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Before going to Pakistan, there were a few default ideas in mind. As a guest, I was told, an Indian is treated very well; that the country is a nightmare for vegetarians and that it is very similar to India in most ways.
On the first day, the first of these beliefs couldn’t have been any truer. Right from the airport to the National Cricket Academy in Lahore, we have been looked after with great respect. And on the first day, one found vegetarian food easy on the south Indian tongue (even though the Pakistan outside the warm confines of the NCA might be a lot different when it comes to food tastes). And yes, Lahore looks much like any Indian city. With varied kinds and makes of cars, motorbikes propelling rickshaws, clean roads, signals, flyovers, swanky stores of multinational giants and people speaking a recognizable language, there is a lot that looks familiar.
Television channels are so full of Mumbai’s films that it seems strange to see them banned from playing on Pakistani theater screens. However, there is a good chance for me to fulfill my dream of watching a Pakistani film in a Pakistani cinema. Two young porters confirm the presence of large number of cinema houses in the city.
But the most startling factor that stands out here is the importance of cricket. Apart from it, perhaps only a bureaucratic intervention could have ensured a hassle-free time at the Lahore airport for us.
This has been a flying start.
This is a pleasant morning as Lahore seems exempt from the perennial mist that crowded much of North India last week. That’s when I see the clock showing 8:30. Breakfast time! And who do we share the dining table with but Pakistan’s English coach, Bob Woolmer. He is calm and between periods when he walks in and out of the kitchen with remarkable familiarity, he’s having a nice breakfast.
In the afternoon though, the key of cricket which had opened many a lock for us yesterday turns into an irritating handcuff. As the Indian players walk past us into the practice grounds of the Academy, the distance between us and them is very little but the shield of security makes it seem impossible to traverse. To their credit, the security officials are stern, but polite. “Bachchon, aap yahan kya kar rahe ho,” one asked, as about eight of us stood facing the Indian players warming up. “Aap please vahan jaake khade ho jaayiye”.
In the afternoon, at lunch (this time, Woolmer was joined by Danish Kaneria and Mohammad Sami), Woolmer gives Kaneria a talking to. The leg-spinner is sure that he is injured and will find it difficult to play. Woolmer says, “Look at the other team. Sachin has a bigger injury and he is playing.” After that, I and a few others stood at a distance watching Greg Chappell overseeing the Indians training. Hearing us speak in Tamil, a guy, dressed and looking like a cricketing journalist, stopped by, surprised. He introduced himself as Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, the Cricinfo journalist. And I soon recalled that he was the one who had sent me a nice little e-mail politely telling me my application gor a job there had been turned down.
The evening was to be my first experience of Lahore’s interiors. Travelling around in a taxi to exchange dollars for Pakistani rupees, I found that the more one saw of Lahore, the more it looked like any other Indian city. The taxi driver said, and it is believed, that Lahore gets its name from Rama and Sita’s son, Luv. He also pointed out an area called the Shalimar Link Road, which was called Bhagwanpura, some hundred years ago.
I got to know that the vegetarian food I have been enjoying in the NCA’s dining room was specially ordered for us. Off spinner Arshad Khan and batsman Younis Khan who happened to be eating when we were there, feared they’d turn veggies if we stayed in the NCA for too long!
With each passing day, I am more and more baffled by the way security works. Yesterday, the Indian players were kept at bay from people by the policemen. Today, it was a similar day when the entire Indian team reached the NCA to train and there was hardly any barrier that fans faced.
I indulged in a game of cricket in the lawns of the Academy, even as the Indian players trickled in to the practice grounds. Here, there was not much hospitality from the Pakistani hosts. One of the chief men in the NCA stole the bat from under my eyes and kept on batting for what looked like a millennium. There was no way you could cajole him into giving the bat to me.
This backyard match also provided a fascinating insight into Pakistan’s “gully cricket”. The “tape ball” is said to be one of the main reasons for Pakistan’s depth in fast bowling. For the little time I batted and bowled with it, I found it compact, unlike the frustrating loopy trajectory of the ordinary tennis ball. It also carried good “weight”, somewhat like the Indian rubber ball, but without the prodigious bounce that the latter provides. In some ways, it is as close an amateur cricket ball can be to the more dangerous, professional one. If I get an opportunity to bowl with it again, I’ll try a bit of spin.
And what a coincidence that the first time I came across this little secret of Pakistan’s fast bowling assembly-line, I get a glimpse of the man who stands as its symbol, Imran Khan. He was on a local television a day before and from what I could decode of the Urdu, he looked every bit a strong politician. The former captain of Pakistan looks as fit as he was when he bowled the last ball of the 1992 World Cup against the Englishmen. If someone wants to face him, Khan looks ready to run steadily to the crease, take a frightening jump to the left of the umpire and deliver his sharp-swinging in-cutters.
I also overhear a conversation between Indian journalists. One of them is convinced that the hype about the Lahore pitch being grassy is a lie. “It might have bounce, but there isn’t any grass on it,” he said.
