Pakistan v India, 2nd Test, Lahore, 2nd day April 6, 2004

It hardly feels like another country

After a childhood full of misgivings and apprehensions, I have spent an adulthood wondering how it would feel to set foot in Pakistan



Umar Gul performed his heroics in front of empty stands © Getty Images

After a childhood full of misgivings and apprehensions, I have spent an adulthood wondering how it would feel to set foot in Pakistan. Just a day in Lahore is enough to make me wonder why I ever bothered. Pakistan hardly feels like another country. It is a cliché now, but to experience it first-hand is something else entirely. The sameness is so overwhelming that it took a while to dawn on me that I needed the currency exchanged.

The powers of language and food can never be overstated. In these, Indians and Pakistanis can find immediate comfort zones in each other's lands. And the cricket helped, because it meant crossing the barrier was a breeze.

While the cricket's on, Indian nationals no longer need to report at the local police station, so there was no form to be filled in at the immigration counter in Karachi. I was ushered across the line with a cursory perusal of my passport, and a smile and a small gloat. After all, India were 130 for 6 and the immigration official found it hard to contain his joy. "Itne bhi boore nahin hai hamare bowlers," he said ("Our bowlers are not so bad after all").

As I hurried to catch my connecting flight to Lahore, I had my first taste of the Pakistani hospitality which, apart from the cricket, has been the story of the series so far. My original booking was for an evening flight, but there was one leaving for Lahore in 30 minutes, with several empty seats on it. Though my ticket had been endorsed promptly enough, I realised that I had to pay 100 Pakistani rupees to get it changed - and I had only US dollars and Indian rupees on me.

Without hesitation, the man at the counter pulled out his wallet, removed a 100-rupee note and deposited it in the box below his desk. I asked for his name, but he brushed me aside gently. "Hurry, you have a flight to catch." I have been to hundreds of airline counters, but never have I come across such spontaneous generosity from a stranger. I barely had the time to say thank you.

Out on the streets, Lahore felt like Delhi. The roads have been widened and beautified in recent years. Taxis and auto-rickshaws rarely operate on meters; there is the same clamour for tipping from porters who materialise from nowhere and carry your baggage despite your protestations; there is the same disregard for traffic rules - a couple of young motorcyclists were swerving around so recklessly that it was hard to imagine that they were not trying to self-destruct.

There are the same signs of growth in shopping malls, newly built flyovers and under-construction high-rise buildings. The smells and the colours, the encroachment of the pavements, the chaat-stalls on the roadside, the hard bargaining in the shops ... all in all, there is hardly a difference.

In the hotel late at night, even the television channels are the same. There are soaps on Zee TV and Star Plus, Hindi films on Star Gold and B4U, more Hindi music and films or local Pakistani cable networks. The only feature absent is the hysteria over cricket on the new local channels. Abdul Qadir and Aaqib Javed participate on low-key television shows on PTV, where angry callers demand explanations for Pakistan's poor showing in the first Test, but the South Asian Federation Games are being covered prominently on local television.

After the nauseating overdose of cricket in the Indian media, this makes a refreshing change. Cricket leads the headlines in Pakistani newspapers, but only on the sports pages, unlike in India where it had appropriated the top of the front pages of many national dailies. In the sports pages of Pakistani newspapers, I read about the achievements of Indian athletes in the SAF games, where India is heading the medals tally by a distance.

The scenes at the cricket ground, however, are depressing. There is a funereal atmosphere inside the Gaddafi Stadium, not unlike the ones you find at Ranji Trophy games in India. Only 1300-odd people watch Umar Gul scythe through the Indian batting line-up on the first day, and even the prospect of a good batting day for Pakistan fails to enthuse the locals.

Such disenchantment is perplexing. It is argued that the one-day series whetted the appetite of cricket fans in Pakistan, but the one-sided Test at Multan further diminished their enthusiasm. A local journalist offers an even more disquieting explanation. "To tell you the truth," he says, "Pakistanis take the allegations of match-fixing much more seriously than the ICC."

If true, there cannot be a greater tragedy for cricket.

Sambit Bal is editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and Wisden Cricinfo in India.