Corner of the Khyber is forever Aubrey

Diary from Pakistan
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The Independent Online

It was impossible to traverse the Khyber Pass without recalling the great Sir Aubrey Smith. The man and the place somehow embody the British Empire, or at least the bit of it that was to do with romance, duty, stiff upper lippery, adventure and cricket.

It was impossible to traverse the Khyber Pass without recalling the great Sir Aubrey Smith. The man and the place somehow embody the British Empire, or at least the bit of it that was to do with romance, duty, stiff upper lippery, adventure and cricket.

That Smith never got to within 1,000 miles of the North West Frontier could not diminish the clarity of two images on the way past Ali Masjid fort last week. The first was of a strapping, upright seam bowler with a noble profile and a fast leg- cutter. The second was of a venerable, upright army officer with a noble profile and a slow delivery.

Charles Aubrey Smith and the Khyber Pass seemed inextricable. Why, he might have single-handedly brought cricket to this part of the subcontinent had he had the opportunity.

Smith's life was long and full. He was an upper-class Englishman, educated at Charterhouse and Cambridge University, where he won a cricketing Blue in four consecutive years and went on to be captain of Sussex. In 1888, when he was 25, Smith went to South Africa with Robert Gardner Warton's team and achieved his claim to cricketing fame by leading England in what came to be recognised as the first Test match between the countries.

He took 5 for 19 in South Africa's first innings, seven in the match and England won by eight wickets. He remains the only man to have played only one Test in which he was also captain: a 100 per cent record.

Decades later, in the autumn of his life, Smith pitched up in Hollywood. There, apart from founding Hollywood Cricket Club, he made a huge reputation in a string of roles as a crusty, patrician English gentleman (which he was). His two most memorable were as army officers on the North West Frontier.

In Lives of a Bengal Lancer in 1935, Smith was Major Hamilton, crusty, patrician officer in a Frontier outpost watching over three Lancers, including Gary Cooper, as they attempted to settle their differences and fight the common, native enemy. Two years later, he was one of the few adult actors not to be outshone by the child star, Shirley Temple, in Wee Willie Winkie, in which the little sprite, as the granddaughter of Smith's crusty, patrician Colonel Williams, healed the rift between the occupying British and the locals.

Smith was knighted for services to acting in 1944 and died four years later at the age of 85. He never saw the Khyber Pass, but he ought to have done. You half expected to see a memorial.

The Afridi frontier

There is a distance of some 25 twisting miles between Peshawar and the Michni checkpost at the top of the Khyber Pass. Foreigners are not allowed beyond it. Five miles further on lies the border with Afghanistan.

The journey to Michni is breathtaking. At one point, the gap narrows to 30 metres. Hills loom on both sides, the landscape is barren. It should be one of the most isolated places on earth, yet the roads are lined with people (most of whom wave) and cars (most of which honk). Settlements grew here because of smuggling. It is nothing like Upper Teesdale.

Yet, still, there was cricket. As the rocks fell away to a piece of flat, bare earth some yards below in the village of Zarai, there it was. Each member of each team was uniformly clad in a light green shalwar kameez. It did not seem to hamper movement. They had a bat between them and a plastic ball and the stumps at either end were simply rocks emerging from the ground. Presumably, it was in something like these conditions that the Pakistani all-rounder Shahid Afridi learned to play with such verve.

He may be more than the 20 years old claimed for him (more on Pakistani cricketers' ages next week) but there is no doubt that he is a Frontier boy. The Afridi tribe still inhabit the Khyber. It is their area. The good news for England, who also passed that way, is that Afridi's Afridi successor did not look to be on view.

Car alarm

This country seems to accept that it will always receive a bad press. It shrugs its collective, hospitable shoulders as if to explain that this is partly because, at 53 years old, it is a Johnny Come Lately among nations, and partly to point out that you are a silly outsider who knows nothing.

Pakistan is certainly misunderstood. But occasionally something happens that raises your eyebrows, and it has nothing to do with dodgy umpiring.

Berewal is a small town in the Vihari district of the Punjab, some three hours' drive from Lahore. There, Waqar Younis was born 28, or perhaps 34, years ago (he, too, will feature next week). In the early days, when he was Waqaring batsman round the world, he was known as the Berewal Express. Last Wednesday, two men who stole a car in Berewal in 1995 were convicted. The sentence was that they should each have their left hand and right foot chopped off.

Good to talk

The match between the Governor's XI and England which ended yesterday must be the first ordinary tourists' game (ie not a Test, not a one-day international) to be covered ball by ball on radio. TalkSport, who have the rights, are the station to have taken the plunge.

It must have cost them a fortune, not necessarily small, for a game hardly invested with vast significance. The BBC, who have not got the rights, are either mocking, or miffed, or both.

Of course, if the BBC had done such a thing there would have been outrage at the waste of licence payers' money. TalkSport are not Test Match Special (good or bad, please discuss) but they can spend their money how they like, and anything which spreads the word of cricket will get the game, well, talked about.

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