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Feature

England's visit to cricket city

Everywhere you turn in Karachi, you see proof of how much the people love the sport

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
24-Sep-2022
Mike Atherton and Jack Russell get their training on, Karachi, March 9, 1996

Mike Atherton and Jack Russell get their training on at Karachi Gymkhana in 1996  •  EMPICS via Getty Images

Barely 300 metres away from the turnstile exit at England's team hotel sits Karachi Gymkhana, a members club brimming with Pakistani cricketing history. Once a regular first-class venue, it now hosts club matches on three days of the week but remains a thriving sports facility.
The Gymkhana was the venue in 1951 when Pakistan secured a win which still ranks among their most important: inspired by Fazal Mahmood, Khan Mohammad and Hanif Mohammad, they beat MCC by four wickets in a result which effectively secured their Test status the following year.
Hanging on one wall in the clubhouse is a framed scorecard from a tour match England played there against a Sindh XI in 1978, featuring an understated footnote. "Against agreed norms, Sindh captain Aslam Sanjrani accepted England captain JM Brearley's request to allow fast bowlers full run up," it reads.
The next line makes clear that this was a serious error: "JM Brearley had his left arm broken in the fifth over by a rising ball from Sikander Bakht, putting him out of the tour." Sindh won the 35-over friendly by three wickets but England escaped with a draw in the third Test against Pakistan a few days later, which meant the series ended in a 0-0 stalemate.
England returned 18 years later during the 1996 World Cup, using the ground as a training base before their defeat to Pakistan at Karachi's National Stadium. Michael Atherton's side played against - and lost to - a Karachi XI which featured Jack Russell and Graham Thorpe (wearing 'Abdul Thorpe' on the back on a makeshift shirt), leaving them "squirming with embarrassment" according to one touring journalist.
More recently, South Africa used the Gymkhana's facilities to quarantine and train for their series against Pakistan in early 2021, while security officials visited earlier this month to explore the possibility of New Zealand using it as a training base during their upcoming tour in December-January.
Matches at the club are sleepy affairs now, with a handful of spectators wandering around the running track on the perimeter of the boundary, but used to attracted crowds of thousands. It is hard to locate footage of the ball Bakht - who had played a solitary Test at the time - bowled to Brearley but it feels unlikely that those present will have forgotten it.
A short walk around the corner is the Polo Ground, where hundreds of locals play tape-ball games every weekend, all of them obsessed with the sport. Walking around the park on a Sunday morning is a hazardous occupation, ducking for cover and weaving between games that participants treat as their own World Cup final.
It is right next to Gymkhana but at the same time worlds away: no memberships, no entry fees - other than to bring a motorbike past the gatekeeper - and no barrier to entry, with old and young playing alongside one another. It is the sign of a truly national sport that the same game is played in both places.
Not far down the road from Gymkhana, next to the old Frere Hall, there is a sign which describes Karachi as 'The Cricket City'. It is a moniker which Lahore, Rawalpindi and Multan would doubtless contest but for an English journalist who has grown up in the era of the national team hidden away behind a paywall, everything in here feels like it is geared towards cricket.
Meanwhile, five minutes away, the lobby of the Movenpick hotel is filled with England players whose VVIP status and presidential-level security means their tour has been hotel-ground-hotel on repeat. Luke Wood is watching footage from Thursday night's game on a laptop while debriefing with assistant coach David Saker; Moeen Ali and Harry Brook are drinking coffee; Alex Hales and Ben Duckett are in the poolside team room, playing another round on the golf simulator.
"That's the sad thing, actually about the tour," Moeen said. "It's not easy when you can't go out… you want to see the country as much as you can when you tour. Sometimes it can feel like you could be anywhere in the world. You're in the hotel, and you're stuck in it: you could be in Barbados." It did not come across as a complaint, more a genuine sense of disappointment that he will be unable to explore Pakistan.
The players are aware of the money that has been poured in to keeping them safe and recognise the need for an abundance of caution. The PCB is spending millions on their security even though the British High Commission's data suggests that Pakistan is as safe as it has been since 2004, but the consequences of anything going wrong would be unthinkable.
There is no prospect of the security detail changing in time for December's Test tour but perhaps next time England visit - they are due to come for three Tests in October 2024 - there will be a chance for the players to explore the Gymkhana ground and to wander through the park. After 17 years away, at least now they can say with confidence that there will be a next time.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98