It has been almost 10 years since international cricket was last played on Pakistani soil. Yes, I'm aware that Zimbabwe popped over in 2015, but that doesn't really count.
The big boys just won't go there to play.
India won't because of politics. The rest of the world won't due to security fears.
But despite this, Pakistan in the last 12 months rose to number 1 in the Test rankings and won the ICC Champions Trophy.
But many of us Westerers have no idea what makes Pakistan cricket tick. Why is it so contageous. Why the only team that can beat Pakistan is Pakistan itself.
So, without the tick of approval from my wife, I'm off to the land of the Green Shirts to document what it is that draws me to love this cricketing culture and people so much.
Pakistan is that crazy girlfriend that you had back at University. It is uncontrollable. You cannot read her mind. Yet, she is captivating and alluring. She provides you with every possible emotion in spades. Even when you don’t pursue it. And when you finally break up with her and perhaps choose a safer path, she continues to hold a special place in your heart. Pakistan. Land of the pure. Home of the resilient. A place of wonder. Deliverer of dreams. An incredible puzzle that is probably unsolveable. But trying to has been so much fun. Thank you Pakistan. All of you. Every little last inch. The biryani was delicious, but not as good as the mixed tea.
As we approach Islamabad, or “Isloo” as the locals know it by, the landscape changes. The clinical flatness of Punjab is ending and the Himalayas are beginning to rear their beautiful head.
We are here to meet Imran Khan.
Cricket legend. Politician. Builder of cancer treatment hospitals. Potentially the country’s next Prime Minister if elections go his way. Arguably one of the most important and influential people in Pakistan.
One of Najam's senior guys tells us there is good and bad news. The bad news is that Najam is under the weather and won't be able to meet today. The good news is that he has invited us to his place in two days’ time. The bad news is that we plan to be in another city at that time, interviewing somebody else. The good news is that we can split our camera crews up and do both. The bad news is that there's still a chance neither interview will happen.
Before we leave, I interview Anam Nadeem. A young woman who at age 17 was told by her parents to stop playing cricket despite being told she would be selected to play for Pakistan. “You need to finish your studies. You need to get married. Which boy will have you if you behave like this?” It is a common theme that I’m hearing. But Anam, like so many other women I’ve met in Pakistan are now comfortable standing up to some of these norms. They are building new roads that are leading to thrilling destinations for those women that will follow.
I'm back to the Cricingif office to play a game of cricket. Not just any game mind you. This was virtual cricket. The team here have written the software to make this happen. I’ve posted a video of it on my Facebook page. Suffice to say you really get immersed in it. I can’t wait until it is released on the Xbox.
It just goes to demonstrate the calibre of breadth of skills over here. To be honest, Pakistan has proven to be no different to many other counties, including Australia. The big cities are modern and behave as big cities should. They have fast internet. Chain restaurants. Public transport. ATM’s. Events. Billboards. All the normal stuff.
When we arrived, Misbah’s team was fielding. He was at mid off. Yasir Shah at point. Adnan Akmal and Abdul Razzaq were sitting in the players stand. A small rope is all that divides them, myself and about 100 cricket nerds.
It’s at least 35 degrees outside. School kids have popped in to watch their heroes during their lunch break. Full uniforms including ties. A stupid hangover from colonialism. Ties should be banned worldwide. It is essentially just a piece of coloured silk tightly wrapped around your neck for no practical purpose other than fashion.
The sound of the bat on ball at a relatively quiet cricket ground is something else. Hard to explain to non cricket fans, but it sends warmth and comfort through your body.
The sightscreen at one end is an old manual thing on wheels. It takes three sleepy groundsmen to move it. At the other end, a concrete wall has been whitewashed. However, over the years it has found itself worn down and slightly dirty. It’s not the best but that’s how things work here.
I watched a bit of the game while we wait for Qasim to organise an interview. The opener leaves a straight ball and loses his off stump. It appears bad leaves are a global phenomena and not just for Virat Kohli and Glenn Maxwell.
When he (Adnan) saw this gora in his bogan canary yellow “Australia” T-shirt, he vocally ushered me through the crowd. Where you from? You want a picture? Oh, you have a film crew with you? Want an interview? What channel is this for? Meet me after the game. We can talk.
Now, let’s take a selfie.”
I’ve never met an Akmal before. There are seven brothers, but three of them are international cricketers. However, this response from Adnan was true to the stereotype I had created about him in my mind.
If you aren’t a rock star, just act like one anyone.
“Believing in Allah takes all fear away from you”. The whole time we speak, Misbah is composed and thoughtful. His most playful reply was when recalling the time he hit the world record fastest Test 50 and 100 against Australia. I asked nicely if you would indulge me in a push up challenge. He never directly said no, but the crew politely shot it down. I discovered later that Misbah wasn’t comfortable doing it in the clothing he was in. He asked us to come to the ground he is playing at later in the week and we could do it then. He also said he can probably do 30 now, but when playing for the national side, he was up to 70. I reckon this will be a neck and neck race if we can make it happen. 30 is about my limit too.
