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Feature

Ben Stokes vows to go faster through the smog

Visitors hopeful that conditions will not hamper health or prospects for extensive play in Test

The fog hangs over Multan as the groundsman rolls the nets  •  Getty Images

The fog hangs over Multan as the groundsman rolls the nets  •  Getty Images

Ben Stokes says he isn't bothered by the smog. Locals say the haze that covers the Multan Cricket Ground will be clear by 10am, so no need to fret about a delayed start time, though there are no guarantees it won't enhance the gloom later in the day as the sun heads for an early exit at around 4:30pm.
It was on Tuesday morning, as England were sitting through a three-and-a-half hour delay at Islamabad airport, waiting for conditions to become clearer in Multan to take off, that a video made its way to them of the state of the ground that morning at 8:30am. Visibility was bad enough for Stokes to consider tailoring his team accordingly, amid fears of just 350 overs across the five days' play.
At training on Thursday, which began in earnest at 11am, what clag remained was manageable and, in all honestly, not too different to what it had been an hour before. Whatever fog there is first-thing should get burned away by the sun before 10am to ensure it does not add to the smog or smoke that fills the air. The expectation now is for an awkward but entirely manageable start time, even if no two mornings have been the same this week.
There is a certain irony to Multan experiencing all this, because the threat of a smog disruption at this time of year is exactly why this Test is not being held in Lahore. On Monday, Lahore lived up to its status as one of the world's most polluted cities, with an air quality index (AQI) of 305, as per data collected from IQAir. The levels can cause serious health problems, with some of Multan's population said to be experiencing similar effects due to worse air quality than usual in the region of Punjab.
Part of the reason for that have been the floods that ravaged Pakistan, which have not yet dispersed from areas of the South Punjab, and are contributing to the dense smog as they evaporate in the mornings. Another factor is stubble burning - a cheap means of clearing fields after harvest, and a practice that has previously affected matches over the border in Delhi, notably when the Sri Lanka fast bowler Suranga Lakmal vomited during a Test match in 2017. Though the province has introduced seasonal bans on the practice, these are poorly enforced.
What is particularly noticeable is visibility gets worse the further out of the main city you go. The vast open land that surrounds Multan's stadium allows dust to pick up with the winds, and the prevalence of brick manufacturers in this area contributes to the debris. It is in this area you see more masks and face coverings being worn, though by nightfall they are more apparent in the city.
While the England squad are all fit and available following last week's virus, a number of backroom staff are either still struggling with the remnants of the bug or are reporting sore throats and coughs. There is no alarm at present that conditions during the Test could deteriorate to an extent that players will have to don masks as the West Indies did at this venue during an ODI in June after a dust storm. But there is also a degree of uncertainty, given how little outdoor training both teams have had this week.
A scheduled training session on Wednesday was cancelled following the later-than-expected arrival on Tuesday, meaning Thursday was the one and only net session ahead of Friday's start to the Test match. It may only be on days two and three that we begin to hear or see the effects of playing in these conditions.
Stokes said he did not think conditions were particularly taxing on Thursday. Beyond "mugginess", which he feels might make him sweat through his whites a little quicker, he was not immediately concerned by the pollution that will surround this match. "I think it's just another thing we are doing to have to deal with," he said.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo