The far pavilions: Pakistan's dusty fields are fertile ground for dreams

If they have a chance to look around on their tour, England will see a unique sporting landscape
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In a mango field on the exhilarating road north from Multan, a chap in a blue shwalwar kameez and sand-als was bowling a mean medium pace. The barefooted batsman, defending a makeshift wicket of eucalyptus branches, made light of the rutted surface and hoisted a shot into the remains of the crop beyond. It was a fleeting glimpse from a bus, but it was just enough to summon up images of 18th-century farm labourers in Sussex doing something vaguely comparable in equally rustic surroundings.

A day later in downtown Faisalabad, eight games in various states of organisation were being conducted on the patch of urban wasteland known as the Chimawalli ground. Behind them there were no mangoes, only a motley assembly of filthy, ragged tents and tarpaulins which some of these cricketers called home. There were a couple of likely lads who looked as though they had been born with a bat in their hand. At least two of the bowlers had actions dodgy enough to be issued with a final final warning by the International Cricket Council.

These were contrasting snapshots last week of Pakistani cricket at its lowest, but still most energetic, level. Go anywhere in this country, anywhere, and the chances are that you will see bowlers bowling and batsmen batting. Usually it is chaotic, but it never seems less than vibrant. Most people connected closely with the game would probably judge that it does not have quite the grip over hearts and minds that it does in India. But it must be a near thing.

The grubby, smiling urchins at Chimawalli flocked round to shake hands. There was only one means of communication. "Inzamam-ul-Haq, Danish Kaneria," they shouted. This was universal sporting language. By invoking the names of the players who had played the principal part in beating England, they were saying, in the nicest possible way: "We saw you off, pal."

With cricket played on this scale, it must have such a reserve of goodwill that it will survive and prosper in any circumstances. Yet it is in a state of flux. In Pakistan it always is. The threat of terrorism in some places and the catastrophic aftermath of the earthquake make for a surreal backdrop to any cricket. But the feeling, as expressed by Shaharyar Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, is simple: "Life must go on."

Without all that, cricket itself does not entirely run smoothly. Test matches are attended by few: the standing joke at the Multan Test last week, where 10,000 watched England and Pakistan on three of the days, was that when Virender Sehwag made his 309 there for India last year, he was watched by fewer people than he made runs.

The reorganised first-class structure - 11 regional teams in gold and silver leagues competing for the Quaid I Azam Trophy - appears superficially to be working, but there are still worries about standards, and that places in some teams are being given for monetary favours. There are also still concerns about fake clubs, which have officers but no players simply so the former can be elected to high office elsewhere. The age of players in teenage sides, or rather the over-age, is also a problem still to be tackled conclusively.

Sadiq Mohammad, the youngest of the four Test-playing brothers (Wazir, Hanif and Mushtaq are the others) is especially concerned about the state of club cricket. "It has been allowed to decline, and its disorganisation can only be bad for teaching cricketers of the future. They have nowhere to play."

Sadiq, a Pakistan Cricket Board coach until last year, also raised the subject of bribes for places in the team. "A boss might want his son to play first-class cricket just once or twice, so is willing to pay somebody in a position to have influence."

None of these points was denied by the eloquent Zakir Khan, the first fully fledged Pashtun to play for Pakistan. Now the PCB's general manager of cricket, he is best mates with Imran Khan and has been instrumental in carrying out domestic reforms.

"Cricket is played much more now than it was 30, 40, 50 years ago in Pakistan. There was not the amount of street cricket that exists and that must continue, of course." But in the Pakistan pyramid, it is the bit in the middle that has tended to crumble.

"We have attempted and partially succeeded so far in instituting a better system of scrutiny and verification," Zakir said. "Big change came about five years ago when the government changed the system of local authority from 36 divisions to 114 districts. To some extent we have to follow what government does and we had a dilemma. Some districts just didn't have grounds."

