The year was 1998, a different time, a different world. U.S. President Bill Clinton is embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal; The Europeans agreed to keep a single currency – the euro; Titanic became the first movie to gross more than $ 1 billion at the box office and won a record-breaking 11 Oscars; Manchester United footballer David Beckham received a red card in the World Cup match against Argentina which England subsequently lost, and we must not forget that this year the world was first introduced to that funny-sounding search engine Google.
And if you are a cricket fan, you know that the Australian cricket team last visited Pakistan.
After the events of September 11, 2001 and the bombing of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi the following year, where the New Zealand team was stationed, Australia decided that they would no longer feel safe in Pakistan. For the next 20-odd years they have decided to play matches at neutral venues in a wide area from the UAE to England and Sri Lanka.
Pakistan’s various boards made many unsuccessful attempts to start their tour, but the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in March 2009 destroyed the possibility that Pakistan had become a pariah cricket state where no international team was willing to play.
Now, 24 years later, the Australian team is back on Pakistani soil, albeit with presidential-level security, and still in a bio-protected bubble.
I’m not going to describe the complexities of the current tour arrangements – my article is a nostalgic one. As it happens, I was in Karachi the last time Australia played there, and for me it was an experience from start to finish.
Australia have just finished two Tests. In Rawalpindi, where the current series began, the spectators defeated the hosts by an innings and 99 runs. Michael Slater and Steve Waugh scored centuries to collect 513 in Australia. Saeed Anwar’s 145 was not enough to defeat the hosts.
The second Test in Peshawar ended in a draw, although the game saw memorable knocks from Mark Taylor, who scored an unbeaten 334 in the first innings and 92 in the second. Another century by Saeed Anwar was not enough for Pakistan to win, but helped to draw.
Although the final match was in Karachi, my journey started in Lahore. I was on my way to visit relatives on vacation when I got a call from my dear friend Saqlain Mushtaq. Now ironically the head coach of Pakistan, he was dropped from the team after the Rawalpindi Test, where he bowled 41 overs for 2 wickets and scored 112 runs. Saqlain was called up to Karachi, and in the interim was playing for his home team, Pakistan International Airlines, to help regain some form. The opponent was Allied Bank, for which another mutual friend of ours, Mohammad Akram, was playing.
That evening he invited Akram and me to dinner. We both became known as Defense in the prosperous area of Lahore; I rented an autorickshaw outside the Akram Hotel in the Gulberg area of Lahore. After covering half the city in the pre-GPS era, we drivers had no idea where he was going. But we have reached the end. While there and having some nice Pakistani food, Saqlain asked when I was going to Karachi. “Tomorrow,” I replied. “Oh great. Akram and I will accompany you – we have to meet our team before the test. Although don’t go to the airport until we arrive.” “Why not?” I thought to myself.
Once they arrived outside the airport check-in area, an airport official appeared and said we were ready to board. “Board ??? But we haven’t checked in yet.” “Oh, you’ve already checked in, sir, this is your boarding pass. My luggage was loaded with other officers of the Pakistan team who made a short journey of 90 minutes.
Once on the plane, the three of us were traveling in business class; My first time. My Test game travel companions were flooded with autograph hunters – and surprisingly I was also signed, if I could reluctantly add. Fortunately for me, there is a former Pakistani player who shared his name with me. I still feel a bit cheated with those poor kids and I hope that if I had my signature there would be no underestimation of any collectible autograph book in the future.
When it comes to in-flight dining – one would expect some great treats in business class. Not that I’m afraid, but some trivial sandwiches with some cheese you’ll find on a mousetrap, for fear of the players. They warned Steward that they would play Australia in a few days, so they needed as much energy as possible – so we were cordially invited to the galley to eat the crew’s food, so that there was spinach, rice and meat, not forgetting rice. Pudding for dessert. I could certainly get used to this.
