Saturday December 10
The atmosphere at the first one-day international was muted. There's no two ways about it. Day-night cricket is king in Asia, or so we are led to believe, but from the moment the match got underway at 11am to the instant the final wicket fell and the floodlights were extinguished, the Gadaffi Stadium was never more than three-quarters enthused.
There are various reasons why this might have been. The early start, which is designed to balance the conditions for the side batting second, meant that just 30-odd overs were scheduled for full darkness, and hence the vibrant festive atmosphere of five years ago - and indeed, of the tour of India last spring - was never given time to get going.
And then there is the recently completed Test series. A triumph for the home side, no doubt, and quite possibly enough of a fix for the cricket faithful in these parts, who flocked to the stadiums in numbers that haven't been seen for Test matches in decades.
They were taking advantage of free tickets, admittedly, but they were also treated to a gripping set of matches. Maybe, just maybe, the fans of the subcontinent are beginning to see through the glitz and accept one-day cricket as the more limited version of the game - in every aspect.
There is, sadly, a third and more plausible reason for the lack of excitement in the stands. The fetid atmosphere that was created by the security cordon outside the ground. It was in evidence during the Test series as well, particularly at Faisalabad where 3000 policemen found the good-natured crowd to be too well-behaved for their liking and took to throwing their weight around instead.
But given the impassioned reputation of the one-day atmosphere, and the memory of the riots at Rawalpindi five years ago, the police descended to new levels of pettiness for this game. There were tales of spectators being denied entry if their mobile phone had a built-in camera, and of packed lunches being confiscated and eaten on the spot. Cigarettes and lighters were a no-no, and fancy dress was limited to the odd instance of a painted face.
It's a tough balance to strike - finding the appropriate levels of security for a match of this magnitude, and yet retaining sight of the reason the match is being played in the first place. On the whole it has been managed admirably on this tour, but in day-night cricket, atmosphere is everything. Without a cauldron of passion to carry the players into the night, they might as well scrap the concept, start at 9.30am, and ensure equal conditions for both sets of players.
Thursday December 8
National pride was at stake at the Academy ground in Lahore this morning. The Barmy Army rolled in with their flags and mascots and took up residence on the midwicket boundary. Chacha Pakistan made his presence known as well, as he sat in the stands with a posse of intrigued locals. Daal sellers and dignitaries mingled on the steps of the pavilion, and all were gathered for one purpose. To watch the British press corps take on their Pakistani counterparts in a 25-over game of cricket.
The Press match is an irregular but enjoyable part of the touring experience. England's last challenge came two years ago in Bangladesh, when the opposition named an intimidating preliminary squad of 25, but were duly overwhelmed by one ARC Fraser, who launched a blistering late assault with the bat to snatch the match as the monsoon rains began to encircle the ground.
There was no such trump card for the English to call upon this time, alas. Fraser had gone AWOL, pleading 25 years of bloody cricket as a reasonable excuse for sitting this one out. Instead a motley selection of tabloid correspondents, Sunday journalists, website hacks and almost the entire BBC contingent lined up to do battle, aided and abetted by a choice selection of local ringers.
If the writing was already on the dressing-room wall, then this suspicion was confirmed the moment we were presented with our kit - light-blue near-replicas of the England strip which had most of the team members slack-jawed with astonishment. They had been delivered courtesy of one of the many sponsors of the day's events - clearly, this was not a fixture that was about to be taken lightly.
Pakistan won the toss and chose to bowl first. The Sky Sports camera crew had snuck down to third man to film the opening exchanges, but presciently left the scene soon afterwards, having guessed which direction the match was headed after our opening batsman lost his middle stump to an under-edged pull. At 17 for 3 in next-to-no overs, humiliation loomed, but the combined might of the Press Association, The Sun and Radio Five Live turned the innings around. A final score of 141 for 7 was at least something to bowl at.
This was where I came into the action. Entrusted with the new ball (a new white ball, at that, which was something I'd never before encountered at first hand) I decided that Shoaib Akhtar's example was the only one to follow on these wickets. A diet of slower balls and attempted yorkers floated down the track, although strangely enough I found his searing 94mph pace rather harder to come by.
The Pakistani batsmen patted away my offerings with minimal fuss, then set about running me into the ground with a succession of tonks towards the fine-leg boundary, where I had been ruminating in the shade between overs. I responded promisingly enough at first, with a couple of decent pick-up-and-throws that drew some appreciative whistles from the boundary's edge.
But then I set off in the other direction to field a scuttling drive, and the ball whistled straight through my legs for four. "Your fielding is only 75% good," said an earnest young man behind me, who had been giving a succinct appraisal of the team's performance on a ball-by-ball basis. Like Ian Bell's batting average last summer, that was a figure that could only get worse.
