Managing editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Spring 2023 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Matt has chosen Cameron Ponsonby’s account of his recent trip to Pakistan.
The Week of Living Dangerously
Cameron Ponsonby on his Pakistan experience
As we touch down in Islamabad, my new friend Shaz, sitting two along to my left, gives me his number and insists I have dinner with his family. It’s a wholesome, lovely, start to the trip.
Not a half-a-second later and Kamran, my other new friend who’s immediately to my left, slides me his business card and mutters under his breath: “If you want any girls, or any gear. Give me a call.”
Righto. I guess we’re in Pakistan.
For the first time in 17 years, England are back in Pakistan. A terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009 had forced all international cricket to come to a halt and it would be over a decade before any touring teams returned. Sri Lanka themselves had come back, so too the West Indies, South Africa and also Australia. Now, it was the turn of England, who had played some T20s in the country in October, but the Tests in December were the real showpiece.
The tour would take place across three cities: Rawalpindi, Multan and Karachi. Three siblings born of the same family but with vastly different characters. Rawalpindi, the quiet, beautiful town where your grandparents live. Karachi the wild city whose underground scene bubbles visibly above the surface and Multan, where something might have happened at some point in history but I’d be damned if it was of any interest. I hated my week in Multan. And yet it sits fondest in my memories.
Sit next to Multan at a dinner party and you’ll leave two hours later shell-shocked but none the wiser. Chaotic and in your face, Multan works in recruitment. What just happened? Multan just happened.
Of course, it would be naive to the point of ignorance to claim any sort of deep understanding of a nation experienced through a four-week, police convoy-fuelled, gora gap year-styled, David Attenborough extravaganza. You saw the bits you were meant to see, you didn’t see the bits you weren’t. Multan, for instance, far from being a culture-less void, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was founded by the great grandson of the Prophet Noah. As in, that Noah. The one with the big boat.
And yet security measures meant it existed for me largely between the four walls of the Continental hotel with only the sound of the dual carriageway outside and Shoaib Akthar (not that one) behind the desk for company. In all, it was a month in Pakistan that was a continuous push and pull of what you could, couldn’t, would and wouldn’t, be allowed to see.
Inspector Ali is a big bastard. Built like Henry VIII, he’s got a beret, a moustache, a cigarette on the go and a gun on his hip. He tells me I’m not going anywhere tonight. I agree. Good point, Ali. I hadn’t thought of it that way.
Ali is part of the “normal” police. But his colleagues in the Special Forces seem filled with even more joie de vivre. The logo plastered across their back says “No Fear” in English and it is made up of bullets and guns as if an eight-year-old had been tasked with creating the most comically evil get-up you could imagine.
In Multan, the second stop on the trip, security is by far the highest it has been in Pakistan. And no one really knows why. Some mutter that it’s because the Taliban recently called off a ceasefire. Others say it’s because of a gang-related shooting that occurred near the team hotel. Both of these things are true in isolation but false in context.
The truth lies blurrily in the fact that whereas Islamabad and Karachi had hosted a number of games before, Multan hadn’t. A few ODIs against the West Indies in March but that was it. Routines weren’t set in stone, no one really knew what was what and so it was all dialled up to 11.
Arriving at the hotel where I was meant to be staying, I was turned away for being foreign. It took me a while to realise the man behind the desk was being serious.
“No foreigners allowed.”
“No foreigners allowed.”
Only a handful of hotels in the city were allowed to host non-Pakistanis. Those locations were provided with around-the-clock police presence, with guests not allowed to go anywhere without an armed guard in attendance. A friend spoke of the surreal moment during a rare dinner out where the armed policeman, perched awkwardly at the end of the table, finished his shift and was replaced by a new policeman with a new gun. Evening all. Don’t mind me.
The tour was too big to fail for Pakistan. And if these were the requirements for the ECB to be satisfied and cricket to continue its return then so be it. But it did result in an at times farcical week.
After confirming I wasn’t going to be allowed to stay in hotel number one, the man behind the counter set about ringing half the city until he found somewhere where there was still room at the inn. I was stuck on the back of one motorbike, my suitcase ferried by two other lads on another, and we criss-crossed our way through night-time Multan and to the Hotel Continental, where Shoaib and Inspector Ali awaited.
My relationship with Shoaib got off to a rocky start. It had been a long day. The six-hour convoy down from Islamabad had come in at closer to 10 and the stress of arriving in an unknown city and then being moved across town to a second anonymous hotel where there was, as it stood, the promise of only one night, was beginning to kick in. A situation that wasn’t helped when Shoaib chastised me for not having booked with them directly and being sent by a different hotel.
“Now we have to pay them a referral fee,” he sighed in genuine irritation.
“Sorry. I didn’t realise,” were the words that came out of my mouth; and “F**k you, f**k you and f**k you”, the ones that stayed in.
The situation was calmed by Hasan, a British-Pakistani from London who was in town for work. Realising that I was out of cash, he covered my room. And realising that I was stressed, and by this point also hungry, took me out for dinner with his colleagues. It had been one of the worst days of the trip, followed by one of the best evenings. The full Multan experience.
