Pakistan Diary

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The Independent Online
To enter Terminal Three at Heathrow is to arrive in the Third World. Never mind the eight-hour flight ahead of you: in the 30 seconds it takes for the lift to get you to the departure lounge you are already transported to the sub-continent. The doors open to reveal the purgatory to come: two out of three luggage X-ray machines out of order, no sense of purpose, and people, everywhere people, queueing, shuffling along despondently, struggling with babies and weighed down with bags and belongings.

But I happily submit to this, and more, because of a ridiculous desire to watch England play cricket abroad. It's high time I stopped this habit. The record is not good: St Vincent, January 1994: West Indies 330-odd, England all out for about 12. Cape Town, January 1996: numbing defeats in both the fifth Test and the first one-day international. And to date our World Cup has been a tale of three cities: Ahmedabad, Islamabad and Englandarebad.

Islamabad itself is not the most appealing of capitals, particularly if you mistakenly arrive, as I did, without a visa. I remembered witnessing Irish comedian Jimmy Cricket at Athens airport with his suitcase open, trying to use his publicity photos (loveable tramp in bowler hat and wellies, marked L and R and worn on the wrong foot) as an alternative to his passport, which had failed to make the journey with him. In Pakistan, I had to sign a landing permit attributing my error to "sheer ignorance". In the light of Michael Atherton's recent comment about a Pakistani journalist, I felt like completing my humiliation by adding the words "I am a buffoon".

There followed a half-hour trip past dirt-track roads and concrete houses with no apparent connection between the two. The journey takes you back 30 years, to the Visa Office in Islamabad: a shrine to Pakistani bureaucracy. This isn't Islamabad: it's Kafkabad. The promised official fails to arrive and I set off to nearby Rawalpindi to watch England play South Africa.

As I arrive at Pindi stadium, it is overcast and drizzling. It seems an awfully long way to travel to find myself in Manchester in March. Even the mountains behind the stadium reminded me of that Old Trafford saying: if you can see the Pennines, it's about to snow, and if you can't, it's snowing.

The most worrying aspect of the day is an encounter with Geoffrey Boycott, who could not have been nicer; a really interesting cricket discussion (sorry, lecture) is punctuated with invitations to share his lunch and "grab tha'self an apple". Three weeks ago, at a cricket dinner, John Major was equally charming, sympathising over a knee operation that has left me on crutches. This is terrible, and completely destroys my faith in human nature. I mean, what is going on? How can I possibly continue to ridicule these people in the face of such appalling good manners?

On to Lahore: Muezzins and mobile phones. The two co-exist, ancient and modern like everything else in this extraordinary country. In a few years from now the Muezzin will no longer have to deliver his call to prayer from the Minaret (it's already done with a microphone): it will be enough for him to dial a central number and activate the cell phones of the faithful. Meanwhile, amongst the corporate hospitality boxes at Lahore's newly rebuilt Gaddafi stadium, three company logos dominate: National Grid, National Power and, wait for it, British Gas.

Lahore itself seems altogether more pleasant: tree-lined avenues and boulevards, parks, two beautiful mosques and an old city with a labyrinthine and chaotic bazaar which reminded me of Morocco: cloth-sellers, craftsmen, leather stalls, ironmongers, old men selling wooden objects as etched and dark as their hollow faces. Everywhere the overpowering smell of rancid fat, moped fumes, glue and cooking oil, and everywhere people pushing carts, driving horses, carrying carpets, jostling and winding their way through the narrow alleys. All human life is here. And so is Imran Khan.

Imran is widely revered here, which means that both political parties, and in particular Benazir Bhutto, fear and suspect him. His popularity is perceived as such a threat that he is denied any platform. He has been cut out of any role in the World Cup, excised from TV footage of his 1992 triumph, and his campaigning for the Lahore Cancer Hospital, including the visit of Diana Queen of Hearts, is largely censored. Like America's Norman Schwarzkopf or Colin Powell, he has the popular appeal of a national hero and everyone wants to know which way he will move. Imran himself remains calm. Above the battle, almost, though it is alleged his appeal has attracted disturbing support from fundamentalists. He claims no desire to enter party politics, doubtless aware that to become a politician in Pakistan is to be mistrusted and despised and in all probability to be murdered. He sees himself as a social worker, not a politician. He passionately believes in reform, but for the moment he devotes himself to the hospital and waits in Lahore-les-deux-eglises ... Who, I wonder, could emerge from sporting glory to lead our own country? Nigel Mansell as PM? Graham Gooch, perhaps?

And finally, a Pakistani joke: Two English gentlemen meet for the first time. Their conversation runs as follows: "Eton?" "Yes." "Oxford?" "Yes." "Sandhurst?" "Yes." "Guards?" "Yes." "Homosexual?" "No." (Pause. Sniff). "Pity, pity ...."

PS. Banner spotted in the crowd at Colombo: "London Bomb Crisis: Aussies to defend Ashes in Tahiti."