The second day of the match was a lot easier for us working on the giant screen at the National Stadium. After being shell-shocked by Pathan’s hat-trick in the first over of the first day, today was a quieter day. The crowd though was unexpectedly high for a Test match on a Monday. They cheered every Indian wicket, but when Dhoni walked in, you would have thought this was the Wankhede and not a ground in Karachi as the crowd went – “Dhoni, Dhoni”. He too was perhaps taken aback as he and the rest just crumbled, seven runs short of Pakistan’s first innings total. In just over four sessions, we were into the third innings. One of the groundsmen, who was also our neighbour at the RCA, came up to us regularly, promising that the pitch would play no differently than it had done. A three-day Test was very much on the cards. But once Pakistan came into bat with the sun drying any ounce of moisture on the pitch, the Indian bowling problems surfaced again. As they made easy runs, one just believed that the pitch had changed overnight – in fact, from the time Akmal ran riot in the first innings. Then it became a rather disappointing day for India with Pakistan going ahead by 170-odd runs by the end of day’s play.
The story that made the rounds was the lack of communication between Rahul Dravid and his former captain, Saurav Ganguly. People here saw nothing cordial and questioned Dravid’s repeated consultation with Sachin Tendulkar. “Why is he not talking to Ganguly for ideas?” “Dono aapas mein baat nahi karte,” they said.
If one takes out Bengal, I suspect there are more Ganguly fans here than in India. Everyone who spoke about him called him a great player, and wondered at the audacity of Chappell and Dravid to drop him from the second Test. “You cannot treat a player of his class like that.”
I had read before coming to Pakistan that the media here was making hay over the Ganguly selection. It must have been from this barrage of reporting during that time which must have educated the public here in such way. But that is akin to insulting the intelligence of genuine cricket followers. They were here when India beat Pakistan 2-1 in 2004’s Test series and they seem to remember that. It has to be said that people here have good memory. They also go deep into the nuances of the game. Everyone earlier talked about how the pitch was and why it was a disaster. Now they talked quite passionately about a man they knew little of, and someone who in his own country is not very popular.
The third day of the third Test was very much in keeping with the first two boring Tests. Everyone who came into bat got good runs and just three wickets fell in the entire day. The match referee was keeping himself very busy. Since there weren’t many flashpoints in the game except when Afridi and Kumble had a go at each other, Ranjan Madugalle heaped scorn on the National Stadium. A couple of interruptions because of disturbances in front of the sight screen were among the events that displeased him. The police control room is right opposite one end and occasionally a policeman would open the glass door when the bowler started his run-up. The lights were supposed to be unsatisfactory, even though unlike Lahore, much of the match was played under natural light.
Tariq Road in Karachi is a hotspot for clothes and jewellery. It is an expensive place where one has to buy something just to keep a souvenir of Karachi. But there is hardly anything that looks distinctly Pakistani here. People dress the same way as in India and shops sell the same clothes, footwear and jewellery. There are sandals that look traditional, but even they are visible in India. This is Karachi, a cosmopolitan city keeping in mind the Islamic dictates – at least to some extent. T-shirts and jeans are a way of life, even though the number of girls wearing western clothes is less.
Girls here seem to spend a heavenly amount on their make-up, in a hope to look heavenly of course. Sometimes, you think it is a blonde wearing a salwar, but turns out to be dyed hair. Some wear lipstick in layers which borders on the gaudy, while others are restrained. Some wear burkhas that cover everything but their hands and eyes, while some are a lot more considerate. We are forewarned that our next stop on this tour – Peshawar – is Pathan territory and everyone is well-advised to keep his own counsel.
