View From Pakistan: A country craving for its Freddie moment

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They may have their work cut out. The threat of terrorism exists in all major cities, and Foreign Office advice paints a gloomy picture. In addition, the earthquake two weeks ago, which killed 50,000 people and has made millions more homeless, has devastated rural northern areas. The tragedy seems to have redoubled the determination to make the tour both worthwhile and successful.

"We hope England are going to tour this country in a very relaxed manner," said Shaharyar Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. "I don't know what people expect, but everybody who comes here says they thought it was different.

"In a sense there is also a political message that there is nothing terribly the matter in Pakistan. The atmospherics are important, the manner in which the game is played, with an absence of rancour on both sides."

Shaharyar said he was sure that England would be pleasantly surprised by what they see. But the official Foreign Office advice is less optimistic.

"There is reliable evidence that terrorists continue to target western, including British, interests throughout Pakistan," it warns. "Although major cities are particularly vulnerable to indiscriminate bombing and other attacks, particularly kidnapping, no part of Pakistan is immune."

There were four explosions last month - two in Lahore, which killed seven people, and others in Karachi, at KFC and McDonald's restaurants. But the Foreign Office are hardly likely to be cavalier in their appraisal, and an England security mission this summer was convinced that the tour would be safe.

The urbane Shaharyar said: "I have no fears about security at all. Security tends to be judged by the number of mini-explosions in a big city. Nothing that has happened in the past three years has been targeted at touring sports teams, whether hockey, cricket or whatever.

"You will be given total security, but I'm quite sure people will be roaming round, eating in Lahore and admiring various things in Karachi and Islamabad. The Indians came here absolutely frozen stiff, and within a week they were all over the place because they realised there was no problem."

In its way, the advent of England is as significant as that of India. The ill-feeling generated on Mike Gatting's tour 18 years ago was laid to rest when England at last returned (and won the Test series) in 2000. But Shaharyar said England's presence still had resonance.

"We want to avoid tension altogether and that's why we've insisted on entirely independent umpires in all international matches. But somehow our cricketing public have turned a corner and have become very sporting. And Andrew Flintoff is an absolute megastar here." That might be viewed with alarm by Freddie.

Pakistan has invited several dignitaries from England, both cricketing and political, to seize the chance to show that that perception is far from reality. The fans, however, will be in shorter supply than on any England tour for almost two decades, with most traditional sporting- tour companies, including the biggest specialist, Gullivers, not running trips.

The authorities may have difficulty playing down the destruction caused by the earthquake. But they hope that the cricket will bring some relief.

"I know there has been an upsurge of generosity," said Shaharyar. "If the boys want to visit the camps or to be seen helping out that would be a tremendous gesture."

Amid all this, the playing of cricket will seem a meaningless sideshow, which it is. But as Shaharyar said: "I met President Musharaf and he is looking forward to it tremendously. We have to get on with life."

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