Out of Pakistan: The journalists, the players and the lonely PM

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The Independent Online
LAHORE - It was supposed to be a friendly game: the Prime Minister of Pakistan and a few of his mates, wheezy bureaucrats and politicians, really, versus the South Asia Foreign Correspondents' Club. But then word went out that Nawaz Sharif was not playing with his cabinet ministers (the joke was none of his ministers would play with him; they'd all resigned the week before). Instead, he was fielding a few select members of the Lahore Gymkhana Cricket Club.

This sent a shudder of panic through the cricket-playing hacks of the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Delhi. Damn] Wasn't Imran Khan a member of the Lahore Gymkhana Club? Yes, indeed. And so were a dozen other Pakistani Test players. Up until this scheduled match, the hacks' record in Delhi was 0-4. They had been thrashed, humiliated, by everyone. It was suggested that if Mother Teresa's Home for the Destitute and Dying could scrape together a team, the assorted Aussies, Brits and Indians playing for FCC might hope for at least one victory on the sub-continent.

It was not a question of wanting to beat the Pakistani Prime Minister, but of just limiting the disgrace. Enter Deepak Puri, the legendary Time magazine Delhi office manager and fixer. There are many Deepak Puri stories, which I am sure that Indian fathers and grandfathers will pass down through the generations as fables of unmitigated entrepreneurial wile. The most recent one I recall is when a combination of blizzards and militant gunfire stopped the regular airlines flying out of Srinagar, in the Himalayan mountains of Kashmir.

A mob at the airport threatened to beat up the Sikh duty manager of Indian Airlines at Srinagar, so that when the last plane left, he left too, taking the seat of one of the passengers. A senior Time editor was stranded up in Srinagar and, somehow, Deepak walked into the pilots' canteen at Delhi airport and convinced a few of his friends to hop over to Srinagar and pick up the Time magazine people. If passengers at, say, Hyderabad or Varanasi were wondering why that day their regular flight never showed up, it is because the plane and the pilots were otherwise occupied, thanks to Deepak.

Deepak is a keen cricketer and awesome competitor. Through his intercession, the South Asia Foreign Correspondents' Club drafted in a new member, Satish Khanna, who played first-class cricket for India in the 1970s. He wore glasses and, come on, he looked a bit like a journalist.

You don't have to like cricket to enjoy the Lahore Gymkhana club. It sits in the middle of an old botanical garden, and the trees bordering the pitch were aflame with blossoms. But there, concealed at tree level, were television cameras and dozens of crew. It looked as though state-run Pakistani television was going to give their Prime Minister's 'friendly' more coverage than the national team's triumph in the World Cup.

When the game began, Imran Khan, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen. And neither was the Prime Minister. This, it was explained, is quite normal. Nobody plays cricket quite like Nawaz Sharif. Forget about bowling and fielding. Mr Sharif doesn't have time for it as Prime Minister. But he does like to smack the ball. So every Thursday afternoon he flies down from Islamabad, the capital, to the Lahore Gymkhana club and they let him bat for a while, usually as opener. Although he does not look like an athlete (he is rather stodgy), Nawaz is regarded as a strong batsman who usually scores over 50 runs.

The opening batsman for the journalists was of course the bespectacled Satish Khanna, who knocked in 83 runs, giving the FCC a respectable 153 for 7 when the teams broke for lunch. The Prime Minister was still not sighted, though the hacks were told that he had arrived in town from Dubai, where, it was said, he had asked the ruling sheikh to put in a good word for him with Pakistan's President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who is angry with Nawaz, a former protege, and wants him kicked out. That is why so many of Nawaz's ministers are resigning.

Nawaz finally showed up, not in his cricket gear, but wearing a long gown that made him look like a balding, medieval schoolmaster. He unbuttoned his collar and glanced around the long expanse of green longingly. Then he remembered that his government was on the verge of collapse and, after chatting for a few minutes with the journalists, excused himself.

The opening Pakistani batsman was Majid Khan - a cousin of Imran - who had also played at Test level. Deepak was bowling, in furious windmill motion. Then, somehow, Deepak pulled off a miracle even more spectacular then conjuring up a flight to Srinagar in a blizzard: he bowled Khan out for only two runs. The shouts of jubilation could almost be heard back in the bar at the South Asia Foreign Correspondent's Club in Delhi. The Pakistani team, all first-class payers, pulled even and graciously called the match a draw. But politics intruded: that night, while the Indian players circled round Lahore, looking for a party at the house of the Independent's Ahmed Rashid, they were tailed by Pakistani secret police. But that is cricket in South Asia.