At Tariq Road, I looked for T-shirts. Most of the shops were highly priced and but for an Adidas or a Nike (whose T-shirts were priced sensationally), there was no branded stuff around. There was a good-looking bookstore where I asked the person in-charge to show me books by Pakistani authors. Well aware of the rampant piracy, I was circumspect about buying any books here. But one look at the shelf convinced me that it was a genuine bookstore with original books. Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man was an original copy, and so was her anthology of writings on Lahore. Bina Shah and Tariq Ali were other writers introduced to me by the shopkeeper. It was a toss-up between the three writers as I wasn’t prepared to buy too many books when unsure of their quality. I was aware of only Sidhwa because Deepa Mehta made 1947-Earth from the Ice Candy Man. Shah’s and Ali’s were new names to me, but I felt that was more so because I had not come across their books in Bangalore. Sidhwa was far more popular, and maybe her books are widely available. But Shah and Ali, I wasn’t sure of, and I just had to get a decent Pakistani book. I settled on Ali’s Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. This was supposedly a historical book which depicted the confrontation between Islamic and Christian civilizations in Spain. One of Shah’s books was in fact a lot more about Pakistan, but somehow, this appealed to me more. Also, Shadows… is the first in the quartet of books that Ali would write on the subject. It was also published by a local publication and not by someone like the Penguins, which meant it was for a very specific market here.
The disappointing part was the lack of cricket books. Sachin Tendulkar’s and Saurav Ganguly’s biographies sat with Javed Miandad’s book. A book by or about Geoffrey Boycott was also around and that was about that.
Dildar, who is now regularly bringing us breakfast and dinner, is more and more fascinated by his old city. He chats with us for quite long hours trying to tell his story, even though it seems he doesn’t want to divulge more depressing part of his life. His food is perhaps the first in Karachi which everyone liked. He makes rasam, sambar, chapatti (the softer Indian ones), poori, upma and even gets the smaller, Indian kind of rice. He overdoes the food part at times by bringing more than what is sufficient.
He says a lot of his customers have told him to get a restaurant of his own. But finance, as for so many, is the problem. Sometimes I feel he isn’t entirely open about his story, but again, it is his story. Still, to hear someone talk about Bangalore, Channapatna and Mysore, here in Karachi, is dumbfounding.
At the dinner table at the RCA, we were joined by two of the PCB officials – Muqaddar and Ali. These were the first people who spoke as if they knew a lot about India, especially Ali, who could talk on length about India’s economic policy, comparing it with Pakistan’s and acutely dissecting it. I must admit, I was taken aback when he started by complaining about growing privatization in India and its unabashed aping of the west. I couldn’t defend the second part, but at least told him about the menace that was corruption in government circles. “That is there,” he said with the nod of the head. His long beard, T-shirt and trousers made him look like a discerning man who would accept only so much of modernity. “If I go to my village with these clothes, I won’t be received that well,” he said. Unlike other Pakistanis we have met, he isn’t embarrassingly friendly to you. He can go on end talking about Pakistan and even the rest of the world and is cordial, but there is no unnecessary “Bhai-yaar” talk from him. It is only later I got to know that this scholarly confidence in his knowledge of the sub-continent comes from his journalist father who had been to India, and who, on that trip, had written a book on the country. Ali himself was a journalist in a leading organization. Later, having quit the post, he joined the PCB, where he even bowled in the nets.
Muqaddar, on the other hand, was shocked by the vulgarity of Indian cinema. I have to tell him, as I had done so many times before to so many other people, that what he sees is what is not, at least not entirely. He also asks about the cities of India, as to which is the most beautiful of them all. Now, it is a tough scale to rate Indian cities on their beauty quotient. But I took a call and said “Chandigarh.”
“Among Delhi, Mumbai and the rest of big cities?” he asked. That was a little tougher. “Bangalore is better than many… well… maybe not anymore… Mumbai… maybe not… Delhi… not sure…” I wasn’t sure.