Arriving in Karachi my uncle was there to greet me, while the players were on their way to the team hotel. They told us to come and stay with them after that evening, and they left the hotel room open. I politely declined because I didn’t want any of them to get in trouble for having a friend in their room – although it was normal in this era, friends or relatives would be invited to stay with the players as guests.
The next morning after arriving at the National Stadium I met the team where both sides had practice.
This was a first. I saw the Pakistan team train in England, but seeing them in Karachi was an experience. I was fortunate enough to see legends like Inzamam-ul-Haq and Waqar Younis, the former being hit in the toe by one of his fast bowling compatriots and then taken out of the net by two of his teammates. Appreciating the talent on display I saw from a safe distance. What I didn’t expect was a crowd of hundreds of children who were allowed to go to the barricade stand, who had become so violent that coach Javed Miandad fired them all.
I had to leave the metropolis for a few days – to visit my father-in-law’s house in Inner Indus, just like you – so I was going to miss the start of the test. Once back in Karachi, the match was going on, Saqlain invited me to come and see him the next morning and he said he would collect me from the gate. “Just tell them I’m your cousin and they’ll call me at the gate.” Without thinking, I did exactly that, the gate steward told him: “Sorry but everyone is his cousin.” Fortunately, seeing one of the main sponsor’s officers, I politely asked him if he could contact Saqlain, as he was the 12th person. Saqlain came down to her white and still wearing her spike, a group of people walking around her: “Why didn’t you say you were my cousin?” “They think you have more than one cousin here!”
Since I did not have a physical ticket in hand, I had to find a place to sit in the official guest area. At first I was placed in the Karachi Cricket Association department, only to be abruptly expelled for not getting a ticket as soon as Saqlain left. I went down to the Pakistan changing room and called poor old Saqlain, who must have been trying to strangle me. This time he arranged for me to sit down with the media and a few prominent people from Australia. I was plowed by two smiling Australian gentlemen, their fifties twins, both of whom sang some vulgar songs under the direction of Inzamam. Only a few of us are sure to understand the song, including the ambassador sitting next to us.
During a short break I would wander downstairs to make some changes for a meal, when I bumped into Australian legend Alan Border, he was not only kind enough to make me change something, but we discussed a match we saw at Valentine’s Park. Ilford in England 10 years ago, when he was playing for Essex against Sussex team where Imran Khan was. He was fascinated by my recollection of the square cut he played against the future Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Once back upstairs and watching the match, which was getting completely dull, Saqlain gratefully called me to the Pakistan Changing Room. While taking me there, he was again overwhelmed by fans who would describe him as a selfie pre-cursor, this time with an old-fashioned camera. He was always great and very sympathetic to the fans. I was given some food in the changing room and told that I could watch the game from here. Dr. Dan Kisal, the team physio, joined us to watch the game and he was kind enough to see a stupid Achilles that I picked up at a club match earlier that season. While he was doing so, team captain Amir Sohail hurried out for a cigarette break. Luckily for me he didn’t think I was there. For a moment I thought I was going to be out for the third time.
Saqlain kindly invited me for the next day, but I politely declined. I didn’t watch too much cricket that day, and I don’t think I can go through that experience again.
Personally, as a fan and writer, along with millions of other cricket fans, I am very happy that Australia has decided to tour Pakistan again. And now Saqlain, the 12th person for that last Test in Karachi, the head coach of Pakistan and part of this great historical series. The tour is not only great from Pakistan’s point of view, it is also beneficial for world cricket. This time I will not look through the media circle or sit next to two middle-aged Australian brothers, but only from the comfort of my sofa in London, though my heart will be in Rawalpindi with all the other realities. Fans of this beautiful game.
At the time of writing, Shane Warne, one of the greatest cricketers of all time, has passed away. Shane was not on a tour of Pakistan in 1998, but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to watch him play in England as well as in media centers across the country.
Not only did he score a century, I also have no doubt that he is the best player of the century. There will be no one else like him.
RIP Shane Keith Warne.