A memorable bridge-building act
Wednesday December 21
An end-of-term atmosphere permeated the Pindi Stadium yesterday, as the fifth and final one-day international was played out in front of a packed and ecstatic crowd. The bleachers bobbed and swayed as boundary placards were flung in the air in jubilation, and the usual array of attention-grabbing signs were on display as well, with Rameez Raja being implored to have a haircut and Andrew Flintoff urged to break his shackles during an uncharacteristically dour innings.
The fans didn't in truth have a whole lot to cheer about. There were few of the sixers that the subcontinent so loves, the homeboy Shoaib Akhtar was resting up ahead of the India series, while Shahid Afridi - Pathan by heritage, Karachi by upbringing and the nation's favourite player bar none - didn't have time to find his range. Oh, and Pakistan lost the match to boot.
None of it mattered one iota, because Pakistan has won so much more in the intervening eight weeks. There have been some significant cricket tours in the not-so-distant past - India's seminal visit to Pakistan in 2003-04, for instance, or last summer's unforgettable Ashes campaign. But few can have held quite so much significance as this little stop-over. This was the tour that confirmed Pakistan's rightful place on the world sporting map - as a host and a competitor alike.
The balance of power in cricket has shifted inexorably in the past decade, and Asia - quite justifiably - is now the kingpin. The passion, the packed stadia, the popularity and prestige, it's all to be found out here, in a land where the sound of leather on willow is more than just a quaint fascination for a select but committed few. It's a full-on lifestyle choice.
But England still matters nonetheless. It will forever remain the spiritual home of the game, and its hinterland as well. Without England's blessing, cricket becomes as relevant on a global scale as the popular subcontinent sport of kabbadi - that curious game of tag wrestling that attracts a committed following but has as much clout on the international stage as the World Conkers Championship.
Cricket in this day and age provides a unique window into some of the most diversified cultures on the planet. Pakistan and India, through the medium of cricket, have recently discovered that, despite three full-scale wars and a nuclear stand-off, they actually have more similarities than differences.
And something similar has happened to England on this brief but eye-opening trip. The range and depth of the welcome that the tour party has received has busted a few myths for sure, and given the grim events in London last July, there could really have been no more timely moment for such a high-profile act of bridge-building.
The bottom line is that Pakistan is a peace-loving and intensely hospitable nation. The facilities and functions that have been laid on for the press, for instance, are every bit as exhaustive as England's own efforts seem unwelcoming. The same five banks of computers have been lugged from venue to venue, from Lahore to Karachi to Rawalpindi and back again, wired up at dawn and dismantled at dusk, and invariably with a smile and a shrug when that extra half-hour of internet access is stretched into something nearer to three.
The arrangements can be chaotic, for sure, but that is part of the charm. The Indian commentator, Harsha Bhogle, once wrote an article extolling the virtues of the last minute. He was referring specifically to the redevelopment of the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in Delhi, which even nine months on, was still barely fit for last month's first Test against Sri Lanka, but the principle can be applied throughout the subcontinent. "In the end things will work and people will try to help," he concluded. It's a very human outlook.
And that is one thing that Pakistan had lost during its wilderness years, specifically post September 11, but in cricketing terms since the Karachi bombing of May 2002 that curtailed New Zealand's Test tour. It had lost the human touch - it was being touched with a bargepole at best by cultures that didn't care to delve beneath the assumptions and resurface with the facts.
For two years in and around the last World Cup, the Pakistani players were living out of a suitcase, playing tournaments in Sharjah, Kenya and even Morocco - anywhere they could call a home, however temporarily. They needed this trip badly, but moreover they needed it to go well.
There must have been a few hearts in mouths when that gas canister exploded in Faisalabad, and not just those of the players and spectators nearest to the blast. The PCB has taken every precaution on this trip, furnishing the players with "Presidential levels" of security that have been overbearing at times, but have nonetheless gone some way towards allaying those fears.
Pakistan is a safe, warm and welcoming place to play cricket, and as England's cricketers arrive back at Heathrow this morning, they will be carrying that message home with them as well. As Abbas Zaidi, the PCB's director admitted ahead of the Karachi one-dayer: "Once this match is played successfully, other teams will also not hesitate to play here."
The fact that Pakistan has proven to be a rather handy cricket team as well is something of a bonus.
The end of kite-flying?
Monday December 19
Though the shadow was dancing harmlessly on the Bank Alfalah logo behind the wicketkeeper, the kite itself was doing its utmost to take centre stage. At one moment it plunged towards Andrew Flintoff's head as he plodded back to his bowling mark, prompting a quick grin and an exchange of shrugs with the non-striker, Inzamam-ul-Haq.
Eventually, however, the thermals that had been keeping the kite aloft dispersed, and it thudded to the turf in the region of third slip. A security guard instantly raced onto the pitch to snaffle the miscreant, and it can only be assumed that the kite-flyer himself cut his string and fled into the melee. Because never mind the Rawalpindi ground rules - the perpetrator had actually been breaking Pakistani state law.
In a move that is somewhat akin to the re-classification of bagpipes as an instrument of war, the Pakistani Supreme Court has decided that the centuries-old pastime of kite-flying is too dangerous to be allowed to continue. The ban was upheld in Lahore last week amid violent protests, which ironically resulted in dozens of people being admitted to hospital after police baton-charged the crowd.
It is the intensely competitive nature of the kite-flying that is the problem. The objective in a kite-duel is for one flyer to cut the string of the other, but in recent years the proliferation of nylon - and often glass-coated - strings has added a new dimension to the proceedings. According to one member of the Supreme Court, up to 30 people a year are killed or maimed in accidents involving kites, and last month a young girl died after having her throat slit as she passed on a motorcycle.
The case is to be reviewed in January, and regardless of the occasional tragedy, it is widely hoped that the status quo will be restored. Otherwise there could be an mass outbreak of lawlessness come the kite-flying festival of Basant, which is scheduled for February and March. At this time of year, the rooftops of Lahore come alive with a thousand dancing colours. But not for much longer, if the lawmakers have their way.