Waiting for the boys
The lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Abu Dhabi, where the South Africa and Pakistan teams were lodged during the first Test of the current series, is conducive to indulging some fantasies. Its cavernous dimensions, opulent décor and gleaming floors of flawless Italian marble transport you into a world of palaces and kings. it is a newly built facility and occupancy is only just picking up. The place is perpetually neat, orderly and uncluttered. There is plenty of plush seating around, and seats are always available.
There is, in particular, this couch that is rather strategically placed in the lobby's precise geometric centre. Facing away from the entrance, it looks directly at the top of a wide flight of stairs emerging from the floor below. Beyond that are glass windows through which you can see the tops of palm trees edging the bank of the city's Grand Canal, a saltwater inlet coming in from the sea.
A friend and I found ourselves perched on this very couch at 7:45am on the second morning of the first Test, when South Africa were 245 for 8 overnight, with Hashim Amla still batting on 118. With our Pakistan shirts and matching floppy hats, my friend and I were eager to take in a full day's Test cricket and looked the part. Buses for both teams were positioned at the hotel entrance, so we figured the players would start appearing any minute as they finished breakfast a floor below.
The first person spotted coming up the steps was the South Africa captain Graeme Smith. He looked relaxed and acknowledged our waves with a grin. Accompanying Smith were his wife and their adorable daughter. My friend happens to be a paediatric surgeon and he connected with the baby easily, drawing smiles and squeals from her, and exchanging pleasantries with the proud parents. Smith was followed by the umpires, who made no eye contact with anyone and, along with the match referee, David Boon, quietly sauntered through. More South African players quickly followed - Dale Steyn with his tattoos and leonine prowl, Vernon Philander with his unassuming demeanour and ready smile, Jacques Kallis with his enormous laurels worn lightly, and Amla with his quiet dignity.
We waited for the objects of our affection, the players from Pakistan, but they were nowhere to be seen. My friend looked around to check on the Pakistan bus; yes, it was still standing outside. We turned over a newspaper and fiddled with our cell phones, trying to impart a calm and casual air while we waited.
Finally there appeared an individual dressed in the Pakistan training kit. It turned out to be the coach, Dav Whatmore, and he came across as rather a gruff and serious presence. My friend built up the courage to ask him to pose for a photograph. To our delight, he happily obliged. Then, suddenly, the Pakistan players crowded into the lobby and began quickly walking past. We were craving a photograph with one of the established stars - Saeed Ajmal, Younis Khan or Misbah-ul-Haq - but couldn't bring ourselves to approach them. Their distant manner gave us pause. Ajmal and Younis had this practised trot and a studied look of intense preoccupation. Misbah's gait was slower, and he even made some eye contact, but it was with the forbidding air of a commanding general.
Trailing the stars were the lesser lights. We said hello to Junaid Khan, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq; they nodded, but with a certain amount of reserve. Mohammad Irfan flashed a generous smile and it emboldened us to offer him our hands, which he shook with eagerness and warmth. Openers Khurram Manzoor and the debutant Shan Masood also walked past, but that morning we hardly noticed them.
The next day my friend and I were back in the same spot at the same time. By this time Masood had wowed us with 75 on debut and Manzoor was still at the crease on 131. This newfound pair had overpowered the likes of Steyn, Philander and Morne Morkel, confidently stitching together a 135-run opening partnership that appeared potentially match-clinching.
Twenty-four hours earlier we had barely noticed their presence, but now all we wanted was a photograph with these two promising young Pakistanis. Before long, we saw Manzoor walk up, and we put forward our request. He readily obliged. Perhaps his welcoming attitude will persist even after there are a few more centuries under his belt. We felt lucky we caught him early.
After three days Pakistan had worked their way into a clear position of advantage. South Africa were still 121 runs in arrears with only six wickets remaining. Smith, Alviro Petersen, Kallis and Amla were all gone, leaving Pakistan sniffing blood.
On the fourth morning, the South African squad scurried through the lobby, looking uneasy and pensive. Steyn, who was at the crease as nightwatchman, and Faf du Plessis, a potential anchor in the late middle order, had visible frowns. AB de Villiers, who was not out on 11, and held the key to the South African resistance, just about sprinted through the lobby and jumped onto the bus.
After the South Africans departed, we finally caught a glimpse of Masood as he walked, head bowed, a few paces behind Misbah. Here was a fresh Pakistani opener who had stared down the world's best pace attack, with strokes that carried echoes of Saeed Anwar and David Gower. The urge to ask him to pose for a photograph was overpowering. Masood hesitated as I stood next to him, but my friend was ideally positioned and immediately snapped a picture.
Apparently Misbah noticed that Masood had been held back, and he turned around and let out a vague grunt. That was enough to send Masood running to catch up with his captain. It was also enough to send us a message to give it a rest. We didn't mind. Our team was in command and we felt thoroughly sated.
Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi. His latest book is Breath of Death, a medical thriller