, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The stadium was full in no time. After a few more minutes, it looked more crowded. The reason was not hard to find. Peshawar’s bigger infamy comes from its unruly fans who made it a point to be at the ground, with or without a valid ticket. For a stadium with a capacity of not more than 15000, the gathering today looked so much more than that. The menace of ticketless entrants became so acute that valid ticketholders had to be turned away. Toofan-e-badtameez is how the aggressive crowd of Peshawar was described. “Pakistan Zindabad,” they would shout, and then barge in past hapless policemen at the gates. Every time this happened, Arbab Niaz threatened to split at its seams. The match though was played under an overcast sky; something completely against the trend in the last couple of days with Peshawar’s weather. This would have been a day I wouldn’t have wanted to forget quickly. It had been a desire to watch a century by Sachin Tendulkar, live in a stadium. He had come close twice. Once in Bangalore, he got stumped on a rainy day against England for 90. At Nagpur, last year, he was out for 93. Here, he got to a hundred. But I hardly remember a shot he played. Just before the match was to start, one of our softwares conked and by the time I could set it to work, 14 overs had passed by. In the next few overs though, I did catch a glimpse of Tendulkar’s innings, but I remember nothing much. To add salt to the wounds, his hundred wasn’t quite enough.  Quite a lot of Kashmiris have made their homes in Peshawar, thanks to the proximity of the two regions. One of the employees at the hotel here is from Muzaffarabad. Another has his roots in India where his father was a national champion in tennis in the 40s and many of whose family members are squash players. The only reason he himself didn’t take up sport was because his father left him and his mother long time ago and got married in the United Kingdom. Peshawar also is home to many Sikhs. In fact, many a Sikh pilgrim wishes to visit this part of Pakistan as it houses holy places.


We left Peshawar for what was going to be the shortest of our journeys. It also meant we would be moving out of NWFP and go back into Punjab; this time, very close to the den of the government machinery, Rawalpindi. Islamabad itself doesn’t have an international cricket stadium. However, its twin city, Pindi, has one. This is the place where India won its first Test series against Pakistan in 2004. Dravid had scored 270 on this venue while Tendulkar’s 141 went in vain in a One-Dayer. Now, it would host a match where the Indian team wished to get off the mark on the tour. Islamabad and Rawalpindi are separated only by a milestone called the Zero Point. The two, especially the Pakistan capital city, is extremely clean. The long, deserted, clean roads confirm the strategic importance of the city. The rumour doing the rounds is about the impending visit of the Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf. This is also a reason for the extra security around, and inside, the stadium. We are to be given another pass to go with the existing one. At least now, four days before the match, the Pindi Cricket Ground has not yet become the fortress it promises to be. The circumference of the ground is occupied by the Food Street. From dhaba-like establishments to good-looking restaurants, it has a concoction of many food tastes. The ground itself is a good-looking one, like every other Pakistani stadium. This is one of the grounds not in the PCB’s control, yet it is maintained impeccably. Pindi is also quite cold. Also close to this place is Kashmir, about 120 kms away. There is also a hill station, a la Ooty, called Murree, some 50 kms from here. With this game having more time than any other in the series, we have but this one chance to go out to have a look at the tourist interests in Pakistan. Murree is the likely destination. From Peshawar, a former Army-man, Colonel Sayeed, accompanied us. He has been in-charge of logistics concerning our project and this is the first time we have had time to speak to him in detail. The first thing we do in the conversations is to get a promise from him that he’ll take us to Murree. An amicable and straightforward man, he agrees to the proposal, provided the work given to him and us is finished in time. On the road to Pindi, he helps us with his vast knowledge of this land. We find a fort where Nawaz Sharif was held captive and so were a few other high-profile dignitaries. Few miles further down was the road built by Sher Shah Suri. There was a graveyard atop a hill and a few more exotic trucks on the road.


