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Alison Mitchell looks back at Pakistan 2005

Alison Mitchell remembers the sights and sounds of Pakistan 2005

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris reminded us that we may never truly be safe, wherever we are in the world. Safety and security are the reasons why England are currently playing Pakistan in the UAE rather than Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, but if music lovers attending a concert, football fans watching a friendly and locals enjoying a Friday night drink are a target, how can anyone’s safety be guaranteed anywhere?

The near-empty stadiums during the Tests in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah tell the story of a team who are far away from home and their fervent supporters. No one knows when England will tour Pakistan again. I feel fortunate to have experienced a tour there because few cricket journalists of my generation have. England last toured there in 2005 when they lost a Test and ODI series; a trip which was my first with England’s men and which I found to be immensely fascinating and culturally stimulating over the course of seven weeks.

The tour was England’s first in the aftermath of the July 7 tube attacks in London and security had now become the buzz word in cricket. On arrival at the Pearl Continental hotel in Lahore, where the team were also staying, we were greeted with airport style X-ray scanners on entry. This is the present day norm at team hotels in the subcontinent, but at the time, having a uniformed armed guard perched on a chair at the end of the hotel corridor with a rifle resting across his knee was a new experience for a 25-year-old girl from Northamptonshire. I wondered whether it was the done thing to smile and say hello when I walked past. I figured I’d be going in and out of my room around four times a day for ten days so it could become socially awkward if I didn’t. I decided to give him a hearty “good morning!” on the way down to breakfast every day and it turned out to be a good idea because it often jolted him from a slumber. I have no idea when he got time off.

Spending so long in the country allowed time to visit some of the sights. Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque was a beautiful haven of tranquility, particularly at sunset when the minarets became bathed in a deep golden light. At the time of construction in 1673 it was the largest mosque in the world. A different vantage point could be gained by dining in a well known restaurant called Cooco’s Den, which overlooks the mosque and Lahore Fort. Cooco’s is owned by the controversial artist Iqbal Hussain, whose paintings depicting the lives of the area’s sex workers adorn the lower floors. A white stone spiral staircase led us up five stories onto a roof terrace where the food was delivered from the kitchens by a wicker basket on a pulley. We were being hosted by the son of a Pakistani politician who promptly ordered a banquet of food for the table. When we asked what one particular dish was, he replied “brains”. “Brains of what?” we asked. There was no answer so we agreed to pretend it was lamb or beef mince and swallowed hearty mouthfuls. The nan bread was soft and fluffy like a pillow.

The Wagah Border ceremony was an extraordinary and exhilarating experience. It is the only land border crossing between India and Pakistan and every evening there is an elaborate closing ceremony full of pomp and flamboyant posturing on the part of the guards. Huge stands are erected either side of the border for spectators who flock to watch. On the Pakistan side women and men are segregated, so I said goodbye to my colleagues and joined the hordes of Pakistani women and children in their own separate stand, many of whom wore brightly coloured shalwar kameez.

There was a language barrier between us but many a smile was exchanged. Once the ceremony was over and the border closed, the crowds – mostly the men – flooded onto the central parade area and danced to the beat of a dhol drum which appeared as if out of nowhere. I found my colleagues in the melee and we got swept up in the celebratory atmosphere. It was heartbreaking to learn of a suicide attack there a year ago which killed dozens of people.

The cricket itself provided some memorable moments, such as Mohammed Yousuf’s double hundred in Lahore and Marcus Trescothick coming close to a double hundred himself in the first Test. Then there was the pirouette on a good length performed by Shahid Afridi during the second Test in Faisalabad. Afridi clearly thought no one was looking because attention at the time was focussed on a gas canister that had exploded on the edge of the outfield. Given the climate, there was an instant fear that the explosion had been a bomb. The resounding bang made the England batsmen scamper towards the pavilion before they realised what had happened. Unfortunately for Afridi there was still a TV camera trained on the pitch, and his nifty footwork was recorded for all to see.

Travelling to Faisalabad was an adventure in itself. We journeyed with our guide, Bilal, in a convoy of six minibuses, bouncing and jolting at speed through a myriad of tiny towns, stopping only to allow Jonathan Agnew to file a BBC report via satellite dish from the middle of goodness-knows-where. The roadside where Aggers crouched to broadcast was grey and dusty and we were surrounded by arable land. When the convoy continued and we got involved in conversation with Bilal it became apparent he was a highly political person with strident views on President Musharraf (in power at the time). He was also a fountain of knowledge when it came to what crops are grown where, and the cost of a bullock compared to a donkey.

Pakistan was my first experience of travelling in the Muslim world, so I took care to wear appropriate conservative clothing. The opposition and umpires were most welcoming when I played in a British Media v Pakistan Media cricket match in the grounds of the Gaddafi Stadium. Passers-by took a while to spot the ponytail beneath my baseball cap, but when they did the mobile phones came out in force to take photos. We lost heavily, but Lahore’s English language newspaper complimented me the next day on being “more athletic than the men folk in the field”.

Ten years ago in Pakistan, there was a distinct feeling that no one would purposefully attack a cricket team or cricket stadium. Cricket was a religion and cricketers were adored. That turned out to be fanciful. Events of 2009 when the Sri Lanka team bus was attacked in Lahore left the cricket world in no doubt that there is no such thing as protected status. Not in Pakistan; in fact not anywhere.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper on Friday November 20, 2015

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