Back where we started
Saturday December 17
And so the tour has come full circle. We are back whence we arrived eight weeks ago, in the leafy, luxuriant environs of Islamabad, commuting to and fro from the Pindi Stadium, which lies 20 minutes and several worlds to the south. It is here that the final act of the tour will be played out, a double-header of one-day internationals that represent England's last chance to salvage some pride from a forlorn two-month trip.
Regardless of their lack of success on the pitch, however, England's cricketers have still made their mark on the nation. Just being here has helped. Foreign visits have been few and far between in the past four years, especially from the Western world. And, as a tea-time reception with President Musharraf confirmed, this gratitude is being extended from the highest offices in the country.
The flight up from Karachi provided the first reconnection with the issues of the early days of this tour, as I watched from my window seat as a cargo of brown cardboard boxes were hauled into the hold. Each was stamped with the words: "Donation from the French Red Cross", as if to confirm that while the cricket world has been on fast-forward since the start of the Multan Test, the real world has been grinding on regardless.
As many as 3.5 million people remain homeless after the devastating earthquake of October 8. Kashmir is now deep in the throes of the Himalayan winter, with up to eight inches of snow in some of the more inaccessible regions. The Neelum Valley for instance, where the solitary road has been destroyed by rockslides, has remained impassable to the Pakistan military.
Outside the Pindi Stadium, there is a banner on the railings proclaiming the country's thanks for the England team's efforts, which began with a hospital visit in the early days of the tour, and continued with a trip for Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick to the quake zone and later a fund-raising golf day.
Vaughan himself had said that England's intention on this tour was to "bring a smile" back to the faces of the Pakistani people. In every regard so far they have managed that. But now, as a tough trip draws to a close and thoughts turn to Christmas, perhaps the proximity of Kashmir - and the distinct chill in the evening air - will serve as a timely reminder of why they are here in the first place.
Friday December 16
For the past few days, I have been staying with my colleague, Osman Samiuddin, at his family home in the Defence area of Karachi. It is a peaceful enclave in a raucous town, a sandier version of Islamabad, if you like. This morning, however, I was awoken by an excitable scampering of six-year-old feet, as they pattered to and fro along the marble floors outside my room.
It was Osman's niece, Maya, who was in the middle of experiencing one of the most intoxicating thrills of childhood - the discovery that your day at school has been cancelled out of the blue.
The cause for the cancellation was somewhat intriguing, and will doubtless have done wonders to improve East-West relations in this part of the world. Having already had one shutdown to accommodate the security arrangements for the third one-day international, Karachi had now decided to extend the festivities and celebrate Pakistan's thumping victory.
Cue joy and jubilation outside every school building in the city. Not everyone was so impressed, however. "One cricket match, and their education goes down the drain," the school gateman had grumbled to Maya's mother as they wound down the car window to find out what was happening.
Mind you, if the recent furore in the Pakistani press is to be believed, then not everything that goes on in the classroom is entirely out of the educational top drawer. A 20-line poem of stunning banality, entitled "The Leader", recently inveigled its way into the national curriculum:
"Patient and steady with all he must bear,
Ready to meet every challenge with care,
Easy in manner, yet solid as steel,
Strong in his faith ..."
This makes me feel ill.
The poem, for want of a better word, was hastily withdrawn this week. Not for literary reasons, I must add, rather because some bright spark (probably a six-year-old like Maya) spotted that the first letters of each line spelt out the dreaded words: "President George W Bush" ...
There are ways to communicate your message to an alien culture, and then there are ways. If, as the conspiracy theorists have been speculating in the nation's newspapers all week, "The Leader" was planted in the curriculum by the CIA, then the ploy has backfired spectacularly.
The Americans would be better served picking up a bat and ball, and engaging in a bit of cricket diplomacy instead - for that method is proving a sure-fire winner in the subcontinent at the moment. England came in peace to Karachi this week, and left everyone - from the fans in the stadium to the six-year-olds in the hallway - absolutely ecstatic with their efforts.
Well done our boys. It's almost as though they were under Foreign Office orders to surrender the match for the greater good.
Thursday December 15
One of the first things you notice about Karachi, so long as you're not being hot-boxed in a rickshaw as the morning traffic crawls to a halt, is the improbable clarity of the air. Despite being home to 14 million intensely active inhabitants, there's none of the oppressive smog that lingers over Lahore like a caggy blanket. As the sea breezes work their magic and dissipate the city's exhaust fumes, it's possible too to see through some of the thick layers of misconception that abound about the place.
Karachi has long been regarded as a microcosm for the state of Pakistan. Factional, volatile, prone to dramatic mood swings. And, above all, unsafe. Forty-eight hours and one distracted hammering were all that England's cricketers could manage in the city, as they jetted in and out with barely a pause to collect their thoughts. But one senses their visit has already done the trick. The greatest sporting spectacle of the tour so far has taken place at a venue the world has tried to shun.
