A warm, secure welcome for the 'British Universities'
Our curry diet is three weeks old, seam marks fester on the upper thigh and we are playing more than we miss. Careful planning came to fruition this week as we arrived in Lahore for the first cricket tour of Pakistan by a foreign team, apart from Afghanistan, since the 2009 attack on the Sri Lanka team. We are the Afghan Appeal Fund XI (AAF) - a charity team captained by Kamal Alam and comprised of MCC, Durham and Oxford University players - and are here to play four matches, to promote the AAF and also, crucially, to help the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) in their bid to bring international cricket back to the country.
We are not the MCC, though we have several playing members and we are not the British Universities, though we are all from British universities. It is a charity tour. The AAF, patronised by General Sir David Richards with Lady Richards as president, is a UK-registered charity set up by British servicemen's wives to build schools and further education in Afghanistan.
The last purpose of the tour - to support the PCB in their bid to bring international cricket back to Pakistan - means we have their full support, red carpet et al. With cricket akin to oxygen in these parts, the dearth of international action has had an enormous impact domestically. While the quality of our play may not, in truth, merit our staying at the prestigious National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Lahore, 24-hour access to a bowling machine and breakfast coaching tips from national coach Dav Whatmore are more than welcome. The NCA is also a convenient and secure base. And it is this latter issue, which is of course the key one.
Our initial experience security-wise has been only positive. Everyone we have met - from our bus driver to batting-legend Javed Miandad - has been incredibly welcoming, betraying the size of the hole left by the absence of touring teams. And they all echo the same sentiments - what one reads in the media back home is not the reality. While the stigma created by the 2009 attack on Sri Lanka's team bus remains strong outside Pakistan, we have encountered nothing thus far to support negative claims. The Punjab Police's black t-shirts - with their 'No Fear' motifs - serve as a useful nudge to the ICC and Test playing nations alike, showing the attitude required to bring international cricket back to Pakistan.
Having been whisked from airport to NCA with a Punjab Police escort, we arrived at the Gaddafi Stadium - a great coliseum of Pakistani cricket. Overlooked by six great floodlights and characterised by its distinctive semi-circular roof panels, the sheer size of the ground seemed to chime with the size of our task ahead. We are due to play two matches against the PCB Under-19's here, on the back of two days acclimatisation, in 30+ degree heat. On entering the ground, it also became clear just how high-profile our visit is locally. A horde of reporters, a televised press conference and a welcome extended by Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan's captain, left us in little doubt as to our status here, or the great desire and need for international cricket in the country.