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No One's Queueing Up

Cricket fever in Pakistan remains at a low pitch, somewhat like England's fortunes

No One's Queueing Up
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I was driven by car from Faisalabad to Lahore last week, going about the business of commenting on Group B of the Wills World Cup. When I got out of the car at the Holiday Inn, my driver Ali was moved to announce, "You will be happy, sir. That trip was only one hour 45 minutes and that includes crash." You can coast it in two and a half hours.

Nothing out of the ordinary in this, of course, but he did go fast, I think, because he was in charge of a smart, new and rather nippy motor car. He refused to lose face by allowing bespangled trunk-road wagons claim his ground or ponies to dawdle. I have a cool disposition and slept much of the way. The crash, however, did wake me up. We gave the car in front a terrific thump, which demolished our headlamps and popped the bonnet up in the air.

Many more people took up a spectator position around the car than I had seen at four UAE matches and two by Holland. "Are you Louis, TV commentator?" I nodded and another thousand appeared from nowhere. Eventually I signed the usual piece of paper for Ali to explain to his employers how this idiot in front of him had reversed into us at about 70 kph between scooters and ox carts and that we were lucky that he had not knocked the driver into the backseat onto my lap.

The point I want to make is about the number of people. It was comforting in its way to know that there were actually more than 350 people living in Pakistan: the average gate. Almost everyone sensed that the World Cup competition format was flawed but in Pakistan it has been both a mystery and a flop. It has been a flop because the two ICC teams are no-hopers and Pakistan, because of Ramadan, did not join in until last week. Consequently, there have been a succession of 'nothing' matches. Add England's minor performance against South Africa and you add another to the unwatchable contests.

But even if the cricket fans had wanted to watch, they would have found it difficult to gain admission to the grounds. I have found it astonishing that tickets have not been on sale at grounds but have been obtainable from nominated branches of banks and other corporate establishments. I flew to Faisalabad with two New Zealanders who had come into Pakistan on a Friday when the banks were closed. So they decided to turn up at the ground. They could hear the game going on in the near-empty stadium but were not allowed in. A friend from Karachi had to cycle around the big city to find a branch of the national bank which actually held a stock. He requested a ticket for the Lahore final and was offered one at Rs 50 or one at Rs 3,000. The remainder in the middle categories weren't there. But then desirable tickets have always had their price.

I am not opposed to an ICC Trophy team's presence. How could I be after Kenya's exciting presence, but who wants cricket without spectators and what spectators want to watch one-sided matches?

South Africa was the team of the week. Their victory over Pakistan in Karachi was masterful in many ways. Firstly, they got off to a bad start and fought back against a talented side in front of the sort of devoted home crowd which devours the nervous visitor. They showed nerve; they revealed planning in the way they unloaded an endless sequence of sweep shots to demolish Mushtaq Ahmed's wrist spin; their captain was a cool master of the situation; and they won on a ocean of calm water. South Africa are heading for a Karachi quarter-final and Hansie Cronje announced that he was happy with that because his team had been made so welcome in Pakistan. Game, set and match to him.

By contrast, getting it totally wrong have been England. The captain has made many enemies for his recorded comment about a 'buffoon' reporter asking tangled questions in a press conference. It is a privilege to be in someone else's country. It is inconsiderate and unfriendly to expect every Pakistani, Sri Lankan or Indian to understand English as spoken by a Lancastrian or an Australian or a West Indian or even by the local English teacher. I do not think Mike Atherton was making anything but a humorous aside, but then asides in front of live microphones also reveal the stray sentiments which do not withstand any test of humour.

Why are England playing so far below their talent? The first explanation is that they have failed over seven one-day matchesin South Africa and four in the World Cup to organise their thoughts and choose a settled side. It is obvious that England's only chance of scoring a total in the region of 270 is to have Atherton bat right through or maybe Graham Thorpe. 'Pinch-hitters' have to be proper batsmen of high quality, such as Sachin Tendulkar or Mark Waugh. Robin Smith at his best might do it, or Graeme Hick. Defreitas and Neil Smith should never have been tried. England lack athleticism, are without steady bowling or clear cricket intelligence. They should be on the way home after the Faisalabad quarter-final.

On the other hand, they are perverse enough to win the 1996 World Cup.

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