Pakistan v India, 1st ODI, Peshawar February 6, 2006

The chaotically festive frontier

Like Shahid Afridi has been, Peshawar, where he comes from, must be rehabilitated into Pakistan cricket

There's the guns and the frontier, but there's also a jolly crowd that loves its cricket © AFP

Shahid Afridi can be explained, as a phenomenon, only if Peshawar is visited. Like the city, he is rugged and very much like parts of the city - Kharkhwana - oblivious to laws. The lawlessness can be cute, particularly when weapons, hashish and alcohol are openly traded with a police point barely 50 yards down the road.

It can also be vaguely threatening and utterly anarchic as when the first ODI dawned on the city. Unrest had been forewarned when a few days before the game, with tickets already sold out, frustrated fans were laathi-charged by local police. In the build-up to the match, locals flocked in numbers to the stadium, only to wait in the grounds and gardens that surround the stadium itself. Those who got inside the stadium made practices unusually festive but always chaos lurked.

On the morning of the match, the anarchy bloomed briefly. Most reporters arrived early at 8am, having anticipated problems coming in any later. The press box, open-air and to the immediate right of the pavilion (and dangerously, given the presence of Afridi, MS Dhoni and others, at a very short long-on), was stormed soon after play began. Spectators trying to barge their way through to the Chief Minister's enclosure (on the top of the pavilion could only go via the press box and briefly, they invaded. Some tried to subtly blend in, pretending to be reporters, only to be kicked out but most eventually pushed, heaved and stomped their way via the stairs adjacent to the box up to the enclosure.

In one other stand there was a similarly minor stampede and reports of fake tickets and local security only allowing their own guests into the stadium filtered in at lunch. Those journalists who arrived late, nearer 10am, couldn't get in for nearly an hour. At lunch there was a superbly comical `handbags at ten paces' scuffle involving one man trying to get into the press box and about fifty trying to stop him, punches being thrown but not a single one connecting.

But as the stadium slowly filled, there came with it a real sense of occasion, a real atmosphere never far from intimidating but never far from good-natured and even jolly.

Many Indian boundaries were cheered, landmarks were celebrated and only silence was not allowed. Bowlers' stares were accompanied by oohs and boohs from the crowd, dependent on nationality. Appeals came not just from the fielding side but from everyone.

Sachin Tendulkar, upon reaching his hundred received an ovation worthy of a great man answering a few questions. One fan even broke through the security cordon to run onto the field arms aloft, unbeknownst to anyone apart from the 16,000 spectators, resplendent in brown shalwar kameez to shake Tendulkar's hand. Harmless in intent, it was, for an unjustly maligned and demonized region, less a security faux pas and more a PR gesture of goodwill.

With Afridi, Arshad Khan, Younis Khan and Umar Gul, local representation was high. Anytime one of them came close to the action - and sometimes when none did - the crowd upped the noise further. Whether or not their presence would have affected the exuberance is unclear. When the crowd fell silent as Kamran Akmal was dismissed, it was but a short pause, as they found their voice immediately, laughing in numbers as Gautam Gambhir slipped and fell amidst his celebrations. All this and Afridi hadn't even come into bat.

It was that sort of crowd, happy just to be watching a match at all. They hadn't watched any international for over a year and not a major one since India had come nearly two years ago. This match, like Karachi's Test, should be a step towards the rehabilitation of a major cricketing centre in Pakistan. The Arbab Niaz Stadium hasn't hosted a Test since August 2003 when Bangladesh came. The last major Test team to visit was Sri Lanka back in 2000 and in all, since 1995-96, only six Tests have been held here. Only one other Test - at the Peshawar Club ground against India in 1955 - has been held in the city since Pakistan started playing Test cricket. After today, much like its favourite son, maybe its time the city was also rehabilitated fully into Pakistan cricket.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo