Indians in Pathan land

After the 2004 defeat, the Men in Blue lost an one-dayer in Peshawar again. But, they enjoyed a different date with history in the city after visiting the Khyber Pass, writes S. Dinakar.

This is the night of celebrations in Karachi. The beach at the Clifton is a rash of colours. The bistros at Zamzama are throbbing with life. The television channels flash the images of the Pakistani heroes. Pakistan has clinched the Test series at the end of the fourth day itself.

The National Stadium becomes a sea of emotions as the Pakistani players converge on each other after Yuvraj Singh's innings ends after a brilliant century. The manner in which Pakistan's 1-0 triumph is lapped up by the media also reveals the television boom in the country. Like in India, there are now plenty of television channels in Pakistan. And the competition between them is intense. Pakistan skipper Inzamam-ul-Haq airs his views in a popular channel. Other channels have roped in prominent cricketers, present and former, and long-standing cricket writers. Television has led to the burgeoning of endorsements and sponsorships. While the serials in the tube are thriving, there is more money in cricket. Like in India, the annual awards night in music and movies is also becoming increasingly commonplace as a television event.

A group of Pakistani youngsters, some of whom are on a holiday from the United States, are still revelling in the Pakistani victory at a Clifton coffee shop in the evening. One of them says, "Your pacemen bowl like spinners." It is a point to ponder over.

There is a fireworks display at the Clifton to mark the Pakistani achievement. How quickly time changes. In 2004, Inzamam-ul-Haq had appeared a captain under siege mentally. He came across as a grumpy skipper, quickly running out of time and options. The induction of Bob Woolmer as coach marked a huge turnaround in Inzamam's fortunes.

Peshawar is the next stop. The first match of the ODI series is in the capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. The teams board the 2.30 p.m. flight to the city close to the Afghanistan border. The scenes at the airport, which is more like a railway station, are chaotic and the traffic out of the complex moves at a snail's pace. It takes more than two hours for us to reach the hotel. With deadlines approaching, the scribes struggle to find an internet connection. And when you discover one, it is not compatible with the laptop. A mad rush follows. There is a rough side too to being on the road with the Indian team.

For the friendly Pathans, Peshawar is just `Shehr' or `The City'. Peshawar is also the `Gateway to Central Asia'. This is a city of exotic and vibrant bazaars. Peshawar is steeped in history. The Kushan Kings of Gandhara built it over 2000 years ago. But with different rulers — Peshawar's destiny has been linked with different kings and emperors — the city changed names. It was called Begram after Babur stormed the city in 1530. The Mughul constructed a fort, which has withstood the test of time. The great basin of land occupied by the city contrasts with the arid mountains encircling it. Peshawar is also known as the City of Flowers.

Peshawar is a city of several shades. In the seventh century it was the heart of the Buddhist Gandhara civilisation. First, Mahmud of Ghazni invaded it in the ninth century. Then, it was the turn of the Sikhs. Constantly under threat, there was a period when Peshawar was surrounded by a giant wall with 16 gates. Only two arcades remain now, but Peshawar has more than just survived.

The centre of the city holds a labyrinth of bazaars, with one alley leading to another. In the `Andar Shehr' (`The Inner City') the darkness of the paths are lit up by glittering jewellery. The network of alleys captures the essence of Peshawar. Get to the suburbs and the roads are tree-lined. The Islamia College, constructed in 1913, is an impressive building. And about 45 km from Peshawar is the famous gun market — Darra Bazaar.

This is the land of the Pathans and the Pashtun-speaking people have close ties with those across the border in Afghanistan. From the hotel we are staying in, the Afghanistan border is no more than a 30-minute drive away. Trucks with roofs that are colourfully designed tear along the highway. In the empty stretches, wizened men who have been a witness to several tumultuous events relax with their trusted ponies or donkeys beside them. For these weather-beaten but strong Pathan elder folk, there are several miles left to travel yet.

There is considerable excitement in the Indian camp after the net session in the morning. The Indian team would be travelling to the Khyber Pass; the path holds several tales of guts, glory, conquests and shattered dreams. History has been made and unmade here. The Pass fascinates the Indian cricketers.

About 18 kilometres west of Peshawar is Jamrud where the Pass meets the Vale of Peshawar. The rugged Khyber is also famous for the steam engine driven train — a legacy of the Raj — that winds its way through the arduous, winding terrain. It's called `Khyber Safari.'

There is considerable interest in the city for the first ODI of the Hutch Cup Series. The team hotel is swarming with enthusiasts. Bob Woolmer enters the lobby and admirers make a beeline for him. The Englishman smiles, relishing the kind of adulation normally reserved only for Pakistani heroes, but quickly enters the business centre. His role in Pakistan's resurgence has been considerable.

The ODI finally gets underway and there is considerable chaos outside the stadium. There are too many with tickets and passes, and too little seats or space inside. An hour after the match begins, the Arbab Niaz Stadium is completely locked and sealed from inside. It resembles a fort. We are in Peshawar, the fortified city, all right!