It was almost a certainty that India won’t last two days on the Karachi pitch, trying to save a match. In the first over that Shoaib Akhtar bowled, he got the only player who had the capacity to go close, Dravid. With two in-cutters, Mohammad Asif rocked the Indians further and when one of his straighter ones kept low, Tendulkar saw his wicket wheel out. All the while, the Karachi crowd was boisterous, and well-prepared for a victory bash. For many, the only consolation was Yuvraj’s century. But there was a period before lunch when Tendulkar played Akhtar in his old carefree spirit. A pull off a fast ball was the highlight and so were two of his stunning drives past either side of the wickets. But it was too good to last for too long, especially when the old prolific self refuses to rise back for Tendulkar. It has indeed been a long time since he played an innings which was made of daring batting. The 55 against Australia in Mumbai was as big an innings as his 155 against Australia at Chennai in 1998. But there haven’t been many more. Surprisingly, the support that Ganguly gets here, Sachin hardly does. He still is the curly-haired baby boy who shocked the fans of Abdul Qadir and co, in 1989. He still is “one of the greats”, as they call him. But he is lower down in the pecking order after Dhoni, Sehwag and Dravid. Ganguly is almost a sentimental favourite with many here. Tendulkar is a figure they need to respect for what he was and not for what he can do.
The pitch in Karachi must have brought relief to the cricket board. After Lahore and Faisalabad, there was no way the two teams could play out another dull draw. The amount of money that goes into staging a tournament of this nature is huge and pressure on the PCB was on from various quarters. Thankfully there was a result, even if India might wonder as to what happened to the pitch when they batted for the second time.
The crowd had a great time at the stadium as our giant screen displayed live pictures throughout the day. The slo-mo camera showed (agonizingly for the batsmen) the gradual movement of the stump going for a walk.
Tomorrow, in all probability, we will begin our long drive to Peshawar. 28-30 hours is what it might take. It is a small city, where “Pathans can be a bit cold to foreigners,” said Ali. “But they are peace-loving people,” he added as consolation.
Like the Indian team, I am also looking forward to Peshawar. From every quarter of news that has come my way, it seems, at last, like something foreign for an Indian in Pakistan. Nobody is though sure of the time it might take to reach there from Karachi. They just gape at you when told about traveling by road. It is slightly scary given the fear of dacoits in a few of the highways.
Pakistan is divided into four provinces – Punjab, Sindh, North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan. Of the three Test venues, Lahore and Faisalabad are in Punjab, while Karachi is in Sindh. Rawalpindi and Multan too are in Punjab, which is the most prosperous of the provinces thanks to its agriculture and relatively modern outlook of people. Sindh is full of dry areas and is a hotspot for robbery. But Karachi being a port city, the province is second in the list. NWFP is the land of Pathans and much of it is covered by migrant Afghans who have made Pakistan their home over the years. Peshawar is the biggest town in this province. Close to the Afghan border, it is also one of the most sensitive ones. It may be recalled that during the last tour of India, Peshawar, along with Karachi, were discussed a lot to make sure they were safe venues. After that success and the spotless Karachi match this year, Peshawar too promises an uncontroversial game. The final province, Balochistan, is the biggest in terms of area covered. Quetta is one city to have hosted a cricket match from the Balochistan area. Now though, there has been tension in the region.
While Lahore resembles Delhi and quite a lot of Punjab resembles north India, Karachi and much of Sindh look very similar to western India, especially Gujarat. Peshawar, from what I have heard from various people, looks entirely different. The principle language here is Pashto, while Urdu too is spoken widely. Pathans are strong and combative, but generally peace-loving, I am told. They are extremely protective of their women who are covered from head-to-toe in cloth. Foreigners generally do not warm them, and they are sticklers for custom and orthodoxy. Since the match is going to be held during the Moharram days, we have been advised not to play music of any kind in the stadium before, during or after the match. This is also the reason why Peshawar’s hosting the game was in doubt and eventually, a four-day gap was decided on between the first and second One-Dayer.
One of the groundsmen in the National Stadium, Karachi, comes from the Peshawar-Rawalpindi area. As he talks about the nature of the journey that might be, he mentions the destruction caused by the earthquake in areas adjoining the hills. His house too was destroyed in the disaster. This is supposedly a reason why dry fruits from those places have failed this year.