The next challenge was getting to the ground. Officially, I was meant to travel with the other fans staying in the hotel who, for the most part, had found themselves in the same situation as I had the previous night. Also officially, this wasn’t going to work. The rest of the media were staying in hotels a ten-minute walk up the road and were leaving earlier and getting back later. Times that I too needed to travel.
Getting out for dinner the previous night had been negotiated by Hasan and his colleagues, who had found the whole ordeal ludicrous. There were seven in their group, who had so far been able to come and go as they pleased, but add in the need for the Caucasian carpet to be rolled out and things were confused. As ever, the answer came in the shape of a gun. And we all went out for dinner once a personal armed guard for me was arranged.
But now I was by myself. And the idea of a white lad strolling about by himself wasn’t an option. Fortunately, working in cricket was a cheat code in Pakistan. And the big bad Inspector Ali soon became my best mate. While the special forces wanted all journeys made in cars, Ali had a motorbike. When other policemen told me I had to queue and wait my turn, Ali, once again, had a motorbike.
Each morning, he’d greet me with a big handshake and tell me he liked me – “I like you, Cameron.” Then he’d turn to his colleague and confirm what he had already said –“I like this guy” – and finish by saying that before I left I must give him my number and we’ll message on WhatsApp. Anything for you, Ali.
]And like magic, in the time this interaction took to play out, a motorbike would appear and I’d be whisked away. The first two times, the policeman driving would take me the seven-sides-of-an-octagon route to the other hotel. But once we’d mutually and silently agreed that no one cared, it’d be straight along the much shorter, much more illegal route that took us up a one-way road and passed the gates of Multan’s high court.
“The high court,” the policeman pointed as we drove past. “Very corrupt.”
It’ll forever remain the contradiction of security in Pakistan to me. That, in Multan at least, I was at all times guarded by a policeman with a gun, and that same policeman would drive me the wrong way up a one-way road, past the corrupt high court as the wind blew through my helmetless hair. We can’t have you getting shot. But we can have you squashed.
In truth, the trip threatened to finish without ever a glimpse of the “real” Pakistan. In Islamabad we had been treated to a fantastic evening out in a beautiful mountain-side restaurant. We had also visited the British High Commission, which was a bizarre make-believe English village hidden behind three walls of high security in the middle of Islamabadshire. Both were events. And both were manufactured.
Similarly, a party was thrown for us in a Karachi mansion. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, but as much the “real” Karachi as the set of Made in Chelsea is the “real” London. And, on the off chance of ever getting another invite, absolutely nothing about it shall be written here. Just know that there was a statue of a hippo on a moped by the front door.
It was both sod’s law but also a relief that sprinklings of Pakistan arrived once the cricket was over and everyone had returned home. With two days left before my own flight, my Pakistani colleagues took me out, with evenings ending up at a late night tea joint rather than a hotel bar and arguments over Karachi vs Lahore bias thrashed out rather than who bats five when Jonny Bairstow is back.
My very final hours in Pakistan were spent at the home of my hotel manager in Karachi, having a Christmas dinner.
An undercurrent throughout the trip had been Pakistani Christians introducing themselves to me with, “I’m Christian too”. And somehow it never felt appropriate to explain that, well, actually, I haven’t really believed in that since primary school.
So, no. For the sake of politeness. I was Christian Cam. Protestant, Church of England. Forgive me father for I am lying.
For the most part this caused no internal conflict, with pleasantries exchanged, the day of the other person improved and the world moving on. The only difficulty came when I ended up talking to Musaddiq, the hotel manager, on most days of my stay, and, within a wider invitation, he said that it would be his honour to have another Christian over to his house so close to Christmas.
Furthermore, for reasons I never fully grasped, the trip had to be done in secret. Musaddiq had conflicts with one of the taxi drivers at the hotel who was a devout Muslim and had a relative who was high up in the hotel business. The driver had been giving me lifts throughout the week and before any trip, Musaddiq would tell me the price and tell me not to accept any changes. I didn’t think anything of it until later when he explained that the driver wasn’t to be trusted and referred to his faith. Types like him were bad people, Cameron, but you’d know that, wouldn’t you? Good Christian that you are.
It was a brief insight into religious politics within the nation and nothing more, but a contributory factor to why we left for dinner under the pretence of Mussadiq taking me to the shop along the road, before ordering a rickshaw once we were out of sight. And I was dropped off a block away afterwards so I could walk the rest by myself with a reminder not to mention where I’d been.
Secrecy aside, it was a fantastic end to the trip. I was taken into a home, rather than a hotel, and treated to an array of delicious food. I met Musaddiq’s wife, a teacher, and his three children, who were excited for Christmas.
As I left I was presented with a traditional shawl, had photos taken and thanked them for their hospitality, before returning to the hotel and getting straight into the taxi to take me to the airport. It had taken a month, but whatever the “real” Pakistan is, I’d found it. Just.