A Pakistani player has reportedly accused an English counterpart of doing dirty things to a cricket ball. To some this comes as a surprise and an outrage. To those who know England-Pakistan cricketing relations, a little niggle like this is but a drop in the ocean. Indeed, compared to previous England-Pakistan contests, the summer's England-India contest was a love-in. The series was as rancorous as a dispute in an all-boys boarding school; tiffs over Vaseline were as sticky as it got.
For this reason I already anticipate with venomous glee the forthcoming series this winter. England versus Pakistan has often gone the same way as recent clashes between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The sport itself seems incidental. The dry pancake pitches of the Middle East don't promise particularly tasty cricket, but with England and Pakistan there's always enough masala off and around the pitch to spice up the play. Other series are kormas and bhunas and jalfrezis; this one is the vindaloo with the warning attached.
Relations were not always strained. Writing in the Times in 1954, Sir Pelham Warner applauded a wonderfully spirited series between the two sides: "There has not been one even remotely unpleasant incident." Oh, for those rosy days when there was decorum and decency, and people actually read the Times.
A year later, all pretensions of friendship were washed away. The MCC were touring Pakistan and took umbrage, shall we say, to the lbw decisions of local umpire Idrees Baig. In Peshawar a group of MCC players kidnapped Beg, tossed him into a tonga, took him back to their hotel, and poured buckets of water over his head. (Thus we can trace the origins of two modern ills to the MCC: the kidnapping of travellers in the Frontier, and waterboarding.)
This was a mere aperitif to later argy bargies. The fisticuffs between Mike Gatting and umpire Shakoor Rana are well-documented, as is Aaqib Javed's protestation that a jumper should be handed back on a diamond-studded gold plate, and of course Ian Botham's pro bono work for the Pakistan Tourist Board on behalf of his mother-in-law.
Less well known is that an incident similar to Ian Bell's non-run-out this summer occurred between the two sides in 1987. Bill Athey ran out Ramiz Raja in a move that had less "spirit of the game" than a spot-fixer on Nandrolone, appealing for a catch grasped two feet underground. Did captain Mike Gatting recall the batsman? Please. This is England-Pakistan, not an afternoon tea party hosted by the BCCI's public relations chief's wife.
Like on the morning after a vindaloo, the pong of bitterness seems to stick around in the air. People from both countries remember, and make a point of doing so. In one Test in England, Graham Gooch was run out half a mile out of his crease, but somehow the home umpire gave him in. The reaction in Pakistan? Freeze-frame photos of the run-out were plastered on the sides of buses.
Pakistan's ill-fated tour in 2010 also lingers. An England fan I know says he can never forgive Pakistan for dragging the game into the gutter and ruining his cricket season. It should come as some consolation that many Pakistanis feel the same way about their own side's actions that year.
Personally I have always remembered a passage from Mike Marqusee's War Minus the Shooting. In Pakistan, during the 1996 World Cup, England wanted to practise on a square but were not permitted because it was the surface for the forthcoming match. An England player allegedly pulled out a 1000-rupee note and asked a senior official to reconsider. An utterly despicable and abominable act: everyone knows that in Punjab such a service would cost at least Rs 1500, plus VAT.
On reflection, though, perhaps it's better to ignore these antagonisms. Let bygones be bygones; forgive and forget; ignorance is peace. Drinking the world-class Murree Beer with a friend recently, I asked if he knew the origins of the Rawalpindi brewery. "No", came the answer, so I told him the company's first owner was the father of General Dyer, he of the 1919 Amritsar massacre. My friend swore off Murree for life, his world forever drier, forever duller. I still don't understand his position. History is history, I say, and beer is beer, and cricket really should be just cricket.
Which is all very well until that Jonathan Trott starts on my main man Wahab Riaz again, to which I say: Bring it on.