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Diary

Searching for the real Pakistan - from behind a security cordon

Islamabad-Multan diary: While the focus on safety is very understandable, it regrettably drains the travelling reporter's experience of authentic local flavour

Liam Livingstone chats with the media in Islamabad - our diarist is to the extreme right  •  Getty Images

Liam Livingstone chats with the media in Islamabad - our diarist is to the extreme right  •  Getty Images

It was probably when heading outside for my first cigarette in Multan that I realised the true nature of this tour.
Islamabad was fine, the spectre of heavy security easy to ignore given the scale of the Serena Hotel, the drives to the ground, and the occasional manufactured dalliance into the real world. But lighting up and seeing four police officers form a square around you as if they are about to start up an impromptu game of rondo was a reminder of the lengths local law-enforcement people need to go. Everyone here harbours a collective responsibility to do their bit for this England tour of Pakistan. They thought I might try and leave my hotel, but I knew better than that after the way they panicked when a colleague tried to go for a wander. No one can leave without police presence and getting out at night is a straight no-go. Hopefully that softens, but I'm not holding out much hope.
Since arriving in Pakistan at the end of November, the sense of local pride at hosting England for a first Test tour since 2005 has been abundantly clear. But in Multan, you can feel the anxiety.
Cricket has only just returned to this city after 14 years, following a few ODIs against West Indies in March, and it is clear the PCB isn't keen to take the training wheels off the place just yet. And fair enough. These international tours, costing US$ 2 million a pop, are so reliant on Western sensitivities. If the choice is between making your guests feel frustrated and safe and liberated and exposed, then, yeah, why wouldn't you choose the latter?
There is a sense among the travelling press corps that those who have never been to Pakistan before, like myself, won't get to see the real Pakistan before we leave. As important as the cricket is on this occasion, it largely defeats the point of touring.
The previous week in Islamabad was heavily cricket - one-of-a-kind cricket, to be fair - but for a visit to the British High Commission. It was pegged as one of the few places to openly consume alcohol in the city, and barring the plush setting and three levels of security clearance required, it basically ended up with all the English media packed into what was a glorified cricket club bar talking loudly, playing pool and asking if they had anything else other than BrewDog (they did - plenty). Just as that night was winding down, an invite came for a jaunt into Islamabad. Specifically, a house party.
No, this was not simply another manufactured Anglo comfort rouse. A friend of a friend had an in, and three of us were cool by association. An hour later, we found ourselves in the kind of house that would be the final boss on MTV Cribs.
It was surreal for many reasons, but perhaps the most heartening was the breadth of those in attendance. The kind of bolshy creative types responsible for layers of culture among younger generations. Quite apart from being made to feel totally welcome was the gratitude of getting an opportunity to glimpse into a side of Pakistan that is rarely considered. This, we were told, was the start of Islamabad's party season. Many in attendance were prominent members of niche yet thriving industries, some of whom were back from abroad to catch up with old friends in their old haunts. All older, worldlier, and a little more appreciative of home and how it forged them.
During the 3am ride back to the hotel through the dark empty streets of Islamabad, the glee at finally seeing something real beyond those who come to cheer in the stands reinforced something: there are many personalities of Pakistan, but they will only reveal themselves to you if you're willing to meet them more than halfway.
As I recall that thought now, on the eve of the second Test, maybe a cricket tour is one of the worst ways to do that, especially with England? None of this is inauthentic, but also none of this is real. Perhaps other opportunities to embrace the real Pakistan will come before I head home, especially with Karachi on the horizon. My aim for now is to at least shake its hand in Multan.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo