Pakistan v India, 1st Test, Multan, 1st day March 28, 2004

Alexander's battlefield

Anyone passing through the streets and bylanes of Multan this morning would have had a hard time believing that there was a Pakistan-India Test match being played



Inzamam-ul-Haq and his players were assailed by the sort of ferocious assault that once characterised Alexander's armies © Getty Images

Anyone passing through the streets and bylanes of Multan this morning would have had a hard time believing that there was a Pakistan-India Test match being played. Despite the presence of many banners and streamers welcoming both teams and journalists, the average man on the dusty roads wasn't unduly concerned.

And when you talked to some of them, you realised that Test-match cricket just isn't big in Pakistan. In that respect, any comparisons to India are ludicrous. Even small towns in India come to a standstill when India play Pakistan, five-day version or abbreviated, with the communal TV and tea-shop transistor taking pride of place.

In Pakistan, Test cricket simply isn't an object of much affection, except among elite pockets of aficionados in the bigger cities, and the poor attendance at the Multan Cricket Stadium - the stifling heat was a factor too - said as much. Fans you talked to also had worried looks on their faces, especially once Virender Sehwag started piling on the runs.

The one-day series defeat had cut deep here, more so because India won the glamour games at Karachi and Lahore. Sehwag, though, has gone down a treat with some of the younger fans, one of whom gushed that he batted like [Shahid] Afridi. Thankfully, Sehwag's lawyer wasn't around to listen to such sacrilege, comparing a man who has six centuries in his 21 Tests, including 195 in five hours at the MCG, to an erratic one-trick pony.

During the lunch interval, as I took a rickshaw through the busier parts of the old city, the people had tuned out completely. They went about their day-to-day business, albeit at a slower pace, it being Sunday.

Multan, despite possessing a state-of-the-art stadium and Inzamam-ul-Haq, is not really a cricket centre. It's one of the oldest cities in the subcontinent, a place famed for its pirs, dargahs, and abiding faith. On the bus here, the man sat next to me had mentioned that it was also known at Madinat-ul-Auliyah - the place of the devout.

It also occupies an important place in history. The story goes that Alexander the Great and his mighty army fought a savage battle here in 325 BC, and it was an arrow fired by a local archer that pierced Alexander's lung. He would never recover from the injury, dying as a result of it - and alcoholism - on his way back home two years later.

This particular contest is unlikely to be anything like as fierce in nature, though a defeat would be an arrow through some Pakistani hearts. Until a week ago, they hadn't lost a series of any kind to India on home soil. But the way India's batsmen started off, it was as if they were laying down another marker - first the one-day series, and now the Tests.

That said, India's bowlers won't relish bowling in this heat. The only ones with a smile on their face were the dozens of little kids outside the stadium, selling water and crushed sugar-cane chunks cooled with ice for a rupee a pop. But while business was better than usual for them, the same couldn't be said about Inzamam and his players, who were assailed by the sort of ferocious assault that once characterised Alexander's armies.