He was not the only cod-commentator on display either. A PA system had been set up by the scorer's desk, and as the crowds swelled, the outpourings became ever more feverish. "And Miller comes into bowl, and that's a horrible leg-stump half-volley, given the full treatment as it bounces away for four."
After ten overs, things were already getting pretty ragged, and only then did the catches started to go down - six in all, myself included. "All of them pretty simple chances really," added our chattering nemesis. "You can't afford to let opportunities like that go begging." The England squad, practising in the nets next door, would have delighted in witnessing the biters getting bitten.
Aaqeel Ahmed, a reporter for Aaj TV, eventually sealed the deal with five overs to spare. His unbeaten 85 from 57 balls emphatically summed up the differences between the teams, and as we trooped off to the boundary's edge in desperate search of water, the presentation committee strolled onto the outfield.
Now this was surreal. Out of nowhere appeared the sponsor's backdrop that accompanies all press conferences, as a succession of trophies were awarded to the troops. John Etheridge, England's captain, stepped up to accept the runners-up award, and endured a five-minute grilling about team tactics and ropey fielding.
The rest of the squad meanwhile stood contemplatively around with folded arms and double-teapot poses, looking as light-blue and bedraggled as Graham Gooch's World-Cup losers did all those years ago in Melbourne, when Pakistan had once again been the worthy victors.
This time, you might argue, there had been less at stake. Not a bit of it. An international match is an international match, regardless of the dearth of quality on display.
Wednesday December 7
In the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, there is a memorable banqueting scene in which our eponymous hero and his squeamish sidekick are treated to a feast of eyeball soup and "chilled monkey brains".
Hollywood sensationalism, surely? That's what I'd always assumed, at any rate. But it seems that even the most grotesque fantasies have their roots in some form of reality. So when I arrived the other night at the accommodation block of the PCB Academy, ready to go to dinner with a selection of the Pakistan press corps, I probably should have taken a little more heed of their goading.
As we piled into the car and set off for a five-minute amble down the road, they began gleefully spelling out the horrors that awaited me in the restaurant. "I hope you like spicy food," is a question often asked out here, and fortunately I do. But, like the braggard in the curry house who foolishly claims he can cope with the hottest thing on the menu, the bar was about to be raised - or, more accurately, moved sideways.
The Fazl Haq restaurant on Wahdat Road is low-key eatery, just a short stroll from the Liberty Market shopping complex that lies opposite the gates of the Gadaffi Stadium. It has chai stalls on its doorstep and a hawker patrolling the street outside, selling inflatable Pam-Am jets, of all the improbable items, to anyone who dares to take too close an interest.
And so, onto the meal itself. Goat's brain masala. You just wouldn't really, would you? Unless of course you really had to, but among our party was a former BBC correspondent and two national selectors, and it's fair to say they could have afforded a meatier cut if they'd tried.
But no. "Full of cholesterol!" enthused one happy eater, as he tore off a hunk of naan and squelched into the grey matter. Hard though I tried to find it appetising, it stubbornly refused to resemble anything other than a pile of offal floating in a soupy brown gloop. Perhaps they'd ordered it for its nutritional content? "Nope, it's simply a delicacy!"
I ventured a piece of naan towards the plate, which was now flecked with glutinous hunks of goat's noggin. It was bitty and bitter, to be perfectly honest, and about as an acquired taste as Marmite. I love Marmite, but then I have been loving Marmite for 27 years. This, on the other hand - as the actress said to the plate of innards - was simply offal.
Tuesday December 6
Aitchison College is the Eton of Pakistan. Founded in 1886 by the then-Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, it is situated not a stone's throw from the hustle and bustle of the Mall, where it lurks imperiously behind forbidding garden walls. The perimeter is punctuated by ancient iron gates, one of which leads to the Principal's personal driveway and lies barely a minute's walk from the synthetic splendour of the team headquarters, the Pearl Continental hotel.
The PC is the destination of choice for touring teams and visiting dignitaries, but most will come and go without realising quite what magnificence lies on the opposite side of the road. It's hardly surprising. You probably have more chance of getting into Aitchison by sitting the scholarship exam than just strolling up and knocking on the door. And even that method has a fractional success rate. This is an institution that redefines the term "elitist".
The Principal's gate is to be found on Davis Road, a traffic-choked tributary that leads north-west towards the old city of Lahore. A doorbell juts out from the buttress, and once pressed, this alerts a security guard on a bicycle, who trundles 100 yards or so along the tree-lined driveway to answer your enquiry. For the casual visitor, this is rarely a simple process, for you must first await his return with an affirmative or otherwise, and spend ten thumb-twiddling minutes waving away the encircling rickshaws.
