Road tests are streets ahead of England

Diary from Pakistan

There is a worthy but interminable saga in England about the need to develop cricket from the grass roots. Some bright spark at the England and Wales Cricket Board (presumably the saga is interminable in Wales, not to mention Scotland and parts of Ireland, as well) put a snappy label to it: "From the playground to the Test arena". We await its fruits.

There is a worthy but interminable saga in England about the need to develop cricket from the grass roots. Some bright spark at the England and Wales Cricket Board (presumably the saga is interminable in Wales, not to mention Scotland and parts of Ireland, as well) put a snappy label to it: "From the playground to the Test arena". We await its fruits.

In Pakistan, playgrounds are, well, thin on the ground in many places. And as for grass roots, you can imagine how deep they are in the city of Karachi, where the temperature nudged towards 100F last week. As in the rest of the subcontinent, this does not stop either the playing of cricket or the emergence of multitudes of cricketers of international class.

Nadir Khan is 23, a computer hardware engineer and the captain of his local side. He is extremely proud of his position. He bowls medium pace and bats in the middle order. He has never played a match on a turf pitch, or indeed what might be termed a cricket ground, in his life.

Nadir's experience has been restricted solely to street cricket. Yet he is captain of his side and they have regular, if ad hoc, fixtures. It is serious stuff.

"The wickets are just a plain plank of wood or anything we can manage to find," he said. "The ball is a tennis ball with tape wrapped round it to make it heavier. It also swings. We do not have pads or gloves and we do not need them. It is a very important game."

The rules hardly differ from those which apply globally in street cricket, in danger though they are of vanishing at home. Stumps are erected in the road, the makeshift pitch is usually surrounded by houses on each side. Hit the ball into a property and it is six and out. A four is arbitrary, usually marked by the end of the road. Straight hitting is encouraged.

"That is how most of us play in Pakistan," said Nadir. "Some players go on, but not many. I would like to play on a proper pitch one day, but you must have money." Cricket in Karachi, and obviously anywhere else in the subcontinent is, perversely, the way out of the streets.

Past master present

If the current crop of England players have as little knowledge of the past as they claim (their 32-year-old captain, Nasser Hussain, said on arrival here: "I don't know what happened in 1987, I was still at school") they will not have recognised the bloke with the keen eyes, the dark hair and the gnarled fingers in their hotel.

Abdul Qadir, the great leg-spinner, was the scourge of English batsmanship a few years before Shane Warne. He took 236 wickets in 67 Test matches at 32.81 each. He bamboozled England, not least on his home pitches, where he took 61 wickets in nine Tests for a mere 19.39.

The disparity in those averages never went down well with three England touring sides, who smelled conspiracy. Pity, because Qadir's9 for 56 in the first Test at Lahore 13 years ago, a brilliant exhibition of leg-spinners and googlies, was thus overshadowed by poor adjudication.

Qadir reports that he is still twirling away. He is 44, but last winter he bowled 54 overs in a day for Carlton of Melbourne in grade cricket, and the other night in Karachi he turned out in the inaugural match under the National Stadium's floodlights, between Pakistan and the Rest of Asia. Mind you, these batsmen treated him as a mere mortal.

Given his record and knowledge - he speaks highly but cautiously of England's solitary leg-breaker, Ian Salisbury - it is a wonder that somebody in the English hierarchy has not sought him out. If they could identify him.

One-day stands

While cricket's place as the national sport here is not in doubt - hockey and squash are not games of the masses - it can still be out of reach for some. Tickets for the opening one-dayer on Tuesday vary in price from 30 rupees (37p) to 800 rupees (£10). The higher-priced seats are sold out, but there were still some left yesterday at the bottom of the range in a stadium which officially has seating for precisely 34,034.

Incidentally, the cheaper enclosures are called after Majid Khan, Intikhab Alam, Nasim-ul-Ghani, Iqbal Qasim, Wasim Bari and the legendary Mohammad brothers; the middle ranges honour, in ascending order, Zaheer Abbas, Waqar Hassan and Asif Iqbal.

But there are two areas of particular exclusivity. According to the Dawn newspaper, when tickets went on sale at Allied Bank "a visibly stunned employee" saw one individual buy tickets worth 120,000 rupees (or 150 tickets) and "desperate cricket fanatics were still running round the circle in hope they would get at least one ticket for the match to remember, that he was a witness to the first international here under lights" (sic). And the place to be with 3,279 others? The Imran Khan and Wasim Akram enclosures.

Village people

Not quite everbody is fanatical about cricket. Why, some of the population here are unworried that the five floodlights - Pakistan now has three floodlit stadiums, while England has, er, none - may be affected by the constant electricity surges and power cuts in the city, caused by the electricity company's inability to pay for furnace oil.

And there are some who are followers of another game. Joseph Giil, a taxi driver, confirmed almost sheepishly the other night that he supported football with a passion and was fervent about his own team. For one dreadful moment it was possible to assume that this team was almost certainly the richest and most widely supported in the world, though there has been not a single replica shirt in sight. "Manchester United, huh, Joseph."

"No," he said, baffled, "my village, Chakiwarra." Phew.

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