Pakistan triumph as cricket returns home

NOW THAT'S A CARNIVAL . . . Pakistan fans make their feelings clear with placards after filling Gaddafi Stadium to capacity yesterday in the first cricket match on their home soil against a Test-playing side in six years. — Cricinfo

NOW THAT’S A CARNIVAL . . . Pakistan fans make their feelings clear with placards after filling Gaddafi Stadium to capacity yesterday in the first cricket match on their home soil against a Test-playing side in six years. — Cricinfo

LAHORE. — The occasion of international cricket’s return to Pakistan was made merrier by the opening pair of Mukhtar Ahmed and Ahmed Shehzad as they tore into and broke down Zimbabwe’s challenging 172 for 6, to ensure the side, playing at home after six years, won by five wickets.

Their 142-run stand equalled the opening partnership between Salman Butt and Kamran Akmal against Bangladesh in the 2010 World T20 but the one at the Gaddafi Stadium will be counted as more special.

The March 2009 attack on the Sri Lanka team bus, outside this very cricket stadium, had taken international cricket away from them. The full house was fully entertained by the newcomer Mukhtar, who made 83 off 45 balls.

His dozen boundaries were hit off a bowling attack which lacked a leader and a strong attacker, but Mukhtar did what he had to do.

He was severe on everything straight and on his legs, nine of his 12 fours coming through fine-leg, midwicket and long-on. He reached 50 off 34 balls and left the more recognised Shehzad far behind.

Shehzad didn’t miss out though, getting to his fifty in the 12th over. He struck some brutal hits down the ground but was generous enough to let Mukhtar do all the hitting.

The pair fell in consecutive overs — Shehzad gave a catch to point, while Mukhtar hit straight to long-on — but the crowd was fully entertained for one hour by the pair.

After the Mukhtar-Shehzad partnership, Pakistan lost three more wickets before captain Shahid Afridi struck a straight boundary to complete the win with three balls to spare. The start of the evening, too, will remain memorable.

The crowd started to enter the stadium more than two hours before the first ball and it was a full house when Shahid Afridi and Elton Chigumbura strode out to the toss, held seven minutes earlier as the Pakistan president Mamnoon Hussain met with both squads. Afridi gave one last pep talk before the hosts raced to the turf.

The first ball was a fuller length delivery from Anwar Ali that crashed into Hamilton Masakadza’s pad. The pace bowler didn’t appeal, but an appeal wouldn’t have been out of place given the drama of the occasion.

Masakadza then got to work with a string of boundaries but he failed to keep the crowd’s noise down. A gap of six years for an international game kept them animated even as they fanned themselves with the four and six placards.

Masakadza got seven fours and a six in his 27-ball 43, cutting, lap-sweeping and forcing fours through point, midwicket, fine-leg and mid-off.

His only six was a high pull off Bilawal Bhatti over square-leg in the third over. Vusi Sibanda was nondescript at the other end with 13 off 15 balls.

Their 58-run stand ended in the seventh over when Sibanda top-edged Mohammad Sami for 13 and next ball, Pakistan’s comeback man – playing his first international match since July 2012 – got Masakadza to inside-edge on to the stumps.

The noise was at a maximum but despite that, and the regular wickets, their fielding errors slightly blotted the occasion. A few outfielders dived over the ball, Sarfraz missed two stumpings, including that of Chigumbura when he was on eight, and Riaz dropping a skier off his own bowling.

Charles Coventry, another comeback story of the day, was given caught-behind though TV replays showed the ball appeared to hit his bicep on the way to the wicketkeeper. Chigumbura, meanwhile, kept the pace set by Masakadza with timely boundaries. Zimbabwe’s tally of 58 in the last five overs was mostly his doing.

Chigumbura’s late onslaught began with a top-edged four off Bhatti before fours were squeezed past point and inside-edged. He added blasts over point, midwicket and extra cover off Riaz’s third over before flicking Sami’s full-toss to reach his second T20 fifty, making 54 off 35 balls.

Sikandar Raza struck a high six over midwicket before falling in the 17th over but he helped Chigumbura add 42 for the fifth wicket in just 4.2 overs.

Malik was the most economical bowler with 1 for 12 from three overs while Sami took 3 for 36. Riaz finished with two wickets but he was too wayward for a bowler leading the attack. Zimbabwe’s bowlers too were poor for most of the Pakistan innings, though Cremer looked happy with his two wickets while Williams and Brian Vitori took one wicket apiece.

For the fans and the team, it was a joyous occasion, a chance to cherish a match played in their home. International cricket in Pakistan came to a halt in Lahore and it is here that Zimbabwe’s tour got underway, with a win for the home team. — Cricinfo.