As we sat in the departure lounge at Islamabad’s Benazir Bhutto airport, waiting for our fligbht north to Chitral, Peter Oborne confessed, “The only thing that could go wrong is the Taliban sending a raiding party over the mountains.” This is the kind of captain’s warning that concentrates the mind. But for a certain sort of Briton, the words “Northwest Frontier Province” retain a kind of intoxicating romance.
This is the land of Kipling and George MacDonald Fraser, of Kim and Harry Flashman. These mountains – as impenetrable as they are magnificent – were once the backdrop to another Great Game, played between the Russian and British empires as they jostled for position and influence at the top of the world. More recently, and at great price, the ghosts of Empire have returned to the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Few western tourists visit Chitral these days.
The old hippie trail closed years ago and whereas before 9/11 as many as 4000 trekkers and holidaymakers might have visited Chitral every year, in 2014 little more than a tenth of that number travelled to these remote valleys. It is too far, too difficult, too dangerous. But Pakistan, a cause and a country that’s always on the verge of being lost but never quite is, repays a determined traveller many times over.
No place could be more welcoming; no hospitality finer. No scenery grander either. And as our plane climbed over the Lowari Pass and began its steep descent into the Chitral Valley, all Pakistan’s multiple difficulties seemed to fade away. We were the Wounded Tiger XI and we were here to play cricket on the old frontier of Empire.
It is hard to imagine a comparable party of Australian or South African duffers travelling halfway across the globe for the rich pleasure of being humiliated
Seven matches had been arranged for Wounded Tigers – we took our name from the skipper’s recently published history of cricket in Pakistan – and we were making a small piece of cricketing history. No foreign cricket team at any level, we were told, had ever visited this part of Pakistan to play. Few, I fear, had even been tempted to do so during the six long, painful years since Sri Lanka’s team bus was attacked by terrorists.
Though we were assured that Chitral was different – safer, more relaxed, less problematic for western tourists than much of Pakistan – reminders that this can be a hard country were never far away. There was the presence of our armed guards, for one thing, even if their presence was chiefly meant to reassure us – and our hosts – that everything that could be done to guarantee our safety had in fact been done.
On the day we arrived in Pakistan came another unwelcome reminder. A bus in Karachi was attacked by an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban and 46 Ismaili Muslims were slain. Since many Chitralis are also members of this minority sect, the atrocity was especially keenly felt there. We might have been many miles from Karachi but we were still in Pakistan.
Our first match, against the famous Langlands School and College in Chitral, was preceded by a moment of silence for the victims of this latest obscenity. A sobering moment in a spectacular setting. The ground, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and with falcons circling overhead, had been carved out of the hillside and afforded extraordinary views down the valley. It felt like playing at the top of the world. This, it was already clear, would be a cricket tour unlike any other.
If only our performance had matched the setting. Fifty schoolboys had been deployed to scurry down ravines to retrieve balls that would otherwise undoubtedly have been lost. They were kept busy as our hosts raced to 101 for no loss on their way to setting us 243 from 30 overs. This, dear reader, proved beyond us and already we suspected the unfamiliarity of the playing conditions was the least of our worries. It was our warm-up match.
The ground, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and with falcons circling overhead, had been carved out of the hillside. It felt like playing at the top of the world
The next day we would face a select XI drawn from the 40-odd clubs that constitute the District Cricket Association Chitral. After the first over, the Chitral Select were on course to make 510. In the circumstances, restricting – if that’s the right word – them to 290 in 30 overs felt quietly encouraging. The only thing worse than chasing leather in Pakistan, however, is facing leather. When the opposition’s opening bowler begins his run five yards from the boundary, you worry that he might already have established a measure of psychological ascendancy. Then you remember the pitch is a yard short. Pretty shortly after that there’s a rattling of timber and you’re trudging from the field thankful that at least he had the decency – or compassion – to bowl a full length.
“I am very impressed and even surprised by the standard of cricket in Chitral,” said Qamar Ahmed, the legendary Pakistan cricket writer and broadcaster, who was accompanying us for the first few days of the tour. Ahmed, it might be noted, has reported on more Test cricket than anyone not named Benaud or Woodcock. His verdict on our performances was diplomatic: “You play and that’s what is important.”
