Since the horrific terrorist attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Karachi nine years ago, a generation of Pakistan cricketers have been denied playing for their country on home soil.
It has left a gaping hole for some who dream about turning out against the world’s top sides in the spiritual surroundings of Lahore, minds racing at the thought of facing arch rivals India with a partisan crowd vociferously backing their every menacing delivery or stroke to the fence.
Instead, this collection of cricketers has played its cricket at “home” in the UAE, broadening their horizons to life in the Middle East at the expense of those dreams that would have filled their head watching the likes of Imran Khan and Inzaman-ul-Haq in years gone by.
Those ambitions remain, of course, but it turns out life in the UAE isn’t as far removed for some as you’d think.
“It’s just like playing at home,” Zulfiqar Babar tells Sport360. “Since Pakistan has been playing all its cricket in the UAE, the pitches behave similarly to Pakistan and support the spinners. It’s just like playing in Karachi or Lahore.”
For Babar the whole experience in the UAE has been a good one, so much so that he plans to move his family over here eventually. Not only has he played his best cricket here, Babar also says he and his team-mates have been made to feel like the country is in fact home.
“I do not have a home here but I am trying to settle here and bring my family over to the UAE,” explains the slow left-armer. “The atmosphere is just like being in Pakistan. People are so welcoming of all of the Pakistan players and all the families who bring us in are so nice to me. People take us to their homes and invite us for dinner and that is a real appeal for wanting to shift over to Dubai.”
Babar has played nearly his entire international cricket in the UAE and has been a huge influence on Pakistan’s unbeaten Test record here. Ten of his thirteen Test caps have come in the emirates and he has not played a single match for his country on home soil after thirteen years toiling on the domestic scene finally ended in a call-up back in 2013.
He excelled against Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and twice versus England, playing the role of a crucial ally to Saeed Ajmal and then Yassir Shah.
Both Ajmal and Shah have suffered; the former a victim of a suspect action and the latter suspended from the game after a failed drugs test last year. It is infuriating for Babar to have been stripped of such potent partners but he is confident that the pair can return to the international fold.
“The experience of working with Saeed Ajmal was a different one altogether,” says the 37-year-old. “He was experienced and became number one in all formats of the game, leading the charge for almost two-three years. We used to share our experiences with each other and bowling in tandem with him was a great experience.
“The partnership with Yasir was a relatively new one and spin coach Mushtaq Ahmed played a massive role. He used to lay out plans that we would execute together and also ones specific to each other. We worked on our own variations, change in pace and flight and worked on our own plans. Mushy was a great help because it was a new partnership after Saeed’s ban.
“I hope Saeed comes back as he has improved his action. As far as his bowling is concerned he has improved since changing his action as he had lost his pace but it’s now back and he’s bowling well again.
“As for Yasir it was unfortunate. It was unintentional and whatever happened has happened. Hopefully, they will be back again soon and we can form an attack with all three of us.”
Babar’s exploits in the UAE have left him with some memorable moments playing in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, endearing himself to the infamous Chacha Cricket, Chacha T20 and his fellow fanatics that follow Pakistan cricket so ardently.
“All of these series against New Zealand, Australia and England in the UAE are very memorable for me, especially the wickets of Steven Smith and Michael Clarke. They are the special dismissals for me and the wickets that I will remember for a long time,” adds Babar, or ‘Baba’.
“Our team-mates follow the English culture and we have nicknames. They have removed ‘r’ from my name and call me Baba which we say to old men in Pakistan. I have no regrets, I enjoy that nickname.
“The two or three Chachas that come to watch the team, whether my team-mates vouch for me or not, are always in the stands supporting us. That is something that always lifts the morale of me and the team.”
But for all his love of Pakistan’s adopted cricketing home, Babar is still desperate to see international cricket return to his country. Of the five-day squad that took on England in the UAE at the end of last year only captain Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan, Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik have played Test cricket in Pakistan.
The ongoing instability in the country shows no sign of abating and ending its cricketing exile although the success of the first Pakistan Super League may well be the gateway to an eventual return.
For Babar and his compatriots, it is essential for cricket to go back to Pakistan and the prospect of not gaining a Test cap in front of their fans across the cities they were born in is as real as it is saddening.
“I’m just like everyone else, I feel like cricket should return to Pakistan since it’s such a passionate nation as far as cricket is concerned. I would like cricket to return to Pakistan and hope one day that I can play in front of a home crowd in Karachi, Lahore and all over the country,” Babar says.
“It would be a big setback not to play in Pakistan and it’s been a life’s desire to go back. If that was not fulfilled then it would be a very bad memory for me to look back on once I finish my career.
#360View: @BarnabyRead takes a closer look at #Pakistan's unsung hero Zulfiqar Babar https://t.co/QYSi1MruoR pic.twitter.com/fcEncrc84k— Sport360° (@Sport360) October 26, 2015
“I hope people now forget the dangers that led to what happened to the Sri Lankan team. What happened was not something common. We should all move on as Pakistan is now a lot more peaceful.
“All other disciplines of sport are happening there except cricket. I hope it can return there and all the local fans can come out and enjoy watching their own stars in their own stadiums.”
As for the team he’d most like to face if cricket moves back to Pakistan? There’s only one wish for Babar and his countrymen.
“I wish that once cricket resumes in Pakistan it would be the series between India and Pakistan. Obviously, there were plans but for various reasons that didn’t happen,” he says.
Few would want to deny someone so likeable the opportunity but even fewer would see it as a real possibility such is the political divide, and influence on the sport, between the two countries and their governments. It would be a shame for Babar, but what is Pakistan’s loss has most certainly been the UAE’s gain.