Why England must conquer the fear of the unknown
As football seeps back into the national consciousness, so the ECB's own winter sport is returning on the agenda. Yes, the weather has turned autumnal and the Aussies are on top once again, so it's time to shift the focus on to England's latest unpalatable destination for an overseas tour. For once, Zimbabwe isn't the issue, although in the circumstances the ECB might prefer a winter spent in the immoral arms of Uncle Bob. Because this time round they've landed the hottest ticket in town - Pakistan.
It hasn't yet turned into a full-blown crisis, but that is because things are still at the germination stage. You watch, all the usual signs are gathering into place. The security delegation has been dispatched, the players' growing unease has been noted, and the ECB's fear of a tit-for-tat reprisal (ie, the cancellation of Pakistan's visit to England next summer) has been spotted. The long-awaited itinerary is expected to be finalised this week, but that could merely prove to be a basis for negotiation.
Karachi had always been the central issue of this trip. A hot, unlovely city on the Arabian Sea, and the scene, in May 2002, of the fatal explosion outside the New Zealand team hotel that killed 14 people. England, understandably enough, were reluctant to play a Test there, and the Pakistan Cricket Board were willing to accede to that request. Now, however, England are raising doubts about the suitability of the stand-in venue, Multan, and the PCB, quite reasonably, is refusing to budge.
Given the recent spate of bomb attacks in London, and the subsequent relevations that a number of the culprits may have attended training camps in Pakistan, nobody can blame the ECB for being jittery at this particular time. But if there is one lesson to be learnt from the past month's events, it is that there is no accounting for extremism. It exists outside boundaries and when atrocities occur, the only thing you can do is make like London, and get on with life regardless.
Flip the issue on its head, and England's anxieties begin to take on a sheen of paranoia. Next summer, Pakistan themselves have been scheduled to play two Tests in London, including one at The Oval, less than 200 yards from where a suspect package failed to detonate on July 21, and one in Leeds, that recently confirmed hotbed of extremism. When Inter Milan cancelled their pre-season trip to London in the wake of the atrocities, they were forced to reconsider after an indignant howl of protest. To cancel is to give in to the terrorists, so the reasoning went. Why should it be any different for England's cricketers?
In the aftermath of the first wave of attacks, the police released one nugget of information that stuck in the mind. Shehzad Tanweer, the Aldgate bomber, had been a keen cricket player. This could be interpreted in one of two ways - either all cricketers have extremist tendencies (difficult to deny on occasions, admittedly, but ludicrous all the same), or rather, the sheer overwhelming normality of this man's life was a warning to those inclined to make sweeping judgments.
I travelled to Pakistan during England's last tour of the country in the winter of 2000-01. In those pre-September 11 days, the fears were dampened but the suspicions remained nonetheless, for Pakistan was a misunderstood land, forever at loggerheads with its trendier neighbour, India. What is more, the country had remained off-limits for England teams since Mike Gatting's fractious trip in 1987-88.
The country I found was nothing like the country I had expected. Warm, welcoming and unfailingly polite, the society was underpinned by a gentle Islamic culture that was less jihad, more que sera sera. "Inshallah", that ubiquitous Islamic greeting (literally - "whatever God wills") was the standard answer to all problems, inevitably delivered with a shrug of the shoulders that was the very antithesis of fanaticism.
My experiences were not dissimilar to those of my colleague, Rahul Bhattacharya, who recorded India's epic bridge-building series in his remarkable debut book, Pundits from Pakistan. He found two nations willing to immerse their differences - and rediscover their similarities - in a common love of cricket, and that challenge, should they be willing to accept it, is the one that awaits England this winter.
My suspicion is that England's concerns are not so much a question of security, but a question of convenience. Multan, like the unloved Faisalabad, is a provincial town in Pakistan's cotton belt that offers just one five-star hotel and not a lot in the way of golf courses. Boredom, not bomb threats, is the primary concern.
That's fair enough, because England's cricketers did not sign up to be peace envoys, but in strange times, strange solutions present themselves. The team and their advisors have cried wolf about security issues in the past, most embarrassingly in Zimbabwe during the World Cup, when their desperation to escape an awkward commitment caused them to desert the moral high ground, the only issue on which they had a leg to stand on.
This time the situation is reversed. The threat is very real, but then, that is equally the case if the players take the Tube between matches. Now, however, it is morality - the advancement of human relations between two cultures at loggerheads - that forms the primary reason for them to go.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo