Pakistan, hospitable Pakistan

It seems English cricket is closer to the modern way of thinking than at any time since the 19th century.


NOVEMBER 7 — My, how things change since I last publish my thoughts in this old diary. They win one match by two runs, another by three wickets — after losing the first Test by 239 runs — and draw two more, all in the space of six weeks, and suddenly England's whole world is different. Andrew `Freddie' Flintoff — only his wife Rachael is forbidden to call him Freddie which tells you a lot about this amiable man — is a national hero, on the covers of all the show biz magazines, followed to the supermarket and the petrol station by photographers and earning the sort of money Geoff Boycott and Ian Botham can only dream about. His new book flies off the shelves, the news of a new baby Flintoff gets the sort of headlines that the arrival of a young prince merit and when he moves house you can be forgiven thinking that the Royal family leave Buckingham Palace. Flintoff says he does not like all the attention but we will have to see how he changes in the next few years. Remarkably little so far, say those close to him; he is the same happy giant who joins Lancashire 10 years ago and makes the wise ones reach for new adjectives. Let's hope that he remains true to himself because fame and glory and a big bank balance can make even the best of us see only the stars and forget where our feet once tread.

November 8 — It is just as amazing what a difference a book makes. Of course, the publisher wants to sell great quantities — the smile on the face of Roddy Bloomfield, a publisher I share with Flintoff tells you that — and like every publisher he begs the author to make himself available for interviews with anyone who asks. It turns taciturn men into the most loquacious in the universe; it even inspires Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, to say a few words. In the past six years Fletcher has been grudging with his thoughts, only one of my colleagues has his phone number and to say he keeps his ideas close to his chest is to indulge in understatement of the highest order. Now Fletcher is clearly loving his place before the cameras, the microphones, the tape recorder and the pencil poised above a notebook. He describes himself as a "visionary", forecasts a shock ahead for Kevin Pietersen and scorns the words and deeds of the world champion Australians his men beat so narrowly. I hope his words do not come back to haunt him, either in Australia a year hence or shortly afterwards in the World Cup.

November 9 — The rest of cricket stays true to character. Various English counties complain they do not have enough money, ICC, now isolated in a media village in Dubai, manage to turn matches between the world champions and the rest of the world into a shambles. Whoever imagines that the Test may last six days? Only an organisation trying to run cricket from a desert can think that. Of course, there is a court battle in India to sort out television rights, England's image conscious players make all the proper noises and take all the correct decisions in earthquake-hit Pakistan and when their opening batsman Andrew Strauss says he wants to fly home to see his first baby born he receives an immediate leave pass. I remember only a few years ago that Robin Smith was told he could not go home — at his own expense when he was not playing — from Australia to see his son and his squeal of delight when someone shows him a picture of the baby in a newspaper. "Oh, it's the baby," he shouts as he snatches the paper out of my hands. England's selectors agree to the world XI stars Flintoff and Steve Harmison spending "quality time" with their families and joining the tour late; all morale-building gestures of a sort never understood only 10 years ago by captains who insist families are a nuisance on tour and who refuse to consider Graham Thorpe's state of mind during the break-up of his marriage. It seems English cricket is closer to the modern way of thinking than at any time since the 19th century when, it is often said, battles are won by the lessons learnt on the playing fields of Eton.

November 10 — Good old Pakistan; enigmatic, intriguing, mysterious and fascinating as ever. It's my first visit to Multan; in fact there have been only four Tests in this desert city. Few English people will believe it but I love tours of this country where hospitality comes as standard, where helpfulness is delivered with a smile and where you learn to expect the unusual. On my first trip to the ground in Multan I see a full-size snooker table on the pavement. Someone leans his bicycle against the table; not even the eccentric Alex Higgins does that. The next day the table stands nearer the middle of the road but someone covers it with a plastic sheet. It looks as if it may be 120 years old to me. Perhaps it is part of the local scene since England first tour what is then northern India. Old friends gather to offer guided tours round the city, meals in their homes, meetings with important friends. BBC demand a scoreboard they can see from their commentary position and one is erected forthwith although sadly it is updated only at the end of every over and then not always accurately. Geoff Boycott, fresh from a trip to his new home in South Africa and looking, everyone is pleased to see, fit and well arrives to find his pass for the ground is made out to "Julian Boycott." Arlo White, the youngster in the BBC pack, leaves his shoes in the hotel in Lahore — don't even ask why or how — but has no trouble buying an elegant pair in Multan for the price of a couple of pairs of shoelaces back home.

November 11 — We travel to the ground behind a platoon of soldiers all armed as if a major war is on the cards. Each roundabout is blocked, every side street has a guard, each junction is sealed. It takes only 10 minutes to make the journey; on one occasion when there is no presidential escort we need 45 minutes to go the same distance. Is it necessary? I doubt it. Even the vilest terrorist organisation knows that harming sportsmen is stupid. It can undo years of good publicity because there are so many people in the world who love athletes, footballers and cricketers and will hate anyone who causes them harm. "This is a peaceful country," the television umpire Ashad Rauf assures me. "No-one here will cause any harm." I am inclined to believe these assurances, not least because before I stay 48 hours in Pakistan I have half a dozen invitations to dinner. It really is the most hospitable place.

November 12 — Bob Woolmer discovers his ability to coach at 12. His father takes him to a club near his home in Kent and together they watch the president at the nets. Although this batman is a mighty offside hitter he cannot play a shot to leg. "Would you mind watching me and perhaps giving me a tip or two?" he says to Bob's father. Two more misses down the legside and schoolboy Bob puts in his two pennyworth. "Why don't you play a bit later and let the ball come on to the bat?" he asks. The president is furious, screams "I'm not being told how to bat by a lad in short pants," and storms out of the nets to calm down by rolling the pitch for the next match. In such ways are great careers born.

November 13 — Never mind the Test; there is also a big tournament in America at the moment. It's being staged in Florida between nine states of the USA even though Hurricane Wilma has already forced one postponement and despite the floods that have left one of the venues under three feet of water. Three English umpires will ensure fair play during the three-day, 20-over tournament. It is just good to know that Uncle Sam is beginning to take an interest in a game that has never quite taken off there before. And so I hear from India there is a new tournament in which each sides has just 10 overs and a batsman can be out if he faces three dot balls in succession. Is this the new cricket or the new baseball? I think we ought to have an ICC ruling.