In a tiny courtyard just off the teeming alleys of Lahore’s old town, a young Pakistani boy in a gleaming white shalwar kameez picks up his Adidas cricket bat and proceeds to clout to all corners the plastic ball his pal is chucking down. Behind him on the wall the outline of three stumps is drawn, and the word Out! chalked there, more in hope you feel. In the corner a little schoolroom has emptied out and excited young boys and girls, books in hand, look on, giggling happily.
Is this the new Imran? Almost certainly not, but we are in one of the holy places of Pakistan cricket, and in this troubled but vibrant country, only cricket comes close to Islam as a unifying passion. For near this courtyard is the birthplace of one of the legends of world cricket, the great leg spinner Abdul Qadir. The man himself is now nearly 60, and devotes himself to the cricket academy he runs here in Lahore, one of the great seminaries of the sport in Pakistan.
He is also, happily, willing to turn his arm over and has joined our touring team for a couple of games. The tour has been put together by the distinguished political journalist Peter Oborne, a member of this parish, who has written a mighty history of Pakistan cricket, Wounded Tiger. The book has the status of a secular bible over here and no wonder.
But the fact that the first team to tour Pakistan since the appalling terrorist attack on the Sri Lankans in 2009 is made up, largely, of elderly white blokes from London, is not the least of this great country’s sadnesses. The reception for the first major team to play here after the 2009 tragedy would be fantastic. The visiting fans would find the warmest of welcomes, good and very cheap hotels, some of the most beautiful scenery in all of the subcontinent, and a rich and most varied of cultures — not least of which is the food.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan national side is slaughtering all-comers who visit in their new home turf in the Gulf. They have just walloped Australia by historic margins, the second Test by 356 runs. The Aussies have only ever lost by a bigger margin on two occasions in their history. Pakistan’s batsman scored nine centuries, the most by any team in a two-match series. Currently they are demolishing New Zealand. It is truly astonishing stuff, and Pakistan may soon be No. 2 in the world. All without the richest cricketing nation in the world, India, doing much to help them.
It is a tragedy that for reasons of world power politics, Pakistan cannot guarantee the safety of a major visiting side. But steps could be taken gradually: the immensely urbane Shaharyar Khan, head of the Pakistan Cricket Board (and a former foreign secretary), hopes that some of the affiliate Test countries could start to show the way: Ireland, Holland and Kenya; then maybe Bangladesh.
The ultimate prize will not only bring in millions, but guarantee the future of Test cricket. There is only one contest that comes close to the Ashes and that is the cricket rivalry (that’s probably too well-mannered a word) between India and Pakistan. The hatreds go back to partition, and to Kashmir, and more recently the Mumbai terror attacks, and the Sri Lanka tour carnage. Deep wounds, but the cricketing passions are unequalled in the world.
If cricket administrators and the two big media giants of the region, Rupert Murdoch, with Star TV, and Subhash Chandra, with Ten TV, could bring about a biennial Test and one-day series, home and away, between India and Pakistan, the whole region would have to become safer. A worthy goal, and not just for that little chap in the courtyard in Lahore.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.