Mind you, we consistently surprised our hosts. For instance, when they asked, “How many first-class players do you have” they did not expect the answer to be “none”. There were moments, I confess, when I thought our skipper might have based selection for the party on something more than “Who would be a good tourist?” Some cricketers might have been helpful.
On at least one occasion word had spread that we were the England Under-19 team. “Sorry”, we said, “I’m afraid that’s not quite the case.” Who were we, then? We were Tigers! What were we? Wounded!
As the days went on and we limped from one defeat to another I began to wonder if our hosts, to say nothing of the ISI agents keeping an eye on our progress through northern Pakistan, thought there must be more to this expedition than met the eye. I began to worry they might think our travelling circus a deeply subtle probe launched by British intelligence.
Certainly there seemed something incorrigibly English about our expedition. It is hard to imagine a comparable party of Australian or South African duffers travelling halfway across the globe for the rich pleasure of being humiliated on a daily basis. The English cult of the bumbling amateur is never so clearly honoured as when middle-aged men attempt to recapture the non-existent sporting glories of their younger selves. The nadir came in Drosh where we were dismissed for 33. “Pathetic. Pitiful. Deplorable,” said the captain.
Chitral is, in cricketing terms, a backwater. The local association is not yet recognised by the Pakistan Cricket Board, and cricket is, relatively speaking, a new arrival in the Hindu Kush. Even 50 years ago little cricket was played here; polo, and latterly soccer, were the district’s greatest sporting enthusiasms. The annual contest between the polo players of Chitral and those of neighbouring Gilgit, played 12,000 feet up at Shandur Top, remains one of the world’s greatest under-known sporting spectacles.
We left a piece of our hearts in Chitral. Pakistan might be a hard country, but for those who take the trouble to go, it will never leave you
The district was only wholly integrated into Pakistan in 1969. Until then the princely Mehtars still ruled; until then Chitralis were Chitrali more than they were Pakistani. Television, among many other things, changed that, and television also brought cricket. The development of cricket in Chitral marched hand in hand with the development of a Pakistani, as opposed to purely Chitrali, sense of identity. Viewed from the Hindu Kush, Javed Miandad and Imran Khan were nation-builders just as much as AH Kardar and Fazal Mahmood were for the rest of Pakistan a generation or two previously.
If it is an exaggeration to say cricket is Pakistan’s passport to the outside world there remains sufficient truth in the assertion for it to be thought important. Cricket is part of the connective tissue that binds the nation together; without it the fragile bonds of community, identity and nationhood are weakened.
This is so even in some of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The Taliban’s attitude to cricket is complicated. Officially the game is frowned upon; anecdotally it remains popular. In his history, Oborne quotes one tribal cricketer from Waziristan, who says that the Taliban “loved Pakistan cricket… Though they are fighting against the Pakistan army, they love to see the Pakistan cricket team winning matches.”
Certainly no one could watch the joyful scenes from Lahore – when, on our last day in Pakistan, Zimbabwe became the first foreign team to play an international fixture in the country in six years – and fail to conclude that Pakistan, and world cricket, needed more of this.
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises against all “non-essential” travel to the Kalash valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir. We were here to play cricket, however, and so our travel, along a perilous, far-too-narrow mountain track, was essential. Each hairpin bend brought us closer to the Afghan border, as we moved ever further into the heart of old Kafiristan. We were deep into Kipling territory now.
The Kalash, a polytheist sect whose festivals attract hundreds of gawping Pakistani tourists, play very little cricket and so the (few) remaining optimists in the party dared to think this might be a game we could actually win. Once again, however, we had been misinformed. We were not playing the Kalash people themselves. The opposition were a select XI drawn from the Muslim population of the three valleys; a population that has left the 4000 remaining Kalash a minority in their own homeland. After two overs the Kalash Select were 32 for no loss and it became clear these people had played plenty of cricket.
Yet here again the setting and the quality of our welcome more than compensated for our on-field frailty. “It’s like playing in Middle Earth,” one tourist observed as he surveyed the ground. Cattle and goats wandered a boulder-hewn outfield (upon which boulders spectators would sit, within the field of play). A grove of walnut trees, also within the playing area, provided shelter from the heat of the mountain sun for those fielders fortunate enough to be stationed in their shade. To avoid balls being lost in a tumbling brook, all the bowling was from one end.
