The Daily Telegraph
Khyber Pass out of bounds as England are kept locked away
Players get little chance to experience life in Pakistan as bodyguards stay close to counter security concerns
Past the tank traps, concrete security barriers and a short stroll from the England team hotel is the National Museum of Pakistan. It may as well be the other end of the country for the England team, who are not allowed to set foot outside their closely guarded hotel unless sitting inside a bulletproof bus.
The security must be stifling for the players, who are followed everywhere in the hotel by bodyguards. The sense of freedom of the cricket played on the old Karachi polo grounds on Sunday, where around 500 people played tape-ball matches on any patch of concrete or grass they could find, was a world away from what the England team are experiencing on this tour.
The stakes are high for Pakistan as a country. They cannot afford any kind of security breach, so the caution is understandable, but it does deny the players a chance to experience any of the realities of this country; a far cry from the 2000 tour when they were escorted by the Khyber Rifles regiment up through the Khyber Pass.
“That’s the sad thing actually about the tour,” Moeen Ali said. “We’re obviously here to play cricket and win and stuff, but also for the crowds and to experience all that. It’s been really good so far, it’s just not easy when you can’t go out. Not mentally or anything, just more you want to see the country as much as you can when you tour.”
The fact roads have to be closed from the hotel to ground when the players are in transit has meant the teams net together, which, given they are preparing for T20, is hazardous as balls fly everywhere. Extra netting was put up after concerns over safety. Pakistan make clear which net is
theirs; the national flag is stuck in the ground to mark out home territory.
The National Stadium was built in 1955 with floodlights added 22 years ago, positioned on the roof. England have spent a long time practising high catches, the players saying the ball is hard to pick up above the lights.
The pitch is notoriously dead in Karachi, but it is unlikely you will hear the commentators saying so. The television production is handled by the
Pakistan Cricket Board and during the Australia series in February, when lifeless pitches produced dull draws in the first two Tests, a decree was sent down that commentators must not call them “flat”. Michael Kasprowicz did just that on air about the pitch in Lahore, but apologised and changed it to “these good batting strips”. Sky is taking the PCB production feed, so criticism of pitches will be left for studio discussions.
Television viewing figures in Pakistan will be off the scale by English standards – the recent Pakistan Super League was attracting around 16 million per match. The political climate is tense. Imran Khan, deposed as prime minister this year, holds rallies that attract vast audiences, while the devastation of the floods continues to claim lives, with outbreaks of disease in Sindh, the province where Karachi is situated.
The first T20 is a fundraiser for flood relief programmes. “These things for me are more important. If we can do as much as we can to raise funds or help in any way, that’s really important,” Moeen said. “Sometimes you do feel bad because you’re here on tour, playing cricket and getting paid and there are people not far away who are struggling. But sometimes you, as players, are probably bringing a smile to their face by playing and just taking their mind off it. But it is really sad.”
The tour was due to happen last year, but called off at the 11th hour after security threats were made to New Zealand, touring Pakistan at the time. It damaged relations with Pakistan, who had toured England in the Covid summer, putting up with the strictest pandemic bubble in sport.
England have tried to make amends by agreeing to this series expanding to seven matches, and made concessions over the venues for the Test series in December. Their objections over playing in Multan for the second Test, where the ground is 30 minutes from the hotel, were met with a simple “well, we played in England in a pandemic”. For once, England were in the weakest negotiating position.