Within, however, is hidden a veritable paradise. At this time of year, the route up the drive is embellished with 164 varieties of chrysanthemum, the legacy of an annual flower show that takes place on the Principal's lawn and which invariably produces its fair share of home-grown winners.
Immaculate playing fields spread for acres in all directions, each cordoned off from the order by vast and varied trees. Some resembled oaks and ashes, others on closer inspection have little placards explaining to the ignorant that they are mango or rubber plants.
And then, set back from the drive and at a respectful distance from each other, are the school buildings themselves. My guidebook would later explain to me that they were classic examples of 19th Century Anglo-Mughal architectural collaboration. All I could say is that they were magnificent.
Salmon-pink brickwork carved lovingly into yawning archways, latticed verandahs and soaring minarets. There was an indefinable solidity to the constructions, as if it was hard to believe they were ever made of anything so humble as an individual brick. Imran Khan is Aitchison's most famous old boy. Sculpted features are clearly a characteristic of the college.
The principal's house itself is a wonderful earthy pink bungalow, removed from even the noise of the school, never mind the ceaseless din of the outside world. The nearest neighbour, in fact, was the cricket pitch - a vast bowling green of an arena with a beautiful colonial pavilion on the far boundary. Touring teams used to play first-class fixtures on this ground, and judging by the wicket, they doubtless still could.
Monday December 5
The tomb of Jahangir lies seven kilometres outside the old city of Lahore, a short trip to the North-West across the River Ravi. At the time of its creation after Jahangir's death in 1627, it was reputedly a match for the Taj Mahal itself, until it was stripped of its glory by the Sikh emperor, Ranjit Singh, who used the materials to embellish the Golden Temple at Amritsar. All that now remains are four minarets at its corners, and a collection of marble edifices set in several acres of peaceful gardens.
The site lay beyond a fascinating stretch of shanty town, which had evidently taken root over the years and become a thriving community. Goats, cows, chickens and donkeys all roamed freely along the roads, and the houses, what few there were, tended to be dry brick-and-thatch affairs with all manner of scrap materials lying outside their doorways.
It was a stark contrast between that world and the walled splendour of the gardens beyond, and after a cursory tour of the ruins within, I started to wander back towards the town. Because the houses were, by and large, only one road deep, the area was not as physically intimidating as some of the narrow bazaars in the city, and though it was still very much a part of Lahore, its proximity to the river and the gardens gave it a very rural feel. That, and the straw and the oxen and the hens. In fact, there seemed to be so many creatures wandering into places they shouldn't, that I figured that one more wouldn't do any harm.
A pair of goats were sitting pretty in the middle of the road, and several suicidal donkeys stood motionless by the roadside, most of them still tethered to their wagons. Straw and rubbish billowed down the muddy alleys, and surprised but friendly greetings floated out of various half-cock doorways.
Soon the traffic increased as I came to a junction that led onto the Grand Trunk Road, and I made my way towards the bridge that crossed the river into Lahore. The housing here was set further back from the road, and was interspersed with great piles of scrap metal, all neatly arranged into categories, from bedsteads to wheel hubs. Behind these, and across from a collection of rockpools at the banks of the Ravi, was a large stone pier, jutting out at an angle into the water.
It was here that I met Ali Mohammad, an elderly gent with a wispy white beard, who was one of the leaders of this little community. He ran a business that made bicycle parts from the scraps of sheet metal that were lying all around, which he then sold on wholesale to the shops and garages of Lahore. By local standards, it was a thriving enterprise, and before too long, he had invited me over the road for a drink.
There was a familiar bustle of interest as I crossed the GT Road and arrived at his house, an unlikely construction of bricks and mud that resembled, in shape if nothing else, an old-fashioned public lavatory. An open courtyard, absolutely littered with jagged sheets of scraggy metal, led through to a tiny enclosed hut with two beds wrapped around the walls. It was lit by a solitary light bulb, on an extended and moveable flex, though I did notice a large overhead fan on the ceiling. For the time being, however, we sat outside all of this, on a tatty, barely-functional bedframe, whose seat consisted of a cobweb of fraying string, tied in place at one end with a sturdier looking rag.
Several other people had now gathered around, among them an old man called Mohammad Iqbal, his son Amar, and a large silent grinning fellow, who was introduced to me only as "Shane Warne"! Having heard that, I felt obliged to take up the challenge that was evidently just around the corner, and it was only a matter of minutes before a game had been arranged. The "pitch" was a seldom-used stretch of slip-road, leading up to a railway crossing. Low walls on either side marked the boundaries, and because of the long drop behind them, you were automatically out if the ball went over the top.