But it is a heartening fact, as Zakir noted, that more international cricketers now are being found from the back streets. It is an imperfect, perhaps arbitrary, system, but of the present squad or the fringes of it, men like Shabbir Ahmed, Shoaib Malik and Abdur Razzaq would not have emerged 25 years ago.

"Do you know, until the Seventies and perhaps beyond," said Zaqir, "Pakistan could lay claim to being the most educated and perhaps literate team in world cricket." This might have been a feather in their cap in a wider world but it demonstrated where cricket started and ended: with the upper and middle classes.

In the recent warm-up match between England and the Patron's XI at Rawalpindi, one of the home side's bowlers, Mohammad Irshad, "turned up virtually without any clothes, and had no shoes". He settled down sufficiently well to dismiss England's captain, Michael Vaughan, for a duck.

Three years ago, the PCB started paying players for playing domestic cricket from a new budget of around £1.5m. This amounts to £100 a match plus allowances and prize money. It is intended to replace the system which once operated for top-level cricketers, who were found a nominal job and then just played cricket.

Zakir hopes that a structure of club cricket, district cricket and inter-district cricket will lead to a stronger first-class system. But he bemoans the quantity. Too much and too low a standard. "I couldn't tell you how many people are actually paying someone to get a game who are not worthy of a place, but it is going on"

The thorny issue of throwing is everywhere. Shabbir Ahmed and Shoaib Malik were reported again for their actions after the First Test, 29 bowlers of all ages in regional cricket have suspect actions, and everywhere people throw. The PCB, concerned and insisting they think players are imitating what they see on television, have established an illegal-deliveries laboratory in Lahore.

Crowds, or the lack of them, at Test matches may be the hardest of all to change. Tickets are being given away but, as in the rest of the world, the public is probably sceptical of something it can get for nothing, fearing a worthless product.

Zaqir suspects that it is partly a hangover from the allegations of match-fixing five years ago. But if memories of that will fade, the fundamental reason, television, will not go away. But as one grizzled Pakistani reporter observed after the turnaround victory in Multan: "That's what will bring the people back."

One other thing worth noting. Zakir mentioned it, and it has been clear in all the impromptu games. Nobody bowls spin. "We don't know where the next one will come from," he said.

Back at the Chimawalli ground they crowded to say goodbye to the English visitor. Suddenly, from behind there was a voice which could have been a younger version of Tony Curtis, speaking in his Brooklyn accent in that great B movie, The Black Shield of Falworth. "Yondah is da castle of my faddah," said Curtis.

This New York voice was quite as out of place. "Hi, how yer doin' mister?" said Moin Sultan. He was visiting Faisalabad for his grandmother's funeral, has lived in the US for most of his 11 years and had come down to Chimawalli to see if he could get a game. Cricket was big in the States, he said, but there was nothing like this. They watched it all the time at home. In da castle of his faddah, presumably.

Moin, however, said he could not give a hoot about Pakistan beating England since his cricketing hero was Andrew Flintoff. The rest had not understood a word until Flintoff, but they let out whoops. It was good to hear: a poverty-stricken tip in Pakistan and the ultimate cricket Test being passed, respect and admiration for opponents.

Tour Tales: The Englishmen abroad - and what they said


ALAN KNOTT: My chance of a first Test century was foiled by riots in Karachi. I was 96 not out. We raced back to the dressing room, hotly pursued by the fielders and umpires. Then the rioters vented their fury on the wicket, which they began to dig up.


TONY LEWIS: We waited almost an hour for any food to be hoisted from the kitchen. Eventually a waiter said: 'Sahib, I have to apologise for absence of head waiter. It is our regret he has been stabbed by chef with knife.'


IAN BOTHAM: We had contracted amoebic dysentry. At one point I actually thought I was dying. At least we were never lonely, as when we got to our room there were all kinds of animal life around to keep us company.


ALLAN LAMB: Everywhere the team went, we were surrounded by armed troops of every conceivable kind who made their presence felt at all matches, mingling with the local police. Hundreds more were hidden within a mile of the grounds.

Andrew Tong