Pakistan is in festival mood for Eid. Three free days for the country. However, travelers’ cheques aren’t being converted into Pakistani rupees. So, another day of confinement beckons.
The growing feeling I have of Hindi film fans in Pakistan is that they are slowly shifting allegiance from Shah Rukh Khan to Emran Hashmi. That’s one of the only things I learnt today of Pakistan as much of the day went in getting a few official details in order. Thankfully, I also got the all-purpose pass for the entire tour.
Today, the Indians didn’t come to the NCA for practice. Their training session during the last two days being the only form of recreation for us here, their absence further propelled us into a relentless channel-surfing exercise on the television.
TV in Pakistan, at least at the NCA, provides a bouquet of around 80 channels. Most of it is occupied by an incessant monotony of Hindi cinema. All the films that I wouldn’t have bothered to watch in India, I am able to, and have to, see here.
There is a trend in Lahore which I am not able to get used to. Every day, at almost every hour, you can hear a speeding car brake with amazing abruptness. It is indeed a surprise that I haven’t seen one of them roll, tumble or meet with an even more serious accident. One such wannabe-Schumacher showed off his circus skills as he braked at high speed, made a maniacal adjustment to the steering wheel and performed a 180-degree clockwise rotation, before you could blink an eye.
It’s been three days since I read a newspaper here. It was called The Nation, and resembled our Indian Express. Perhaps I arrived at the conclusion after seeing an article by C Raja Mohan in the Nation. But that was the only time I read a paper. Today, we went around the stadium’s vicinity to have a look. Most of the shops were closed as this was the third day of Eid. I might have had a good idea of what Pakistan was thinking about the first Test match had I got hold of a newspaper.
Without a valid pass in a politely cloistered environment for the last few days, going out was not an option on top of the to-do list. So, the Lahore pitch for the first day, to me, carried the same hues as painted by the media in India, a week ago. If I hadn’t heard the Indian journalist’s views a couple of days back, I would have expected it to be green. However, like a good sub-continental management, Pakistan has opted to secure its batsmen even though a green top would suit the team better.
The Indians for their part opted to play their entire class of ’73, which meant the two specialist openers Wasim Jaffer and Gautam Gambhir sat out (and the latter ended up getting his leg pulled by Kamran Akmal in the dressing room). The animated pre-match discussion between Saurav Ganguly, Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid became a highlight, as did the debate over the disappearing seam of the Kookaburra balls. But where did all the grass go from the pitch, if there was any?
In 2004, wasn’t Andy Atkins, the foreigner involved in preparing flat pitches at Multan for the Indian series, criticized for doing so? Surprisingly, this year too, Lahore has a similar pitch. Stranger is the fact that in that 2004 series, the second Test at Lahore was played on a seaming track.
As soon as Rahul Dravid called wrongly at the toss, Inzamam and the curator would have heaved a sigh of relief. Even though Imran Khan called this Test a draw, with sub-continental teams, the fourth innings chase is always a difficult exercise. Flat track, 326/2 on Day 1, no help for spinners (as yet), fourth innings on the final days, Indian batting, no regular opener, no sign of rain in Lahore… it isn’t an auspicious start to the tour, is it?
On a more pleasant note, there was this amusing incident with a friend of ours and the Pakistani people nearby. Ganesh, a man of short-stature, with wavy, coloured hair, is a fun guy to be with, especially on a tour like this. He speaks a smattering of Hindi, much more than any of his other Tamilian colleagues, and has produced innumerable moments of laughter on various tours. For example, at a hockey tournament last year, when a young student doing a survey asked him, “Which part of a hockey game do you like the most?” he replied with deadpan honesty, “The ending”.
In Pakistan, given his resemblance to the Hindi comedian, Johnny Lever, Ganesh is being taken for Lever’s brother. So much so that the others in the group are playing him up as Johnny Kidney. He has thus achieved a Balaji-ish cult following in the neighbourhood with many families inviting him to their house. This adulation reached a height when people surrounded him like they would the actor himself, touched him to make sure he was real and young girls asked for his autograph. Even after explaining them the joke, he hasn’t been let alone. There is a Mehendi-rasm (engagement) of one of his admirers this week, and Johnny has been specially invited.
If it hadn’t been for the warm hosts in Pakistan, a day like this could turn out to be a nightmare. Not everyday does Pakistan get to hammer 670-odd against the old rival, and the Lahoris are going bonkers over this performance. At 8:30 in the evening, people were huddled up before the television, watching the highlights of the match and few of them were lucky enough to find sulking Indians like us close by. While discussing the cold weather, one of our hosts mentioned the light clouds overhead. I asked excitedly, “Is it going to rain?” “Of course not,” they said, getting the drift.The conversation thus shifted inevitably towards cricket. If there is nothing in common between an Indian and a Pakistani, there is always cricket to talk about; and that can keep them engaged for hours. As the chief security in-charge at the NCA, Ziya Dar, kept pulling our legs with glowing eulogies of Shoaib Akhtar’s quality as a match-winner, we did get him to acknowledge the ability of few of our own superstars. “Aapke Dravid aur Sehwag bahut badhiya player hain, yeh Ganguly wanguly Shoaib ke saamne tikenge nahin” he opined. Something didn’t seem complete, so we asked, “Aur Sachin?” “Haan, Sachin ko kaise bhool sakte hain, who toh great player hai.” That made the 670 seem a little better.