On one side, two groups of men sat playing cards, on the other the dried-up remains of a stream meandered its way to the river. Before long, wickets, bat and a tennis-ball had appeared from various sources, and the game began. As per usual, my inept abilities were thoroughly exposed, though I did connect sweetly with one shot that pinged an innocent bystander on the head.
The game had soon attracted bigger crowds than the Quaid-e-Azam final, and with it came the local snackman, sensing a quick buck. He very kindly offered me a sample of his fare; a kind of stodgy, deep-fried cupcake that I was finally able to swallow on the ninth chew, but having disposed of the one, I was handed two more, this time drenched in a viscous onion syrup. Distraught at the prospect of eating any more, I nibbled at a corner, then pleaded a full stomach.
As the sun turned red in the sky, people started making their way home, and I sensed too it was time to find the rickshaw that had eluded me on my earlier amble from Jahangir's Tomb. Once again, however, I had been struck by the essential decency of the country. And whatever the extraordinary contrasts between this world and my own, cricket, on this trip at least, was proving to be a great leveller.
Sunday December 4
Two Test series, three months apart, but the morning-after scenes could scarcely have been more different. Back in September, England's Ashes heroes were being poured onto an open-top bus for a victory parade through the streets of London - some, like Freddie Flintoff, scarcely able to walk (let alone hold his baby daughter Holly) after hammering the bar from dusk until dawn.
It is safe to assume that The Oval, the scene of England's September glory, remained awash with ticker-tape and champagne bottles long after the players had departed the scene. Even if an army of workers had been on hand to clean up behind them, it is a safe bet that most of them would have been too giddy with euphoria to bother doing so there and then. Besides, judging by the massive bar-bill that the team racked up that night, there would have been plenty dregs lying around for the cleaners to mine-sweep.
Come December, however, and an altogether different scenario was being acted out. The Gadaffi Stadium, which 24 hours earlier had been the venue for Pakistan's irresistible post-lunch surge, was an echoing hulk of a venue, with almost all traces of the preceding day's events stripped away. Even the carpets in the media centre had been ripped up and whisked away, while the door-handle to the press-box was hanging on by a single tenacious screw.
The radio booths were as vacant as newly-sold flats, and the administrative offices had returned to being dimly-lit cupboards filled with ancient wooden tressle-tables, where once photocopiers and fax-machines had whirred. And yet, some things remained in place. Namely the Ten Sports cameras, commentators and television crews. Incongruous you might imagine. And yet essential, because somewhere out in the middle of the pitch another cricket match was taking place.
And not just any old cricket match either. For this was Sialkot versus Faisalabad in the final of the Quaid-e-Azam trophy, Pakistan's premier domestic competition. As had been the case for the Tests, entry was free - although rather fewer Lahoris saw fit to accept this particular offer. Discounting the commentary team, some 40 punters had taken the punt, and all of them were gathered in the stands directly next to the pavilion. Which meant that there was not a soul in anyone's eyeline as they peered out towards the action in the middle.
Faisalabad batted first and made a pretty good fist of their innings. Rather as England had done the previous day, in fact. Because from 78 for 0, they imploded spectacularly, losing all ten wickets for the addition of 33 more runs. By the close, Sialkot were spluttering into the lead, on 129 for 4 in reply, on a pitch so livid-green that it made the neighbouring Test strip appear deathly white by contrast. Who says domestic cricket is dull?
Five days had been scheduled for this fixture, but at this rate it would be lucky to last two. Rameez Raja, who had been overseeing the Test presentations on the previous day, had no doubt where the blame lay. Not in the pitch, nor even with the batsmen's techniques. But with the choice of ball.
Whereas Kookaburas are the favoured brand for Test matches, at domestic level all teams use a heavily lacquered variety made in Sialkot, the sports-equipment capital of Pakistan. "It breaks fingers because it's so hard, and makes all these bowlers look better than they are," explained Rameez. "And it doesn't reverse-swing either."
Sarfraz Ahmed (6 for 28) and Zahid Saeed (4 for 40) had no qualms with the choice of sphere, mind you. Reverse-swing was never an art they needed to master today, as the entire Faisalabad innings was wrapped up inside 34 overs. In reply one of Bob Woolmer's coming men, the Under-19 batsman Shahid Yousuf, made light of these discrepancies to stroke an elegant 67 not out. In doing so, he capitalised on his team's position, and confirmed that Pakistan's coming generation is one that could yet make the world sit up and take notice.