In the summer of 2004 I phoned Hanif, probably the greatest of all Pakistani opening batsmen, because I wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of a momentous Test match at the Oval in August 1954. The tourists' victory by 24 runs was the first by any Test side on its inaugural tour of England, and was greeted ecstatically by those huddled around their radios in the infant state of Pakistan. For them, a Test-match victory over England, and with it a drawn series, meant that their country had been indelibly inked on the map. It was no less symbolic than that.
I also talked last year to Fazal Mahmood, the hero of the Oval with bowling figures of 12 for 99. He told me that following the team's rapturous welcome in Karachi, he went on to Lahore, on his own, by train. The train was repeatedly stopped, just so that people in villages could get a glimpse of him. And when it arrived in Lahore there was a 30,000-strong crowd waiting to cheer him. He was driven home in an open-top Pontiac, and by the time the car reached his house, it was full of flowers. There, he asked his father, Professor Ghulam Hussain, why he had not been at the station. "And my father said, 'I would not have been able to bear the powerful emotional experience'."
I retell that moving story now because it is worth reflecting that the significance here of regaining the Ashes at last is nothing like as seismic as the significance to Pakistanis of victory in that one match 51 years ago.
Fazal, alas, has since died, but Hanif is still very much alive, and the reason I phoned him yesterday was not least because I had his phone number.
Journalists have to make the most of their resources. He told me how much he was looking forward to the three-Test series, although he thinks that 9.30am starts, intended to maximise daylight that is fading by 4pm, are too early. "The atmosphere is heavy at that time of morning," he said, "which is bad for the batsmen. These should be six-day Test matches, playing five hours a day, as they did in the West Indies in 1958. It was in a six-day match that I scored 337 in Barbados."
I looked it up and he did, too, staying at the crease for more than 16 hours after Pakistan had been made to follow on. But seven years earlier, at the Karachi Gymkhana Ground, Hanif had played an even more noteworthy innings, albeit a mere 64. This came in an unofficial Test against the MCC, a team that was England in all but name.
Hanif was a tiny 16-year-old schoolboy and the MCC's attack included the tall, fast and fiendishly accurate Brian Statham. But his was the top score in Pakistan's second innings and helped beat the tourists despite a fine century from Tom Graveney. It was a victory as momentous in its way as the one at the Oval less than three years later, because it convinced the Imperial Cricket Conference (as the ICC was then known) to confer full Test status on Pakistan. "After that, everything changed," Hanif told me. On 20 July, 1952, Pakistan was welcomed into the brotherhood of Test nations.
I hadn't known about this resoundingly important Pakistan v MCC match until I asked Hanif if he could remember England's first visit to his country.
Anxious to learn more, I then switched my attention from Karachi to a slightly less frenetic part of the world: Cheltenham. I phoned Tom Graveney - now, of course, the MCC President - and invited his recollections of that match 54 winters ago. To my amazement, he could recall almost every detail.
Actually, I wasn't amazed: everyone who has played cricket, while sometimes unable to remember the name of the person they're married to, seems to have 20:20 hindsight where bats and balls are concerned. I can talk you through every boundary in my 62 for Southport Trinity second XI against Standish seconds in the South-West Lancashire League in August 1983, my top score in all forms of ninth-class cricket, and one day I very well might.
Anyway, Graveney, a youthful 78, reminisced enthrallingly. "I remember getting to Karachi and looking out on to a 40-yard square of green," he said. "The rest was desert. And in the centre of this square was a shale strip, on to which was nailed a coconut mat. That was the wicket. We were dismissed cheaply in the first innings [for 123]; Mahmood made the ball talk, really. In the second innings I got 120-odd  out of about 290 .
"Hanif, who was only 16, hit every ball out of the middle of the bat. What a good player he was. They got the runs with four wickets to spare and about 40 lbw appeals turned down." A chuckle. "I have to be a little diplomatic these days."
The match was part of the MCC's six-month tour to India, Pakistan and what was then Ceylon. "We stayed in all sorts of places, even barracks," said Graveney. "We also stayed in the maharajah's palace which had gold taps, but nothing came out of them. Everybody was ill. I missed the first Test against India in Delhi because I was in hospital with dysentery. These days, it's very different. They fly first class, the hotels are superb, they have a huge back-up team."
Another chuckle. "Which is exactly how it should be," he added, just as I thought he was about to say, "they don't know they're born."
Who I Like This Week...
Lindsay Davenport, who is on the verge of becoming the highest-earning female tennis player of all time, overtaking Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova. She is also about to become the year-end world No 1 for the second year in succession, and it really could not happen to a nicer person. In an age when so many women tennis players are pouting, petulant, self-styled fashion queens, Davenport - even-tempered, polite and just a little bit frumpy - shines like a beacon of normality.
And Who I Don't
All those at Sky TV who so sanctimoniously criticised Sir Alex Ferguson for uttering the word "bollocks" in his interview following Manchester United's win over Chelsea last Sunday, on the basis that there were children watching. I'm sorry, but that's bollocks! There are also children watching when the sound of 30,000 people chanting considerably worse obscenities is piped into the nation's living rooms. When sports broadcasters address this, they will be entitled to storm the moral high ground, but not before.Reuse content