It is fair to suggest that, at times on this tour, there's often been a whole lot of fuss made about nothing. In Multan, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore, the security forces have been in place but the purpose of their efforts has been confused. Were they protecting the players from the people, or the people from themselves? And how does this strange walk-through metal-detectory thing work anyway?
At every turnstile and hotel lobby, the hollow routine has been carried through with a robotic vapidity. The worst sort of searches have been those comprehensively inefficient ones, where a zealous policeman makes a great show of rifling through every pocket of your bag, then shrugs you through regardless despite stumbling across a laptop, a camera, a dictaphone, a four-way adaptor, a mobile-phone charger and enough extension cables to detonate the Badshahi Mosque.
In Lahore the charade has proved especially grating. Lahoris don't take kindly to questions about their integrity, and the first two one-dayers were notable for the vast swathes of empty seats in what ought to have been consecutive sell-outs at the Gadaffi Stadium. Karachi, on the other hand, has been different, almost improbably submissive. Every section of the cricket-loving community has recognised the need to put on a show this week, and to a man they have delivered.
On the eve of the match, as the elite paramilitary Rangers patrolled the pavilion and outfield, a team of gardeners were busily attending to the flowerbeds at the stadium entrance, spelling out the word "Welcome" (and its Urdu equivalent) in big white pots of chrysanthemums. As we made to leave, a Datsun van with what appeared to be a noxiously dodgy exhaust bumbled slowly around the concourse. On closer inspection (inhalation), it turned out to be spraying the insect equivalent of napalm, as mass deliverance was inflicted on the city's mosquitoes. This was blanket security in miniature - and evidence that absolutely nothing was being left to chance.
And so to the morning of the match itself. It had been suggested to those bound for the stadium that they allow themselves at least three hours to penetrate the security cordon and reach their seats. Four centres had been closed off in the vicinity of the ground, and three checkpoints established - one at the edge of the demarcation zone, another at the edge of the stadium complex, and a third at the turnstiles themselves. It sounded like a job just waiting to be botched.
The reality could not have been more different. I came across a brief bottleneck outside the Aga Khan University Hospital, as the taxis offloaded their cargoes and the inconvenienced few performed their U-turns, but from then on the passage could not have been smoother. The shuttle buses that had been promised turned up in their droves, and the police and punters were polite and co-operative with one another. By the time I reached the stadium gates, the crush was non-existent, having been dissipated over the distance.
I must admit, I was one of those who had given an unfavourable impression of Karachi in the past, although that had at least been based on my prior visit in December 2000, when one of the great climaxes to a Test series - England's unforgettable twilight run-chase - was played out in front of a crowd of approximately 12. Pakistan had never before been beaten in a Test at the National Stadium, and yet here was one of the proudest records in the game, being surrendered with barely a shrug of regret from a supposedly sports-mad populace.
Today, however, Karachi's true colours were unfurled. Twenty-one months ago, India and Pakistan rode a tide of emotion in one of the all-time great one-day contests, as 349 for 7 played 344 for 8 in a game where the only losers were pre-conceptions. Those same fans were out in force once again, sucking every six those extra inches over the ropes, singing raucously at every drinks break, and beating their plastic bottles with a rhythmic tribalism throughout.
There were losers alright today. The BBC lost their sound-proofed studio and later their connectivity. England lost their way horribly from the moment they chose to bowl first. And the press corps lost their outside seating to a flock of picnickers, who stormed up the pavilion steps at the very moment the final ball of Pakistan's innings was played out, and annexed the best views in the house bar none.
But perhaps the most heartening sight of all was to be found within this throng - the posse of Commandos with their fruit and rice and daal, sat contentedly in the corner, tucking into their lunch and enjoying a day at the cricket. They knew their mission was complete, because their mission was identical to that of every other person in the stadium. To restore Karachi to its rightful place in the international calendar.
Tuesday December 13
And so, after a fortnight of colonial cool in Lahore, it was time to trek south to Beirut for the third one-day international. Beg pardon, Karachi. Given the reputation the city has gained in the past couple of years, it's an easy mistake to make.
There is a definite edge to Karachi. In places, it feels like one of those bad boy cities of the Mediterranean - Marseilles or Naples, for instance, with their intermittent palm trees and sun-saturated inhabitants.
It is a raucous city, in which everyone is on the go, and everyone is on the make. Taxi drivers have an Arabesque understanding of the value of the pound, while little kids swarm around the innumerable traffic lights, relentlessly tapping the stranded motorists for spare change.