Ziya Dar was to give us a crash course in Pakistan and its history. “Lahore gets very hot in the summer,” he said. “Rawalpindi has gorgeous mountains,” “Car drivers here are reckless,” “The cost of living is very less,” and so he went on. Now, thanks to him, I also have a clear idea of where the Pakistani players come from. Kamran Akmal from Lahore, Shahid Afridi from Karachi and the Pathan, Younis Khan from Peshawar, were a few that I wasn’t aware of before.
A common desire among aging, and maybe even the younger, Pakistanis that I have seen is their dream of making that elusive trip to India. Dar, a former army-man, understands the complications that such a visit might entangle him in, but like many other older people here, he enquires about the cost of hotels and local conveyance in India. For now though, he is finding it tough to understand the concept of vegetarianism in India, the “shamelessness” of Indian actresses, the astonishing disparity between north and south India and the variety in its tastes and languages.
I found explaining my food tastes the most difficult of the lot. “Ek baat batao,” he said, “Maine suna aap gosht nahi khaate. Aisa kyon?”
“Hum bhagwan ki pooja karte hain isliye,” we replied, rather clumsily, without a clue as to how to approach the subject. He turned to a non-vegetarian in our group and asked, “Aap kiski pooja karte hain?”
“Hmmm… Bhagwan ki,” he said, still searching each of our faces.
“Toh aap kyon gosht khaate ho aur yeh nahi khaate?”
“Yehpoojariyon ke jaat ke hain,” the friend said, and were relieved to find him satisfied with the answer.
“Achcha, toh aap hamare moulvi ke jaise hain,” he said, and added his customary, “Theek hai,” gravely.
While with him on a tour around the NCA and the Qaddafi cricket ground, we came across two marriages and a magnificent theater arena. The former were going through their shares of songs and dances, and we were just late for the Mehendi-rasm (Since the marriage seemed to be inside the stadium auditorium, the peripheral functions spilled-over to the street). However, it is the art and theater gallery a few paces away from the stadium that looks majestic. Perhaps a historical fort converted into a theater, it is nothing like I have seen anywhere before. The curiosity to watch a play there has overwhelmed my desire to see a Pakistani film in a Pakistani cinema house.
Rashid Younis is a young Pakistani, perhaps in his late teens or early twenties, doing odd jobs at the NCA. “Which actor have you seen in India?” is the first question he starts our introductory conversation with. I try telling him the probability of a guy from Bangalore meeting a superstar from Mumbai. Soon, I realize the hopelessness in telling the truth as it not just disappoints someone like Rashid, but also manages to confuse him and his mates. “Dharmendra,” is what I settle for. “And?” he asks. I think, and say, “Sunny Deol.” The second was partly true as it was only Dharmendra I had seen clearly, a few days back in Chandigarh, while Deol too was part of that shoot. “Haven’t you seen Emran Hashmi?”
I had earlier realized the popularity of Hashmi in Pakistan, and hence, wasn’t surprised. “John Abraham?” he asked and hoped that I’d answer in the affirmative. I tried explaining the problems one faces to get to see a film star. “They all live in Mumbai… They are normally out on shoots… I don’t have the time to line-up outside their homes… etc.” He looked surprised at this nonchalant attitude towards his heroes of Bollywood. “How much would it cost me to visit Bombay,” he asked. He wasn’t the first person to enquire about the financial aspect of an Indian tour.
Nasir Abbas, a man from Karachi, with a technical background, and one who works on digital scoreboards in Pakistan, has been to India before. “M.G. Road,” he says, as proof of his travel to Bangalore. “I just hope to travel to Bombay one day,” he adds. The Karachi-Mumbai ferry will be a perfect mode of transport, Nasir says, and as we watch the third day’s play at Lahore, falls back exasperated as Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid walk off for bad light.
He cannot believe that the light on the ground, with the floodlights on, is not enough to play cricket under. Near the commentary box, Rameez Raja feels the same. “In New Zealand, they played for two and half hours under such light. Here, they came off after five minutes,” he said. It was the only matter of debate that day around the media boxes. I too was disappointed at the adjournment as for the first time in three days, I felt good about the Test with Sehwag reaching 96. Even though, in one way, an early close to the game was welcome as it presented an opportunity to go out and have a look at Lahore,  the “dil of Pakistan”, as Ziya Dar called it yesterday. The last few days have been quite frustrating, both tourism-wise and cricket-wise. Today, the weather spoilt it. It was gloomy all day long, and even started raining in the evening.