Like many in the PCB, he too is impressed by our work and suggests we cross Sindh under sunlight as the stretch near Mirpur and its surrounding areas is infested by dacoits. “Policemen might stop you on the way as they normally make videos of passengers traveling by road in the night. It helps in future investigation if something happens during the journey,” he says. “Once when I was traveling by bus, seven of the forty-eight passengers stood up and took out their guns. You never know what can happen there,” he added. This was something which didn’t surprise us. Even during the Lahore-Karachi journey, our mini-bus driver, Ehsaan, had advised an overnight stay as we had approached Sindh. Here too, he suggested we leave early, maximum by about three in the afternoon, as to cross Sindh, it would take close to ten hours. He also said it should take around 24 hours to reach Peshawar from Karachi, “Insha Allah.”
In the afternoon, as we waited for everyone to finish their packing-up chores, it became clear that our start would be a lot later than what was hoped. “It might be around six in the evening,” Ganesh had said. This indeed was a difficult situation. We had to reach Peshawar by noon, on the fourth. But starting so late meant that we would need a night to while away, just to be away from any risk. That would mean around three-four hours of travel today. Why not take the day off, and leave early in the morning, Irfan, the online ticket sales man had wondered. This seemed to be the best idea of the lot. From Ehsaan’s admission, if he could drive non-stop, we’d reach Peshawar by four in the morning on the fourth. In fact, if his calculation was right, we might as well rest for a couple of hours during the journey and still reach in time. It was also much better in the RCA than in a run-down hotel on the highway. So, it was decided that we would start at four in the morning tomorrow.
Meanwhile, we had asked Dildar to pack food for the journey. He had run around the city like a madman in order to make Lemon Rice and Curd Rice. When he arrived huffing and puffing to give us the food, he was surprised to find us in no hurry. It must not have been entirely disappointing to see that his effort was in vain as he sat down to chat for a few hours. During the conversation, he appeared to tell the entire truth. He had earlier said that his uncle had adopted him. Now, he told me that his story was a little more filmy. He had fallen in love with his uncle’s daughter, who was a Pakistani, and against his mother’s wishes, had come to Pakistan. His mother, a strong-willed woman, had denounced him since then; so much so that till now, she doesn’t write or talk to him. His father though is a very soft man, “henpecked,” he says. All this drama has put him in such a state that he wants to return, but cannot, given his obligation to his wife and children.
“Why don’t you just visit India once and come back?” I had asked.
“See. I have met you guys in the last week. And I find it hard to go out and not speak Kannada. If I go to India and meet my friends and family, I am sure I won’t be coming back,” he said. “But it will be very difficult for my wife and children to get a hassle-free stay there.”
We are just twenty minutes late to our planned departure time. Everyone in the Academy, including the ticket distributors have left for Peshawar. We leave the RCA deserted, but for a PCB employee who stayed back only to shut the door after we left. This time, the journey starts off uncomfortably. The Coaster, our mini-bus, is overloaded with luggage. Even the roof is packed to capacity. There is just enough space now for seven of us to sit tight, for a journey needing to cover around 1500 kms.
Ehsaan warns us we might have a problem with the vehicle somewhere in the highway given the enormous load it is taking. But even the luggage has to travel and that too, in the given time. Everything is set and the Coaster weaves and wobbles on the dirt tracks of the RCA and hits the deserted roads of Karachi rather smoothly. The clock below the mirror in front of the driver shows the time as 4:19. I tried to make myself as comfortable as I could but not many mini-buses are made for long legs.
Peshawar is to the west of Lahore and Rawalpindi. There is the G.T. Road in Peshawar which was a subject of an interesting discussion that Ali had started a couple of days back. When I asked him to suggest a good book that can tell me about Pakistan, its history and people, he had instead taken it upon himself to tell me the story. “70% of Pakistanis are refugees from the carnage of Partition, while the rest are migrant tribes from Afghanistan. It is perhaps the only country which doesn’t have people of its own,” he had said. As he went on about the country and its people, he mentioned the G.T. Road. This was the road which originally connected Calcutta to Kabul, he said. It was indeed a fascinating detail which when thought of in today’s times, puts politics in proper perspective. There was a mutual affinity among Afghans and Indians in the past, but thanks to various turns of events and simple politics, it is hard to imagine the two criss-crossing borders. Peshawar was as close as I could get to Afghanistan and G.T. of course stood for Grand Trunk.