Karachi is hot, incessantly hot. Last night I was huddled round an electric fire in my digs near the Gadaffi Stadium, but after a two-hour plane trip south, it is hard to believe this is still the same country, never mind a country entering the depths of winter. No wonder the citizens have a reputation for fractiousness. I shudder to imagine how oppressive the temperatures must be when the sun is really beating down.
This is not a city that bothers with niceties, and therein lies the mistrust that colours its reputation. Where Lahore might soothe you with a glimpse of its innumerable monuments, Karachi is a functional metropolis in the starkest sense. It does not exist for the benefit of its visitors, and it barely seems to exist for itself.
One of the first sights we pass on our bedlamic trek from the airport is a roundabout adorned with an attractive fluted stone sculpture. There is a bauble sat at the top that resembles precisely the logo of a popular soft-drinks manufacturer. I did not notice whether it was "Pepsi Chowk" that we had just passed through, but it would not have surprised me in the least.
Outside the Sheraton, the imposing team hotel, a swarm of security personnel were already making their presence known, even though England's arrival was a full 24 hours away. Just around the corner, tucked away behind a street full of official Government residences, lay the US enclave, where a machine-gun nest lay parked beneath a barbed-wired wall, next to a pair of traffic-calming barriers.
This was most certainly a different world to the one we had just left, though not necessarily an unfamiliar one. The hustle, the bustle, the slight air of cynicism. It almost reminded me of London. Perhaps that's why Karachi is so feared. It's so much easier to romanticise than empathise.
Monday December 12
Press conferences in Pakistan can be a work of comic genius. A hundred-and-one representatives of a myriad of different media, all tripping over themselves to get that single juicy quote to embellish their copy. A clatter of camera tripods as the various TV news channels line up for their live feeds, a scurry of cables as the reporters thrust their microphones onto the table, and inevitable shrieks of protest as a late arrival swans onto centre stage and loiters right in the line of everyone's sight.
So far this series, the press calls have been held in an attic at Multan, under a sightscreen at Faisalabad, in a banqueting hall at Lahore and even at the entrance to the gym. And without fail the pattern is the same every time. The regular performers have developed their own personal techniques for coping with the scrum, with Inzamam-ul-Haq's perhaps the most energy-preserving - an inaudible mumble, embellished with the occasional quick-witted quip to fend off some of the more inane inquisitors. At least, my Urdu-speaking spies assure they are quick-witted. The comic timing gets a little lost in translation sometimes.
Some of the players, however, see their end-of-day obligations as less of a chore and more of a chance to bask on centre stage for another ten minutes. Take Shoaib Akhtar as a random example. Fresh from a performance so superlative that even he didn't need to puff it up any further, the conference room on the Gadaffi Stadium was turned into merely another adjunct of his fiefdom.
If you've got anything to get off your chest, then those precious moments after a 5 for 54 performance are as good a time as any. "One bouncer an over? You're having a laugh, ain't ya?" he more or less said when asked about the fear he had instilled in England's batsmen. But his most emphatic dismissal of the day was reserved for the bane of all press conferences - the un-switched-off mobile phone.
Like a field of technologically enhanced crickets, an orchestra of electronic jangles provides a backdrop to every single recording that's been made on this tour. Some are loud, some are quiet, some are brief, some are incessant. Some have souped-up backbeats, others play Asian-pop falsettos that hit the perfect frequency to drown out every other word on your dictaphone. Shoaib, who is not a man who likes his utterances to be wasted, does not suffer these discourtesies lightly.
"Thanks man," he said bluntly, as the first of many blared into life, as inevitable and awaited as first cuckoo of spring. His eyes rolled as the guilty party scuttled sheepishly beneath the gaze of the cameras, and his next answer featured a pause for effect so pointed that even his own media manager - a man who has been known to fumble in several pockets before locating his own errant device - might have been shamed into a surreptitious flick of his off button.
But it is not only mobile phones that the reporters must compete with. They have to do battle with one another as well, and it is here in this cut-throat atmosphere that a star is most definitely being born. Better known as "Patakha" (or firecracker) to those who have dared to tread on her toes, and in possession of a machine-gun delivery style that leaves her prey bewildered, this young reporter is a cross between Jeremy Paxman and Anne Widdecombe, packed into 5'2" of prime Punjabi larhki.
So far on this tour, she has picked a fight with Steve Harmison for his bowling tactics in the third Test (in which she signed off with a prescient "Well, we'll see what happens tomorrow, won't we?") before pinning Andrew Strauss on the crease with an enquiry about his captaincy ambitions. And today, she was not about to let Shoaib give her the brush-off either. "Excuse me gentlemen," she roared over the clamour as he turned to face his next petition, "I don't think I've had an answer to my question." And at that moment, not even the mobile phones dared interrupt any further.