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A very English night out

Sunday October 30

A big fat plate of bangers and mash, washed down by several pints of Bishops Finger (a tempestuous tipple from the Shepherd Neame brewery). A frame of pool and a game of darts, and a chance to watch Manchester United getting stuffed 4-1 by Middlesbrough. Sounds like your average Saturday night at the Frog and Bucket? Well, you'd be half-right. This was in fact the bare bones of our evening at the British Club - the favoured haunt of Islamabad's burgeoning ex-pat community.
Quite understandably in this day and age, the diplomatic enclave can take no chances. To obtain access to the compound, you need first to register your vehicle at the outer perimeter gates and then, having persuaded your way in, the next step is to squeeze through a succession of cages and deadlocked metal doors, with passport and diplomatic smile at the ready. Once across these hurdles, it is business as usual: yet more of Islamabad's typically privet-hedged, manicured lawns, with tennis and five-a-side football courts adding to the other-worldliness of the area.

Five years ago, the British Club was the scene of one of the rowdier evenings of England's tour, as the squad let off steam after two intense one-day internationals in Karachi and Lahore. Darren Gough instigated the chaos by dancing on the bar (perhaps that's where he got his inspiration?) and only Andrew Caddick refused to get carried away, as he sat hunched in the corner, contemplating a plate of chips and watching Match of the Day. His spirit lived on in the class of 2005, who rolled in for the first half of United's rout, sat peacefully for 45 minutes, then left in the blink of an eye at half-time. Such dedication to the cause.

The British Club has one other quirk that both infuriates and enlightens. All prices are in pounds, which means you must use your rupees to buy a booklet of Monopoly-style sterling vouchers before you can settle in for the long haul. It makes buying a round something of a mission, as you sort your 5p vouchers from your 50ps and try to keep them all colour-coded, but it does at the same time highlight how absurdly favourable the exchange rate is. An extortionate 300 rupees for a plate of pie and chips is suddenly presented as a 3 platter, and well ... when you put it like that, it would be rude not to have a starter as well.

It also puts a new slant on the incessant haggling for taxi prices that is part and parcel of even the idlest of five-minute journeys. Though I profess not to have "sucker" tattooed on my forehead, after a few pints of Bishops Finger, it is hard not to laugh along with my new "friend", as he demands a fare so inflated that, by London standards, it would roughly equate to a second mortgage. But the promise of repeat business in the morning, plus an exchange of cards and directions to his cousin's "very cheap" carpet shop in the Jinnah Super Market, and the price soon comes spiralling down. Give or take the hearth-rug, it's not so different to your average trip from Leicester Square to Clapton.

Saturday October 29

At 2am last night, the England party experienced their first aftershock of the Kashmir earthquake - one of roughly 900 to have taken place in the last three weeks. Many people slept straight through it, myself included, but according to one journalist who was roused from his slumber, it was as if someone had grabbed the end of his bed and started shaking it vigorously.
At a similar stage of any other tour, that might have constituted a story in itself, but having seen at first hand the devastation that a true quake can wreak, it's unlikely that many of the players and correspondents on the ground will go along with a sensationalized interpretation of events. It's been a humbling first few days for the tour party, and non-cricket-related hyperbole needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Our hosts certainly aren't allowing themselves to dwell on their losses. The phlegmatic attitude of the Pakistani people mirrors to a certain extent the attitude of Londoners after the July bombings. There's no point worrying about such things, so the reasoning goes, because you're just as likely to get hit by a bus. Or a taxi. Or an overladen pick-up truck with eight men and two cooking pots hanging off the sides.

On my journey into Rawalpindi this morning, I watched as a bicyclist became sandwiched between two overtaking cars. He wobbled momentarily as his handlebars were clipped by the one coming up on the inside lane (eliciting a brief "s**t!" from my otherwise taciturn taxi driver), but continued on his way unscathed. Three hours later, on the dual-carriageway back to the hotel, a motorbike braked alarmingly as he was cut up by Pakistan's equivalent to White Van Man.

On neither occasion, however, was there the slightest altercation between the concerned parties. It struck me that road rage is a curiously Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, borne of an over-reliance on rules and an unwillingness to accept responsibility for your actions. Here, you embark on a journey on a wing and a prayer, and keep your wits about you, lest others whip them away for you. As my airline pilot might have put it: "In'shallah".

Meanwhile, back at the nets, there were brushes with destiny of a lesser kind. As the batsmen became more accustomed to the pace (or lack thereof) of these practice strips, umpteen shots bounced within inches of dozing spectators in the stands, while my knee bore the full impact of a Kevin Pietersen cover-drive. Curse the school teacher who taught me the virtues of the long barrier! Even the bowlers were getting in on the act, as Liam Plunkett middled a flat-batted pull through midwicket that cannoned off the telescopic lens of a startled photographer. If it had hit him on the head, he joked, there might have been less damage inflicted.

As we packed up our belongings and prepared to wander back to the team hotel, there was time for a quick meet-and-greet with some of the gathering Pakistan media - including none other than Michael Atherton's favourite representative. It is almost a decade since Athers' gargantuan PR blunder at the start of the 1996 World Cup, when his sotto voce request for "that buffoon" to be removed from a press conference was picked up by the microphones and turned into a blazing row.

The slur certainly did our man no harm - in fact, on the 2000-01 tour he kept the papers amused during the early days of the tour by threatening to sue Athers the moment he landed at Karachi airport. Doubtless he'll be seeking to extract further mileage from the incident this time around. Five years on, however, there are more significant issues competing to be heard.