We would not take the long route the trains took from Karachi. They went straight to Lahore and from there, via Pindi, reached Peshawar. If one went by road taking this route, it would take longer than what Ehsaan had in mind. He felt going the Sukkur, Kashmore Gate, Rajanpur, D.I. Khan route was the best drive possible. All we wanted was to reach Peshawar as early as possible and it was to be the route we decided to take.
It was a mundane journey till Kashmore gate. There was occasional traffic and no policeman had stopped us. It was at Kashmore gate that we were stopped for the first time. Now that Ehsaan had a card, he spoke in Urdu and showed it to the police. Everybody respected someone related so closely to cricket, it seemed. Some of the cops offered us tea, while some pleaded for tickets. Nobody harassed us.
The landscape hardly interested me anymore as it was the same muddy houses-parched lands of Sindh that I had seen in the earlier travel. Now, added to this was the weather. It was scorching hot. As the afternoon went by, Sindh began to fade as Punjab took over. And as if by coincidence, the green fields returned. The heat stayed though. Somewhere, a milestone read, “Quetta, 380 kms”. Balochistan would be the only province where I wouldn’t be traveling to. What made it an even more enigmatic province was the decoration on the trucks from that place. As the evening wore on and the sun set, the trucks were still visible. The artwork was with fluorescent material, and the owners had made sure that their expenditure would not go waste at dark. The aerodynamics would put any formula one engineer to test. The front part of many trucks has a raised hood which can at times be used for extra passengers. Some of the vehicles are hardly visible from the back thanks to the huge weight on them. Onions, buffaloes and cotton are few of the frequent travelers.
With its proximity to Afghanistan, NWFP carries with it its stock of rumours. But more immediately for us, it was the difference in the kind of people that we were to meet which was intriguing. Peshawar was always a dicey venue for cricket matches for some reason. The image one gathered was that it was not safe for tourists; the Afghan connection only reinforcing the belief. As you enter the province though, you find the same hospitality that you met in Punjab and Sindh. People look a touch different, but not too much out of sync with the rest of the country. The first important sounding place we enter in NWFP is Dera Ghazi Khan. This was named after a leader of a Kabila in the times of the tribes. A few scores of miles later, you get into a place named after his brother, Dera Ismail Khan. Number plates on vehicles originating from these places say, D.G. Khan or D.I. Khan. Nothing much happened here, but the names are worth remembering.
We reached within striking distance of Peshawar by midnight. Taking a break of around three hours at a petrol bunk proved a good idea. For all the traveling that you make on some of the most improbably difficult stretches on this route, a good view of Kohat, some 50 kms from Peshawar, is well-deserved. It is the quintessential sleepy-little town (at least at 6 in the morning) amongst the majesty of large, commanding mountains. To take you to Peshawar from these exotic surroundings, a top-class tunnel has been built in this area. Resembling the tunnels of Mumbai-Pune expressway, it is the pride of this place. “Aisa tunnel aapne nahi dekha hoga,” you are told. “No, there are many such beautiful ones in India,” you say. “Achcha. Aisa nahi hoga lekin,” they come back.
At last, we enter Peshawar by 7:30 in the morning. It is school time in this conservative city. Everyone’s looking at our mini-bus; old Pathans, burkha-covered ladies, young men, plump kids. By the time we make it to the hotel, Peshawar has looked a lot different than Lahore or Karachi. It has also sounded a lot different. Pushto is the major language here and every starts off in it. “Urdu, Urdu,” Ehsaan urges them. They immediately talk with a heavy Afghani accent while directing us. Feroz Khan comes to mind. Suddenly you realize there is a distinct look to the Peshawar people. Now it becomes obvious to imagine Umar Gul and Younis Khan as players from this place (Yasir Hameed doesn’t seem to have such features though).
