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LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

A gripping season

MIKE MARQUSEE

It will be a pleasure to return to the majesty of Test cricket after the frenzy of the football.

PHOTO: S. SUBRAMANIUM

Prime attraction: Pakistan's tour will be Inzamam's farewell English performance.

YOU'D hardly know it at the moment, but here in Britain we're actually in the midst of the cricket season. Football has so overwhelmed the public arena that when the season's prime attraction, the Pakistanis, arrived here two weeks ago, there was little media fanfare. This is probably a boon for the team but it's a disservice for sports lovers — because these Pakistanis play gripping cricket.

Diverse skills

Since they came from behind to draw the series with India in early 2005, they've beaten England and India at home and Sri Lanka away. Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi, Kamran Akmal, Danish Kaneria, Mohammad Asif have blossomed. The team play with flash and fire but also grit, patience and sometimes daunting fearlessness. They boast diverse skills, styles and personalities, but have played as a unit. Within the squad, there's solidarity, a habit of mutual support and respect, for which past Pakistani teams were not renowned.

The tour will be Inzamam ul-Haq's farewell English performance, and that in itself makes it one of the sporting summer's few genuinely not-to-be-missed attractions. When I think of what's beautiful in cricket, I think of Inzamam. The slow gait and the whiplash wrists, the beguiling fusion of bulk and delicacy. The contradiction between the sleepy visage and the fierceness of purpose is only apparent; what makes Inzamam Inzamam is the way the two accent each other. And by the way, against England last autumn he scored two hundreds and three fifties in five visits to the crease.

For the home side, last summer's Ashes victory — a greater achievement than anything the country's footballers have managed in recent times — now seems a distant memory. An unfancied Sri Lankan team succeeded in drawing the recent Test series, then hammered England 5-0 in the one-dayers. The Ashes winners have been knocked out of shape by injuries to key players and the long-term absence of captain Michael Vaughan. It's a pity, not least because a full strength England would probably fight the Pakistanis to the wire.

The animosity that marked relations between the two sides in the late 1980s and early 1990s is now a thing of the past. It helps that reverse swing, treated by the British media as some kind of dastardly subterfuge when unleashed by the Pakistanis in 1992, is now a proud part of England's cricketing arsenal, a crucial element in last year's triumph over the Australians.

Fans' behaviour

In recent years, the media focus has shifted to the Pakistani fans, whose behaviour at English grounds has been criticised as over-exuberant and aggressive. Of course, the vast majority of these fans are actually British born and bred. In 2001, then England captain Nasser Hussein blasted them (and their Indian counterparts) for not supporting England. His comments recalled the `cricket test' posed to immigrants a decade earlier by former Tory Cabinet member Norman Tebbitt ("which side do they cheer for...?"). Tebbit's political agenda never entered Hussain's head, but his approach to sporting partisanship was equally simplistic and restrictive. It was also made to look decidedly naοve when, within a matter of days, the northern city of Bradford experienced violent conflict between the local south Asian, mainly Muslim, population and both police and organised white racists. Ten weeks later came 9/11 and the war on terror, which led to intensified pressure on British Muslims (and those who might be mistaken for Muslims), as well as an increasingly fractious, frustratingly muddled public argument about Muslim identity in British society.

The English cricket establishment remains uneasy with the mass chants of "Pakistan zindabad!" that will echo round the grounds this summer, but it's the enthusiasm of the Pakistan fans that makes the tour such a money-spinner, and will also help propel cricket back to centre-stage after the drawn out football season. How the larger social context will impinge on the cricket remains to be seen.

Inevitably there'll be comment on the Pakistani cricketers' religiosity (when it comes to professions of faith, only U.S. sportsmen are as demonstrative). The TV cameras sweeping the crowds at the matches will pick out bearded men and women with their heads covered. But whatever role religion may play among the current crop of Pakistani cricketers, it's important to remember that what makes Pakistani cricket distinct is its cricket culture.

In England this summer, there will be more than 140 first class matches, plus more than 240 limited overs games played between first class sides. In comparison, during the most recent Pakistani domestic season, there were 74 first class and 56 limited overs contests. In England, there are more than 400 professional cricketers employed by the 18 first class counties. In Pakistan, no cricketer makes a living exclusively by playing domestic cricket. Street cricket, however, is ubiquitous and intense.

Cricket culture

While kids in England were watching football on the telly, their counterparts in Pakistan were bowling and batting in whatever space they could find and with whatever implements came to hand. As in India, the route from the streets to the stadiums is circuitous and littered with obstacles and injustices. But in Pakistan it tends often to be a shorter leap, and more of the elan of street cricket — the hustle, the improvisatory spirit — survives in the Pakistani game. Combine that with sophistication of technique and discipline, and you have a cricket team that's both competitive and entertaining.

It will be a pleasure to return to the majesty of Test cricket after the frenzy of the football. The World Cup has been engrossing, but also hyped beyond endurance. The coming England-Pakistan series seems all the more attractive for having been comparatively under-promoted.

www.mikemarqusee.com

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