Friday October 28

One of the gentler net sessions of recent English history. A three-hour work-out at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium, consisting of a couple of warm-up laps of the pitch, an occasional opportunity to turn one's arm over on one of the two practice strips, and lots of lounging beneath two large Bedouin-style tents.
It is Ramzan at the moment - as I was belatedly reminded while conducting a futile search for breakfast at the (for me) foreign hour of 8am - and no food or drink should be consumed during the hours of daylight. There's no stopping thirsty sportsman when needs must, of course, but at least by quaffing their energy drinks while sat beneath a tarpaulin, the team took the edge off their indiscretions.

It was a sleepy morning for all concerned, enlivened only when Kevin Pietersen decided to start drilling the local spinners out of the nets and into the Saeed Anwar enclosure. "He'll be doing the same to Danish Kaneria soon," said a young seamer by the name of Adeel, who was now taking a break after working up a sweat against Marcus Trescothick.

Adeel's claim to fame was that he twice bowled Sachin Tendulkar in a similar session on India's tour last year. Quite some claim indeed. "See that chap over there?" he said, pointing to a floppy-haired dervish with Andrew Strauss's helmet firmly fixed in his sights. "He came first in a competition to find Pakistan's fastest bowler. I only came fourth, but I wasn't really trying."

An uneventful morning's work - no broken bones or injury scares for the smattering of pressmen to report, no stop-the-back-page photo opportunities for the snappers to capture. But the Pindi Stadium was a rare oasis of calm in a bustling city. Outside the pavilion gates, a throng of policemen and security guards bristled with pointed intent. Having lined the roads outside the ground to facilitate the team's arrival, they were patiently awaiting the return leg, with one or two filling in as ball-boys as they sunned themselves in the stands.

Meanwhile overhead, providing a constant reminder of the backdrop against which this series will be played, there was a distant chug of Chinooks, as the international aid effort carried on airlifting medicine and supplies to the frontlines of the Kashmir earthquake. More than 53,000 casualties have been reported already, and with winter rapidly closing in, that figure could yet be doubled. Such events put the triumphs and disasters of the international sports scene emphatically in their place.

Thursday October 27

It is five years and a day since I last set foot in Pakistan. On England's most recent tour in 2000-01, I was a na ve cub reporter with delusions of grandeur, and most people who know me would suggest that little has changed in the intervening years. Sure enough, after 24 intense hours of sleep deprivation, sensory overload, and administrative meanderings, I'm inclined to agree on all counts. Pakistan seems to be exactly as I remember it, and I feel every bit as overwhelmed.
In any ordinary circumstances, that might pass as a pretty glib comment. But there has been nothing ordinary about the half-decade that Pakistan has just endured. The events of September 11; the subsequent war in Afghanistan; the ongoing war on terror; the fever pitch conflagrations with India and the cricket-diplomacy that helped ease the tensions. And, of course, the horrific realities of this month's earthquake. Despite veering between pariah state and victim status, Pakistan seems to have retained its charm throughout - its long-suffering, grey-shirted good humour. That's quite some stoicism, and quite enough sweeping judgments for one day's observation.

My first day back has been spent sifting old memories from new circumstances, and granted, there have been changes. Billboards have been updated and internet cafes have spread like a cyber-virus. The Grand Trunk Road - that legendary thoroughfare that churns a trail from the Indian interior to the border-posts of Afghanistan - has been ripped up, relaid, and widened by four lanes. The Kashmirwala's Hotel, on the fringes of Rawalpindi's bedlamic Saddar bazaar, has given up the ghost and been converted into a high-street bank.

But many memories remain unaltered. Pakistan actually begins in Terminal 3 at Heathrow, where the national carrier, PIA, fill those uneasy seconds before take-off with an echoing call to prayer. And they still compound this seven hours later with the words: "In five minutes, God willing, we shall be landing at Islamabad ..."

The baggage carousels still take an eternity to kick into action, allowing me ample opportunity to polish off the last of those 2005 Ashes diaries (as if to reboot the mind after a fallow five weeks, and equally, to put to bed that seminal series once and for all). But, perhaps the surest sign that all is as I left it, is the state of two of the most un-identical twins since the Waugh brothers. The inestimable cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad could not be more different if they tried.

The choice confronts you as you pull out of the airport car-park. Turn right for bedlam, dirt, dust, haphazard urban sprawl and a sense of being alive, or take the left fork for mountain air, empty roads, town and country planners ... and intense ennui. Islamabad and Rawalpindi began their dual existence a mere 15km apart (though the gap has been closing all the time as the developers strut their stuff). Culturally and symbolically, however, they are poles apart.

Rawalpindi is an extraordinary place. It resembles a Lego town built by a child of great ambition but little attention span - Manhattan designed by the Mad Hatter. On the roof of every other building, great steel cables jut out of the concrete at all angles, suggesting that something far more imposing than these ramshackle edifices had been envisaged. Bricks and rubble lie in optimistic mounds at the entrance to narrow alleyways, or tucked away behind barely attempted staircases on the city's rooftops.

And yet, appearances can be deceptive. Rawalpindi is a thriving, bustling metropolis that plays on its dysfunctionality. Islamabad, by comparison, seems a soulless construction. Rows and rows of residential areas, and patios, and water features; all contributing to sizeable plots of middle-class humdrum.

When U2 wrote their anthem "Where The Streets Have No Name", they might well have had Islamabad in mind (although somehow I doubt it). The city had not existed before 1960 and seems barely alive now - a curious safari park of irrelevant traffic lights and sunbaked tarmac. `Pindi, by contrast, came to prominence in the 1840s as the largest garrison town in Asia and has since retreated in organised chaos. One imagines the masterplan is for the new to envelop the old; for Islamabad to expand, develop, encircle and ultimately swallow. Could the suburban tranquillity of the capital mop the fevered brow of its neighbour? Fat chance.