stadium 26 years ago, when Pakistan beat Zimbabwe in an ODI by three wickets on October 30, 1996.
Spectators were particularly thrilled to see Zalmi skipper Babar Azam and Gladiators' captain Sarfaraz Ahmed lead the two teams onto the ground. Excited fans could hardly keep from screaming throughout the four-hour match.
Other cricket stars who performed in front of a live audience were Shahid Afridi, Wahab Riaz, Umar Akmal, Naseem Shah, Mohammad Hasnain, Iftikhar Ahmed, and others.
Muhammad Saddam, 25, said he traveled to Quetta from Dalbandin, a remote town near the Pakistan-Iran border, to catch a glimpse of the stars. Saddam said he waited for over two hours outside the stadium in a long line of spectators to witness the action.
“We are very happy that our national players have come to play the PSL exhibition match in Quetta,” he told Arab News.
Jahangir Khan, a cricket lover from Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said he traveled to Quetta to support Peshawar Zalmi and watch Afridi, a former Pakistan captain, play.
“I came to Quetta on January 27 to support my team here. I didn’t receive the ticket [initially] but fortunately, got one yesterday for the exhibition match”, he enthused.
The provincial sports department also arranged food stalls outside the stadium, for the public to savor snacks while they enjoyed the game. One of the stalls sold the traditional Balochi Sajji as the action continued.
Azam and Afridi, both superstars in their own right, couldn't stand till the end to see their team defeat the Gladiators on their home turf. With four runs needed at the last ball after a special half-century from Muhammad Haris (53 off 35), the crowd sighed with relief as Quetta pulled off a three-run victory.
Chief Minister of Balochistan Mir Abdul Qudus Bizenjo appreciated both franchises and the chair of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) managing committee, Najam Sethi, for bringing the action to the cricket-starved city.
Bizenjo praised security forces during the prize distribution ceremony for maintaining law and order during the match. He said the “successful conclusion of Pakistan’s Super League (PSL)’s exhibition match in Quetta was a loud and clear message for our enemies”.
“This event has proven that peace has been restored in Balochistan and people will not tolerate terrorists [that are] spoiling law and order in the province,” he said.