It was cricket as it used to be played back when you were a lad capering about in the garden; cricket reduced to the simplest of all equations: see ball, hit ball
Here was our introduction to tape-ball cricket – the form of the game that accounts for the majority of the cricket played in Pakistan. It became apparent that tape-ball cricket demands extreme pace or extreme guile, qualities in which we were disagreeably and hopelessly deficient. Medium-paced dibbly-dobblers – our strongest suit – will be slaughtered.
Nonetheless there was something wonderfully liberating about all this. It was cricket as it used to be played back when you were a lad capering about in the garden; cricket reduced to the simplest of all equations: see ball, hit ball. Indeed the whole occasion had the feel of a large family reunion at which, after the picnic, an impromptu game of cricket was arranged. It was as pure as it was exuberant, as refreshing as it was entertaining. Obviously we lost. Heavily.
Even today Chitral is impossibly remote. This has put a brake on “progress” even if it has also helped protect the district against the worst of Pakistan’s instability. For at least four, and sometimes more, months of the year the roads in, from both south and east, are blocked by snow. To the west lies Afghanistan and no travellers wish to risk that road into Chitral these days.
If a tunnel through the Lowari mountains is ever finally completed, Chitral will become more accessible, but for now, unless you catch one of the two weekly flights from Islamabad, the journey by road from the capital can take as long as 15 hours to complete. The result is that Chitral feels like a land apart, a secret kingdom of which only a few are even properly aware.
At the fag end of the 19th century Chitral bore witness to one of the final adventures in the Great Game. In 1892, its ruler Aman-ul-Mulk, died, sparking a violent struggle between his sons for the privilege of succeeding him. British officials fretted that Chitral might be subject to undue Russian influence, opening a path to further Russian encroachment on British India.
The British sent 400 soldiers to Chitral, the better to secure the territory. What followed was a minor epic. The British troops in Chitral soon found themselves besieged with no hope of escape. Two relief columns were despatched to relieve the beleaguered garrison, one coming over the Lowari Pass from the south, the other hauling its cannon through shoulder-deep snow over the Shandur from the north-east. This latter force eventually, and against the odds, reached Chitral to relieve the siege after 45 days. The London press rejoiced, comparing the relief to previous adventures such as the defence of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny.
We consoled ourselves with the reflection that no one, at any level of the game, has found it easy to win in Pakistan
The question of what to do with Chitral remained, however. Should it be absorbed into British India or might it safely be left to its own devices? The fear of further Russian encroachment, and fresh native mischief, persuaded the British authorities that Chitral must be secured. Doing so would prove the last advance of British power in the subcontinent.
Winning a game would risk spoiling this narrative so it is heartening to report that at no point did we so abuse the hospitality shown to us. If our opponents pitied us they contrived to hide their disappointment. Each day, small boys chattering on the boundary would salute “another huge six” and suggest, with grinning pleasure but no malice, “You lose.”
We did not always help ourselves. In our penultimate match, in Booni, a two-hour drive north of Chitral, we somehow reduced our hosts to 106 for 8. In a novel break with more than a century of cricketing orthodoxy, Oborne took the view that an overs match can be improved by some declaration bowling. Broken by this chastening experience, we subsided to 70 all out, only 200 runs short of our target.
The day before, we had surprised ourselves by striking early and often, and with the opposition, in Ayun this time, 15 for 4, dangerous thoughts of victory had crossed more than one mind. As it was, we found ourselves chasing 302, and in one of our better batting performances, managed just less than half that. There seemed to be an iron law in Pakistan that, regardless of conditions or opposition, we would be chasing ten an over.
It occurred to me that we might now be doomed to trek from village to village, playing every day, until such improbable time came that we won a match and were finally permitted to return home. On and on we toiled, like the Israelites in search of the Promised Land, forever seeking a route to the Valley of Respectability.
None of that mattered, however. The game was the thing. The game and the welcome we received in this land of mountains and glaciers, eagles and falcons. We consoled ourselves with the reflection that no one, at any level of the game, has found it easy to win in Pakistan. A deep sadness, tinged with a modest measure of pride, was felt as our little plane soared up into the Chitrali sky, bound for Islamabad. We, all of us, left a piece of our hearts in Chitral. Pakistan might be a hard country, but for those who take the trouble to go, it will never leave you.