Cricket in a raw but humbling state

Torrential rain has left most of England awaiting the imminent reconstruction of Noah’s ark and hardly any uninterrupted county or Test cricket has been possible without the aid of scuba equipment.

But I have recently come back from spending two weeks in the southernmost province of Pakistan – Sindh, stronghold of the Bhutto and Zardari clans and centred round Pakistan’s largest city and commercial finance hub, Karachi. Not the safest of places to live at the moment, with sectarian and gangland violence, not to mention the odd terrorist bomb.

I crossed this city to reach the interior of Sindh, heading to a place called Badin. It’s about as large as Hyde Park in London with a population of about 200,000 – congested, no serious infrastructure of any kind, and roads that reminded me of the dust tracks you see in wild west movies. It has quite a rich reserve of oil and gas, so a few western companies have taken up residence here, and people from the northern regions have arrived to make their homes. So for its size it is quite diverse. The area has been badly affected by floods in the past and helped by many international appeals and aid agencies. Its land is not as fertile as the Punjab but still livelihoods depend on it.

Anyway, that geography lesson was not going to be much help for me in working out how I was going to spend two supposedly boring weeks here. I had my wife, two children and a new iPad for company, and the iPad was no use due to a lack of 3G or WiFi coverage.

One thing that is ever present in life in Pakistan be it south or north or on the frontier is cricket. This was to be my saviour from what seemed like eternal lassitide. The game is played on every piece of scrub in every available nook or cranny that can substitute for 22 yards (or thereabouts). I’ve seen it being played in a graveyard whilst attending a funeral. Cricket doesn’t stop for anything.

My first foray into cricket in Pakistan was in 1979 when I was on holiday, playing with my older neighbours who were fanatics and would play every day. I was only 10 at the time and facing bowlers with a hard, red cherry, a tough and painful initiation in the sense that no one had any protective gear, so it was literally a choice of getting bat on ball or dealing with the intense pain. It improved my timing no end.

This time I was invited to play a 20-20 match at the local ground on a 22-yard strip of reinforced concrete. It had been painted green to at least achieve the desired aesthetic effect. Luckily this time I had pads and gloves so decided to demonstrate a bit of bravado and agreed to bat at number five. My innings was to be short lived. I was facing a spin bowler with the grin of a Cheshire cat while thinking this should be a walk in the park. Third ball I was run out. So much for my batting.

I then opened the bowling and was dispatched over the boundary three times, each time for the maximum. This was no stroll on the green by any means. These players were so used to these conditions, but I had to go off for dehydration as it was touching 40 degrees.

The most popular form of cricket in Pakistan, and India, is played with a tape-ball: this consists of a tennis ball wrapped heavily round with insulation tape to alter its weight and dynamics. Maybe not as hard as a cricket ball, but painful none the less if it should hit you.

A few days after the “hard ball” game I was invited to watch a tape-ball game in a village about 20 miles away. Reaching there, I was astounded to see that a crowd of 200 people had come to watch, and there was a commentator with microphone in hand who was to commentate in English with a mixture of Urdu and Sindhi thrown in for good measure.

I decided to stay and watch from the comfort of the air-conditioned car, but unbeknownst to me I had also become the guest of honour from England. It was humbling to have drinks and food bought to the car during the course of the game, with the people showing such hospitality.

Many of these people are from poverty-stricken backgrounds, but the richness in their heart and soul was immeasurable, not to say that their love of cricket was any the less.

One incident during the game stood out. The opposition captain whilst batting decided that he wasn’t out despite clearly edging the ball to the keeper. The umpire did think he was out. Not accepting the decision, the batting captain decided to take his team off and march home. To say the crowd wasn’t happy would be an understatement. They literally dragged him and his team back, only for him to be caught again off the very next ball, much to the amusement of everyone watching.

After the match I was asked to give a short speech. “Why?” I had asked. “Because you’re from England,” was the reply! That was a first. I thanked my hosts, I was then applauded for being from England, and then applauded again for stating that children here shouldn’t follow that captain’s example of not accepting decisions. If the umpire gives it, accept it, be it right or wrong.

This was something I will not forget very easily. A few weeks later I’m sitting here at the Lords media centre, and my mind is cast back to that warm couple of weeks, where I experienced the game in all its wonderful and simplest glory.

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