The sun has dropped below the horizon, leaving behind a vivid orange and purple sky, only broken by the silhouette of birds circling around the giant flood lights that illuminate the pitch below. The Rawalpindi stadium is jam packed, with far more people than seats, everyone squeezed in to watch this most historic of test matches. The green and white Pakistani flags are momentarily still as the waving stops, and fan’s focus centres around the wicket in the middle.
There is a quiet but unmistakable electric buzz around the ground as the entire English team are crouched down low, leaning forwards, circling round Pakistan’s last remaining batters. After five days of record breaking cricket, there are only 40 minutes left, and all four results are still possible. It is the exact scenario that makes test cricket such an enthralling spectacle, and my girlfriend Claudine even utters those words that only cricket fans really understand:
“Who knew the chance of a draw could be so exciting?”
After 17 tumultuous years in Pakistan, England’s cricket team finally returned, which will hopefully go a long way to encouraging tourists to return too. In the weeks leading up to this first test match of the series, we had travelled north along the famous Karakorum Highway to see the majesty of the mountains. The iconic road must surely be one of the world’s best driving roads, as the newly tarmacked improvements enable the elaborately decorated trucks to cut through the mountains and transport goods to and from China, and enable tourists to follow in their wake to embark on some of the most unspoilt and scenic trekking on the planet.
It is hard to overstate how visible and integral cricket is as part of Pakistani culture. From using the dual carriageways of Islamabad as a wicket, to playing in grounds carved out of the mountains surrounded by jagged peaks, every inch of the country is a potential wicket. Sunset is the hour when everyone comes out to play, and in one park alone, we witnessed approximately 30 games of cricket going on simultaneously, each criss crossing through one another, making it seemingly impossible to follow the correct ball.
After rumours of the first test being moved to avoid political protests following the assassination attempt on former PM (and former World Cup winning cricket captain) Imran Khan, and an illness wiping out the England team in the build up to the game, it did indeed go ahead as planned in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
The joy of watching all five days of a test match is the chance to develop a proper routine, which begins with getting the metrobus from the modern capital Islamabad, to its more chaotic cousin Rawalpindi. The bus journey would inevitably involve introducing myself to several Pakistani cricket fans who want to know how we find their country, who our favourite players are, and inevitably discuss last night’s World Cup football. I am forever grateful that sport enables me to have these insights, albeit very brief insights, meeting local people and getting under the skin of a destination that bit more. The appreciation from these Pakistani fans for the England team visiting was very visible, as many local fans even resorted to supporting England as their favourite players were often Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum.
The area surrounding the Pindi cricket stadium was entirely sealed off. Every business within a 1km radius was shut, all hotels and restaurants lay empty, as police took over this entire section of the city to ensure security was tight and it all went ahead without a hitch.
Breakfast at the metro station near the ground was the same every day; paratha, channa (chickpea curry) and an insanely sweet cup of delicious chai. The chai wallah, and the man making paratha both make elaborate theatre of their work, pouring the chai from great heights through its filter, and flipping and stretching parathas to get that perfect balance of crispiness and squidgyness.
Several bag searches later (seven, to be precise), the ground comes into view as we are diverted through a leafy park, and then through the final layers of security. This included passport checks, and also trying to convince one security I was indeed male, as he insisted I use the female queue. I made a mental note to get a haircut.
The familiar rush of excitement came flooding back as I walked through the walkway, getting a first glimpse of the wicket and the players, just as the ever present Barmy Army begin their daily rendition of Jerusalem on the trumpet.
Normally I would explain that the cricket slowly unravelled in front of us as we dipped in and out of focus on the match, but this England team were doing this differently. A world record 506 runs were scored by England on day one, signaling we would in fact be watching five days of T20 cricket. This was to become the highest scoring five day test match in history, which along with the affordable ticketing (£1 per day), pulled in a bigger crowd with every passing day.
Every lunch and tea break began a new round of conversations, as young men plucked up the courage to come and say hello, or just try and sneak a selfie without asking. We had expected the most common question in Pakistan to be “Are you married?”, but it was in fact “Are you a vee-logger?” (pronounced that way). YouTube is extremely popular here, with many young men stating it as their job, which I still don’t fully understand. After realising we were in fact a lot older than they had expected, and that we had no idea how YouTube worked, I tried and failed to steer the conversation back towards cricket or food.
One selfie would spark 10 more requests, and before we knew it we were inundated and unable to actually see the cricket. The novelty had worn off by day five, and to give the security yet more credit, they noticed our discomfort and came and sat right next to us to ward off any more young men trying their luck. Our very own selfie security guard. How I wish I could have taken him around the country.
Selfies aside, we did meet some incredible people during the five days though, who insisted on force feeding us chips, ice cream, biryani, and Mountain Dew, ensuring the legendary Pakistani hospitality was never in doubt. We met some Pakistani fans painted head to toe in green and gold, school kids explaining why they love Cristiano Ronaldo and hate Messi (that aged well), to a lovely Englishman Pete who shared his favourite blues bars around the world with us. We ended the test match in a Rawalpindi beauty salon, owned by the mother of a young boy we got chatting to who bought us ice cream. We were discussing with his highly educated mother and sister the merits of promoting women's education in the country. Even the mother in her 50s still worked several jobs while studying further. It was a lovely and refreshing end to our stay in Islamabad, where women are otherwise not particularly visible in day to day life.
Like all classic matches, it swung violently in both directions. England dominated the early days, before a brilliant or naïve declaration (depending on your viewpoint) set up Pakistan with a chase they looked strong favourites to achieve with 40 minutes remaining. After five days of enthralling cricket, Pakistan came out after tea on the final day needing 90 runs in the final session, with five wickets remaining.
A blast of four quick wickets after tea ended Pakistan’s charge at victory, as their focus shifted to holding out of the draw without losing their final wicket. As bums shuffled closer and closer to the edge of their seats, and England’s fielders shuffled closer and closer to the Pakistan batters, the timer ticked away to three minutes remaining. It was Jack Leach who eventually spun England to a nervy and classic victory with an LBW, whose sweaty bald head had been used to shine the ball in the days prior.
With seconds remaining, England had clinched the most unlikely of victories, largely thanks to their entire rebrand of test cricket, the ability of the batters to break world records at will, and the resilience and skill of the bowlers to take 20 wickets on such a flat surface. In my wildest dreams, this bucket list trip to watch cricket in Pakistan would never had played out as it did. It was an absolute classic I will never forget, largely thanks to the Pakistani fans as much as the England team.
Pakistan Zindabad! (Long Live Pakistan)