As we reach the hotel, from inferred history and doctrined current-affairs, we are extremely cautious. It becomes more uncomfortable when the hotel authorities ask for our passports. But we soon get it back which is a relief. However, being the Moharram month, we contemplate, for the first time, the appropriate dress to wear. “Jeans might not be proper,” is one of the verdicts, “No ogling at girls,” is a widely accepted mantra. No loud music, no unnecessary camera-work, no arguments with locals; no this, no that; the enigma that is Peshawar has indeed begun to change us.
In the evening, we decide the long stay indoors is getting too claustrophobic despite the uncertainty of night-life in the city outside. We venture out to the right of the hotel and find what we expected. Long-bearded guards with automatic rifles and empty streets. 0-15. There is hardly any sign of women on these streets. A few old men walk silently and just a few vehicles seem ready to use the roads. We decided to beat a quick retreat. 0-30. This does look ominous; no wonder there is a safety issue here. As we make our way back, the area on the left of our hotel looked more populous. 15-30. Here, there were shops, lights and people. There were also a few women with their faces uncovered. This only put us in a dilemma. You weren’t advised to stare but you couldn’t help staring. These are some of the most beautiful faces you’d see. 30-30. There was a mosque nearby with tall, stern men looking really serious. This put us off a bit more. 30-40. We marched on a few paces and found a few CD shops. We marched on a little and found a couple of men wearing jeans. 40-40. We marched on a little and found young couples, walking laughing, and joking. Advantage. We marched on a little and found a shop with a glass window, having a huge cut-out of a red-coloured heart, wishing us, “Happy Valentine’s Day”. Game, Set and Match. Hell, safety issue in Peshawar? It is a land of the conservatives; of Muslim orthodoxy; of intolerance; of illiteracy; of violent tribals, etc. Well, we were in Peshawar, and it looked like Brigade Road on a Sunday.
This was a welcome dose of confidence. From then on, much of Pakistan has looked familiar. Further down the street, we found a book and CD shop which was selling a Viv Richards autobiography. There was also a very run-down copy of Shahid Afridi’s 37-ball hundred in Nairobi. This was an innings which is strangely absent from TV screens. I only remember this from a next-day newspaper. Afridi, a 16-year old, had made this world record against Jaysuriya’s Sri Lanka. Never have I been able to believe that Afridi’s reported age is accurate. As a corroboration of that idea, the graphic introducing him to the crease on that day shows him to be a 21-year-old!
Peshawar is the only place so far which has provided me with easy access to newspapers. So what if they are priced exorbitantly. The cheapest English newspaper here is the Frontier Post. With strange news and even stranger English, it is an amusing compilation. These days a few cartoons in a Danish newspaper are being protested against and this city is in the forefront of the agitation. There are stories on tribal leaders not feeling comfortable with each other and also of a wanted man in these areas called Akbar Bugti. Somewhere in the sports page of one newspaper, there is an article, apparently taken from Cricinfo, which quotes Rahul Dravid as wanting to find a bowler who could take 20 wickets in Test matches! The amazing part of this piece of reporting is that other newspapers too carried the news, saying the same thing. Either Dravid missed an “s” after “bowler”, or the Pakistani media did.
Peshawar’s Arbab Niaz Stadium is a small ground when compared to the Gaddafis and the National Stadiums of Pakistan. Starved of international action for some time, this stadium is expected to be full for the first ODI between the hosts and India. The players had been to the Khyber Pass area. They had been kept largely inaccessible to the local tribes there. One report spoke about the disappointed locals who feared they were bound to be misunderstood as uncivilized goons thanks to the behaviour of security-men.
Around the hotel, we have been warned of the dangers lurking nearby. A few kilometers from here would lead us to a place where strangers are shot without warning, we are told. Some parts of the city are notorious for robberies. But there is not much time for us to go around looking for trouble what with tomorrow’s match promising to be an interesting one.