In Peshawar, we had met a photographer from the Mumbai-based Mid-day group of afternoon newspaper. K.K. had come to us looking for a solution to his problem with the GPRS system in Pakistan. We couldn’t solve it but that meeting was enough to strike up a conversation with him on various subjects. Since he too was from Karnataka and spoke in Kannada, we got on well with him. He covered both sports and calamities; a strange combination one might say. Thanks to his experience in going after disasters like the earthquakes in Latur and Gujarat, he advised us to keep our passports with us all the time. In Rawalpindi, we saw him again, this time in the ground, with his heavy telephoto lens hung over his shoulder. We soon got to know that he had been to Murree already. In fact, we had gone in search of people who could join us to Murree. Having found Nasir Abbas (whom we persuaded to an irritating extent), we went browsing for more travelers. Suresh had been very keen to go and shoot around in Pakistan. In a newspaper article, I had read about the Indian team’s possible visit to Taxila (known to us as Takshashila from those history books of school days). I just mentioned it to Suresh. He soon caught on to the idea and within five minutes we were on the way on a hired taxi. Taxila is a seldom-visited place. Hardly a tourist comes here. The tales of Buddha and stories from the past do not interest many people. We were greeted by an adamant ticket seller at the gates of the Dharmarajika Stupa. Foreigners were to pay Rs. 200, while it was Rs. 10 for locals. It was the mistake that we made in letting him know our nationality. He wouldn’t let us in for less than 200. Even though it seemed strange to go into a monument in Taxila as foreigners, we were ready to pay the money when Nasir walked in with his local bargaining skills. He simply refused to pay that much and reasoned that for an old ruin like that why would anyone shell out any money. That seemed to make sense to the ticket collector. After a lot of ranting, haggling and a bit of disappointing defamation of the place, we were let in for a combined fee of Rs. 40. A well-built, middle-aged man met us at the gate. He called himself the security guard of the place and took it upon himself to guide us through the tour. “I was watching you haggling with that guy. I kept shouting at him to let you in. After all, you are our guests,” he said. I had sensed his presence at the gates, but don’t remember him telling the ticket collector to let us in. Anyway, he became our official guide, since we felt we required one. I heard hardly a word of what he said as I was busy putting to use my new Minolta SLR I had bought a week before coming to Pakistan. I had spent just two rolls through that camera and was itching to click a few photographs. This was a perfect occasion. When else, I thought, would I come to a place like Takshashila. Within ten minutes, I had spent a 100 ASA roll. I took out a 200 ASA one and started clicking frantically. Just then I realized I was overdoing it as Suresh, with his DSLR was also clicking like a madman. Him being a professional, I let him take as many as he wanted and made a deal with him to give us the photographs on a CD. There were a few more ruins around the town which we set off to see. Here too, there was a security guard who became our guide and showed us through a stretch of broken Buddha statues. Some were reinforced by the archaeological department and some original sculptures had been sent to the museum in Taxila (this was closed on that day). Most of these statues were destroyed by the marauding Huns in 3rd century AD. Taxila’s university is supposedly the oldest in the world. Now, the odd structure of stone is a mere approximation of what might have been. The archaeological department has reinforced some parts of it, but it is true that the education system hasn’t changed much from those days; it only must have gone a lot dishonest.

On our way out of the university, we saw a street full of orange vendors. They were selling by bags full and it was easy to see why. Right behind their stalls were orange orchards, trees ripe with the freshest fruits. These oranges aren’t as easy to peel as the normal ones. In fact, here in Pakistan, these fruits are cut open. There is also the conventional orange that is available here, but the type which we later bought for Rs. 200 per 100 fruits, were hard to peel, like our mosambis. As our taxi made its way out of this historical town, we came across huge fields with scores of young men playing cricket. Other than that, one could take this for an ancient town. In about an hour’s time, we had reached Pindi Cricket Ground. It was about five in the evening and as we reached the gates, I saw the coaster with its engine on. Everyone else who had got themselves free from work some time ago was now preparing to go to Murree. Though barely eating anything solid as food all day, we joined them on the road. I wanted to see ice for the first time in my life.

Suresh, who had been there yesterday, had told us about the presence of ice in Murree. He had also warned as to expect little from the place which had been ridden by devastating commercialisation over the years. The innumerable days of inactivity in Pakistan had dulled me and this was a golden opportunity nonetheless. Much of the road to Murree reminds you of India’s ghat sections. Colonel Sayeed, who was keeping his promise by accompanying us, kept his stories coming in succession. Nasir too had joined us straight after coming from Taxila. We seemed to be right on time to see the sunset from a height of over 6000ft. But when you think you have gone a little closer to nature and all that stuff, industrialization reminds you that its there, forever for you. Halfway up the mountains, traffic had stopped itself for some reason. Cars and buses didn’t go out of first gear and Nasir even got down from our vehicle to buy some vegetable pakodas and boarded the coaster in time with a bit of jogging. Sun set, frustratingly, over a valley of small houses and when we reached Murree, it was dark. There was a hint of ice somewhere as it was covered with mud. A little higher up, at the Mall road, young people seemed to enjoy their time at the hill-station. It must have been a psychological thing as there wasn’t much to enjoy at this place which looked like any other small town. We reached the end of our walk at the old GPO building and the Colonel took us to a place which he said would provide us with some vegetarian food.

Something just wasn’t right about this place though for vegetarians. About 20 hens had just been killed, roasted and hung outside as advertisement. This was no place for me, and I had to make do with potato and roti. We walked out of that place and stopped for coffee. The Colonel and Nasir got into a discussion when they saw a young girl and an old man walking together. “Do you see something strange there?” Nasir asked the Colonel. He thought over and said, “Yes. They seem to be newly married,” he said. The couple then walked into a clothes shop and we took the opposite route still wondering if the Colonel was right. Murree was the closest we could get to Kashmir. It had its share of ice, only that one didn’t feel like taking a handful.


We have been lucky on this tour for having resided close to the ground, in all the venues except Peshawar. Pindi was no different as we had been accommodated in a hotel next to the stadium. There was a permanent fun fair on the other side of the ground, while opposite our hotel was a shopping complex. The Faisal Mosque in Islamabad is one of the famous monuments in the country. A few of our guys had been there in the morning and if one of our computers hadn’t conked, we might have visited a few other places us well. Food at the hotel was not bad as at least the mixed vegetable was available round the clock. In one of the hotels inside the stadium, we found  Sarson ka saag and makai ki roti. After years of hearing about this in Hindi films, this was the first time I had tasted it. For this too we had only Nasir to thank as he waded past a devastation of animal insides hung outside eateries to this hotel at the end of the food street. Like anywhere else close to a cricket stadium, he found a friend here too. This time it was a groundsman from Pakistan, now working at the Lord’s, Ashraf. Initially he seemed shy of talking to us but when Nasir introduced us as Indians, he caught on well. However, the conversation never quite touched cricket as Ashraf was happy to talk about Punjab and Indo-Pak relations.


Much of today was spent in repairing a conked computer. This is perhaps the worst case scenario with computers when they crash a day before the match. Yet again, one of Nasir’s friends comes to our help. He is the chief IT maintenance guy working for the PCB. But when one of our systems goes out of work, it goes with a bang. This was irreparable and a backup computer had to be summoned from Karachi, which sadly, would reach us in time for the Lahore ODI. So, as a temporary arrangement, I’ll have to use my DV camera for the purpose. There are new rumours surrounding Shoaib Akhtar’s absence from the ODI series. He might not play in any of the five matches. Some feel it is because of Greg Chappell’s comments on his action that the ICC has held him back from competing in international cricket while others in Pakistan attribute it to his irreconciliable differences with his captain, Inzamam. There are only very few people who bet it’s got something to do with a genuine injury.

This series has been very disappointing so far in terms of India’s performance. No victories so far and Pindi looks like another flat, “good” ODI pitch which means the result is as much a question of who bats better. It is also surprising that Sami isn’t in the Pakistan team while Umar Gul and Rana Naved are being preferred. Well, there is the official word which says he is injured, but you never know with Pakistan cricket what the word injury really means.


At last, a victory! There was a good chance that India went without anything to show for in the series. But with the rub of the green going his way, Dravid made sure he took advantage of the initial bowling conditions. This match must have been very disappointing for the crowd, especially the slightly rowdy kind amidst which we had to sit through the match. Right from the beginning, Pakistan had been grounded. Irfan Pathan took wickets for starters and despite Shoaib Malik’s successive good score, the 265 they posted was not good enough for the hosts. Like in Peshawar, quite a lot of payers had been duped with fake tickets. But there are a few die-hard fans whom nothing can stop. One such fellow, Ruhullah, from Swat (a beautiful valley that side of Peshawar) had been fooled with a “jaali” ticket. But the resolve which had brought him to Pindi from Swat came useful at the gates as he rushed in despite the police stopping him. He now had a story to tell the world, but by the end of the match he was crestfallen as Pakistan lost. The disappointment was made up for a little as he got himself employed with our people there. Pathan was given the Man of the Match award. Sehwag came good and Tendulkar continued his good run as Dravid and Yuvraj finished with good scores. It was the best possible batting performance under the circumstances as the top players got a go and made some runs. The plan for Lahore is all cut out. There is no time to lose as the Lahore match is only two days away and even though it is a day-night match, the difference between a day and a day-night match here is all of one and a half hours. We might have to leave late in the night on the five hour trip on perhaps the best road of Pakistan.


Somehow, we contrive to leave only at ten in the morning. I do buy two newspapers Dawn and the News to keep busy on the road as the DV camera seems to have a problem with its recording. The road from Pindi to Lahore is a motorway and is one of the best in the country. It isn’t hard to see why Pakistan is proud of this road. It is well-planned and like the Pune-Mumbai expressway, has all the facilities one can ask of a highway. In five hours, we reached Lahore. We went straight to the ground which looked magnificent under the lights. The Omar Kureishi Media Box looked over the pavilion as dew fell on the grass. Advertisers, match officials and pressmen went about their work with mechanical regularity.

At the NCA, some things had changed. There were no caterers as a month back. It was generally more deserted than what we had known it to be. Not many recognized us on our return and to be honest, it was slightly awkward to be there. In fact, much of Lahore looked a little strange after touring places like Karachi and Rawalpindi. Thankfully, some of the regular NCA workers, like Zia Dar, recognized us and in the night there was to be a TV program with Rameez Raja and Arun Lal at the campus. This was a program for an Indian channel and the audience comprised of two sets of people – Indians on one side and Pakistanis on the other. One of the people at the NCA offered to help me get a seat in the audience chair. But somehow it didn’t appeal to me. If his earlier claim that Tendulkar and Dravid were to be on that show was true, I would surely have made a go for it. In the night, we had been to the nearby shopping center. Quite a lot of shops had closed for the day. But one selling gift items and books was still open. The rush for Valentine’s Day cards was on a high. The book section too was well-kept. I bought a book called God’s Own Land (Khuda ki Basti translated into English). The cover had a strange resemblance to Pather Panchali. This was the aspect that made me buy this over a few other good deals.