Thirsty Barmy Army go from Ashes to dust in bone-dry Multan

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The Independent Online

After the open-top bus parades through London, England's cricket team and their fans find themselves in an altogether different setting today. There will be little opportunity for any gargantuan drinking binges by Andrew Flintoff. And any of the womanising, for which certain other members of the team have a reputation, could be a very dangerous proposition indeed.

Because the England cricket circus has descended on as conservative a city as they come in Pakistan: Multan, famous for its bloody history and the hundreds of Muslim shrines that dot its narrow winding lanes. The question hanging over the city yesterday was what the Barmy Army, English cricket's band of travelling fans, will do for a drink. There's only one place you can buy alcohol in the whole of Multan, and it shuts at 5pm.

You don't have to be Flintoff or Kevin Pietersen to get asked for your autograph here. Westerners are such rare visitors to Multan that the few England fans out on the streets yesterday were being stopped and asked to sign bits of paper by locals yesterday.

This is a different Pakistan from the neat flowerbeds of Islamabad or the concrete jungle of Karachi. Almost nobody here speaks English.

At times, Multan looks more like a film set than a living city. It is a place where time appears to have stood still. The taxis are still horse-drawn carriages, and instead of delivery vans there are donkeys.

At the foot of the ruined Qasim Bagh Fort that dominates the city skyline, goats are grazing on scrubby patches of grass.

Inside the Holiday Inn, it is a different scene. This is where you will find the Permit Room, the only place in Multan where you can buy a drink and take it to your room away from the public gaze -- if you fill in a form attesting that you are not a Muslim. But first you have to get there, and that is not easy. All the roads to the hotel have been blocked off by police as part of the extraordinary security for the England team. Inside the lobby, a woman commando patrols in black combat fatigues and matching headscarf.

There are 3,000 police on duty to protect the England side from the attacks by Islamic militants that have become almost an everyday occurrence in Pakistan. Last year the Prime Minister was nearly killed in an assassination attempt. Five-star hotels have been bombed, and grenades have been tossed into churches. So the authorities are taking no chances with the England team.

The Holiday Inn, the only international hotel in town, has been block-booked for the two cricket teams and the television crews, so fans were having to take their chances with the cheap hotels and guesthouses.

Multan is full of the madrassa religious schools that attracted such a bad press in the UK after the bombing attacks in London on 7 July. But the locals were overwhelmingly hospitable to the English fans in town yesterday -- all the more striking when you consider the city's troubled colonial past. In 1848, the British tore down the Fort here in revenge for the killing of an officer. "I don't know the history," said Shaukat Khan, a local yesterday. Perhaps it is just as well.

But Multan is old, staggeringly so. The city claims to be 4,000 years old. It has always had a troubled relationship with the West. Alexander the Great was seriously wounded here. He leapt into the city from the walls alone after his army was cut off from following him by a broken siege ladder, and defended himself with the shield of Achilles. Believing he had died from his wounds, his army massacred the entire population of the city.

Today, Multan is legendary for its dust. Even the most common surnames here all translate as dust, and a fine pall of it hangs over the city all day long. At the cricket staidum, there are teams of sweepers to brush it off the seats and out of the way of the visitors.

The city is thronged with visitors, but as many are here for the shrines as for the cricket. Every day, pilgrims arrive from all over Pakistan to pray at the shrines to hundreds of saints that dot the city. At the main Sheikh Rukn-i Alam Shrine, a tractor arrived pulling a trailer packed with women pilgrims from the villages outside the city. There are so many shrines that you find the smaller ones improbably tucked between two shops in the bazaar.

These are Pakistan's heartlands, a place rarely understood by the West. The shrines are part and parcel of a version of Islam that is intrinsically Pakistani, yet one considered heretical by the strict Wahhabi school that spawned al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

England's cricketers and the television crews that follow them around the world were barricaded in their hotel yesterday.

Outside the windows there was a different world on the streets of Multan. And you sensed the two understood each other little.