Jonathan Collett

Pakistan: majestic, mythical and mysterious land

Pakistan is unique. Its heritage is rich and its people so friendly. It has earnt my love and fascination. It is a country which possesses everything. Cricket without Pakistan is nothing.

I have had a love affair with it for six years now and yet my experiences have barely scratched the surface. Each visit has brought new experiences, wonderment and intrigue. Pakistan offers amazing hospitality, stunning scenery and proudly does things in its own way and on its own terms.

My experiences have been interwoven in cricket which is fitting given it is the very lifeblood of Pakistan.

On 3rdMarch 2009 twelve gunmen attacked the Sri Lanka national cricket team as they travelled to the Gadaffi Stadium in Lahore. Six members of the Sri Lanka team were wounded; and six Pakistani policemen and two civilians were killed.

Then began a period of isolation as no international cricket was played in Pakistan because of security fears. The very future of cricket in Pakistan was at risk and international exile cost Pakistan hundreds of millions in lost revenue from tv rights and ticket sales as it was forced to play in exile in empty stadiums in the UAE.

I felt so very sorry for Pakistan a country which has produced the most exhilarating and unpredictable cricketers. World cricket without Pakistan was missing one of its key participants.

In this context my first cricket tour of Pakistan in November 2014 was of immense significance and symbolism. We were the first international team to tour Pakistan since the Al-Qaeda attack and our visit was accorded security and a welcome in ways far surpassing our abilities as cricketers. 

Peter Oborne who had written an acclaimed history of Pakistan cricket entitled Wounded Tiger organised the tour and he was given enormous support by the Pakistan High Commission in London and the Pakistan Cricket Board.

Our team contained editors, journalists, academics, and political advisers.  We were flying into the unknown.

We should not have worried. As soon as we arrived an armed escort took us to Felletis hotel, the hotel used by early England touring teams in Pakistan, where we accorded heroes’ welcomes with garlands of flowers and photographers.

This set the tone for the week. Our player coach was the legendary leg spinner Abdul Qadir. We played in wonderful surroundings at the Lahore Gymkhana - Pakistan’s first test ground and its oldest ground - home to many famous cricketers including Imran Khan and Majid Khan. The Gymkana contains one of the best Museums in world cricket curated by Najum Latif where once British imperial forces had their bar.

We visited the beautiful Mitchell’s fruit farm, one of the major food producing companies in 720 acres of oasis in the Okara District, where we played in majestic surroundings.  

A match against the Australian High Commission was unfortunately rained off but we dined together at the Cous Cous Restaurant in Old City. This is a unique high dining venue with breathtaking views of the Fort and Mosque in the old city.

Off we flew to Karachi. 

Next came the most surreal moment of this tour as we travelled to the Arabian Sea Country Club, where we will played a floodlit fixture on live national television. We were told by Arif Ali Khan Abbasi, its Chairman and the former CEO of the Pakistan Cricket Board, that our match this had been sold as the most significant fixture since the MCC’s first visit to Pakistan. 

 The Pavilion was enormous. A replica of the Parks at Oxford and containing huge cavernous changing rooms. Playing in coloured clothing under lights whilst commentators described the action to a national audience meant we could all dream we had played international cricket.

 After playing the Sind Club in Karachi we flew home amidst great security. By now we had all fallen in love with Pakistan.

 By now I was plugged into the Pakistan Cricket Board and my next involvement with Pakistan cricket came in England.

 In 2012 during Pakistan’s tur of England three Pakistan players including their captain Salman Butt were captured in a News of the World sting operation concerning match fixing at Lord’s in a test match.  All three players were subsequently convicted of conspiracy to cheat at gambling and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments. They all received jail terms and received bans from cricket.

 By the time of Pakistan’s tour of England in 2016 the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) were understandably concerned about their reputation and their treatment by the UK media. They hoped for a happy tour and to pave the way to international tours returning to Pakistan. In particular they were concerned at the return of Mohammed Amir who had been the youngest player convicted of match fixing episode in 2012. He was a skillful and wonderful bowler but many resented his return and the PCB feared what his treatment would be at the hands of the English press.

 So, they recruited me as their media consultant for the duration of the tour. I would live and travel with the players and spend my time handling the media in the press box and offering strategic advice to the Pakistan management and coaching staff.

 It was a dream to work with such wonderful and highly skilled players. They bought in to the need to represent their country in the most professional and accommodating way. They all played their part in boosting the reputation of Pakistan cricket.

 The tour was a huge success. There were a series of successful interviews including by the Chairman of the PCB and Pakistan’s former Foreign Secretary Shahryar Khan and Malala Yousafzai the Pakistan human rights advocate who has survived assassination by the Taliban.

 Coach Mickey Arthur was a wonderful ambassador and communicator for his team.

 Famously at Lord’s victory was marked by the Misbah-ul-Haq and the Pakistan team expressing their joy in front of the Pavillion by performing press ups – a sort of Pakistani version of the Haka.  It was a scene of joy and friendliness conveyed to the cricketing world.

 The tour was declared a success from all perspectives and engendered enormous goodwill towards Pakistan cricket. Since then English media coverage of Pakistan cricket has been marked by positivity and respect. The reputation of Pakistan cricket has not looked back. This year’s tour has been marked by sympathetic coverage especially from Sky tv.

 February 2019 saw my return to Pakistan.

 The Wounded Tiger XI had been reconvened by Peter Oborne and this time we set off along the path of the Indus Valley from Karachi to Multan.

 This is currently an area where visitors seldom travel but they should because it is an area of historic significance and beauty. It bears favourable comparison with the great tourist destinations of the world.

 The Indus river runs the entire length of the country and gave its name to the sub-continent and India. It was the home to ancient civilizations and contains an astonishing variety of scenery, climate, people, culture, animals and plants.

 Our short trip gave us a flavour and of course some wonderful memories. This time the gender balance of our party was healthier and an ever wider range of professions travelled – heads of charities, commissions, GPs, academics, estate agents and even a current Varsity cricketer.

 I joined the group at Moenjo Daro, the great city of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Here the group had ridden in bullock carts to see the wonderfully preserved archaeological site. A world heritage site.

  Next we moved on to Jacobabad. A vibrant city with colour and character. Our welcome was so friendly and out of proportion. A huge crowd watched our match with local news channels capturing the wonderful atmosphere and reception.

 Colourful sights greeted us everywhere whether elaborately painted vans, huge hay wagons carried by donkeys or camels, or happy locals waving from motorcycles.

 We journeyed up the Indus on ancient boats and saw historic ancient sites including Buddhist temples, colonial outposts and movingly the shrine of the Bhutto family (including Benazir).

We travelled through the Balochistan Desert and made our way up steep sandhills in jeeps.

 At dusk we were guided around the Derawar Fort. A breath-taking sight dating to the 9th century with forty bastions. The walls have a perimeter of 1500 metres and stand up to thirty metres high. 

 We camped nearby at the site of the Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally and were given terrifying desert rides in the jeeps. We awakened to a stunning sunset in the desert.

 Finally, we moved on to the Test Match stadium in Bahawalpur where we played a local representative side and were greeted by the mayor and other dignitaries.

My journey was almost complete. I was concerned as my taxi to Multan was held at a petrol station in Bahawalpur but I need not have worried as the hold-up was to arrange for guards to escort me to the airport. Hospitality in Pakistan knows no bounds.

I look forward to a forthcoming film made by Ahmed Peerbux being released of this tour. The locations and warmth of the locals will ensure its success.

It is so heartening to see the return of international cricket to Pakistan. A tour from England must be on the horizon. I hope we have played our part in ensuring its return.

Pakistan is unique. Its heritage is rich and its people so friendly. It has earnt my love and fascination. It is a country which possesses everything. Cricket without Pakistan is nothing.