One of my early perceptions is beginning to change. As discussed in an earlier piece, my early dealings with sponsors and corporates while I was based in Australia was primarily with women. They were the Heads of Marketing or the Sponsorship Managers and the like. I had also spoken with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a two time Academy Award winning documentary maker based in Karachi, and her younger sister Hadeel Obaid, who was having a great time in cricket journalism. Benazir Bhutto was the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim nation. Powerful women in powerful positions. But today, as I scratched the surface a little, it appears that this is the exception and not the rule. Amna Tariq is the woman behind the scenes at Cricingif who is pulling this whole trip together. An impressive person who tells me that Pakistan is very much a man’s world. She says that it is possible for a woman to succeed here, but the cards are stacked against you.
Our initial plan was to leave early and drive to Multan. Here, we were planning to interview a current Pakistani cricketer. However, as is consistently the case, our plans changed when the player had to be in another city at the last moment. Pakistan is unveiling itself to me in a way that is highly consistent with its team's performances on the field. One day it can blow your mind. The next day it disappoints. It is always unpredictable. Many times, you are left shaking your head at what is going on. Pakistan could never be accused of being boring. I love it and hate it at the same time. Just a little bit of certainty would be nice. I am trying to make a documentary. Don't they realise this?
I finally got to taste my first Pakistani biryani. A rice and dry chicken dish with plenty of tasty spices. I'd happily eat it again. But, despite all of this, we were granted permission to explore and the police escort was waiting for us when we left the hotel. Given we had lost most of the day, it was decided to skip the stadium shoot and head out about 60kms to a place called Derawar Fort. A 12th century structure where the local “Nawab [King]” once lived. We captured some wonderful footage at this place for the documentary. It was so quiet out here in the middle of the desert. You could hear things like the cow bells in the surrounding paddocks, the kids playing in the nearby village and the birds. Real countryside, and a welcome respite from Karachi’s aggressive heartbeat.
Our last official appointment for the day is with Farhan Saeed. Clearly the most inspirational person I’ve met in a long long time, if not ever. Farhan contracted polio as a child and lost the use of one leg. However, he doesn’t recognise himself as disabled. “I am normal” Farhan plays for the Pakistani Disabled Cricket Team. He bowled their first ever ball. The ground where we are meeting him has a T20 game winding up. We organise for Farhan to bowl to one of the batsmen. It is difficult to accurately describe how Farhan bowls, except to say that watching a guy use a crutch off a 15 metre run up and ping it with speed and accuracy brought tears. You’ll need to see the final documentary to truly understand what Farhan overcomes, but on his third delivery, he knocked out this guy’s leg stump with a pearler.
I typically spend 30 minutes on google researching the background of my interviewees before I arrive. Just to remain sharp. Moin may have been the national captain. Moin may have been a selector. He may now be running one of the best cricket academies for kids in the country. But the fact I most like is that we share the same birthday. We are already bonded before we shake hands. Like all that I've met before him, Moin is humble and loves his country and the game. He has a smile that he can't hide every time he talks about his academy kids and that maybe one day, insha'allah, one of his students will wear the Green Shirt.
I've taken a cricket bat and ball with me. I ask Zaheer if he will show me a cover drive as his playing days were well before mine, and I'd never seen him play one in the flesh. There is reluctance but he agrees.
He hits that drive with the ease and grace of David Gower and Mark Waugh's love child. It puts me in elite company. Dennis Freedman. Spanked by Zaheer Abbas through the covers for four.
Next up is Sikander Bakht. A Pakistani quick who must stand 6'1 or 6'2. Possibly more.
Consistent with everyone else here, he is a generous and open man. He tells me that what makes Pakistan is their hospitality and community. I find it hard to not conclude the same at this early stage in my travels. We step out onto the street in front of his house and he grabs a tape-ball and sends a couple fast bouncers my way, in typical Pakistani pacer fashion.
I lose the toss and we bowl first. It's hot. About 36 degrees. The players are complaining. This confuses me as I thought Pakistanis would be teaching this Melbournian a thing or two about coping with extremes. I tell them to drink a glass of concrete and harden up. The sun isn't burning like it does in Melbourne. The pollution in the hazy sky protects us from that. I put on my Old Haileybury woollen cricket baggy cap and lead the way out. Everyone is sweating. The cricket on display is of a good standard. I position myself at slip and in the 3rd over, let one pass me at a catchable height. Then the sledging begins.
It's always hard to say goodbye to those that you love. My wife was stoic about it as she gave me a big hug, a kiss, some words of encouragement or something....I can't remember...it was a bit emotional, before she drove off to work leaving me for 15 days. Our three young kids were also at home and in my care until I had to leave for the airport in a few hours. We looked at a map of the world on my laptop as I explained where Pakistan was. "That's 16 hours away on a plane dad. That's a lot longer than the drive to Nanna's house." Saying goodbye to these guys was the hardest. My youngest, a 7 year old girl full of life and zest and chutzpah was adamant that I couldn't go because she would miss me. My middle one, a 9 year old boy tried to hold back his tear. He failed. So did I. My oldest one, also a boy of 11 years kept coming back for more hugs.