Supporting a noble cause

PAKISTAN CAPTAIN INZAMAM-UL-HAQ with his Indian counterpart Rahul Dravid at the inauguration of the Bakhtiyar Amin hospital in Multan. Cricketers from both sides took part in the function.-PTI

Inzamam is a busy man. It is not just cricket, but a state-of-the-art general hospital that he has constructed with his friend that keeps him occupied, writes S. DINAKAR.

The Indians have the momentum with them after the Lahore ODI. It had been a memorable victory for the Men in Blue at the Gaddafi Stadium. Can the Pakistani bowlers recover from the mental pounding in the subsequent games?

The crowd has been brilliant throughout and the man-made barriers are hardly visible as rival supporters, seated together, cheer their teams on. The process of `bridge building' continues.

Unrest breaks out in the city the next day, though, as protests over a cartoon by a Danish publication take a violent turn. Tension rules in certain parts and there is damage to property in some areas. By evening, Lahore Police has the situation under control. Normally, this is a city that never sleeps, but this is a different kind of night.

Multan is the next stop for the cricket caravan. It is an ancient town that has survived several twists in its tale. Alexander the Great's Army marched through Multan and so have the soldiers of different other rulers.

The town, with a heart-beat and a soul, has seen history being made and re-made. The Multan Fort, scarred but not destroyed, stands witness to several swirling events from the past. But from where swords clashed and guns boomed then, music flows now.

The town has not just survived but chosen the path of peace. The Sufi music from these parts spread the message of harmony across the world. Timeless Sufi shrines dot Multan.

A different kind of music also emanates from Multan these days — the sweet sound of Inzamam's willow meeting the ball. The Pakistan skipper is the Sultan of Multan.

Inzamam is a busy man. It is not just cricket, but a state-of-the-art general hospital that he has constructed with his friend that keeps him occupied. The cricketers from both sides are present at the inaugural function.

Multan brings happy memories for Rahul Dravid and India. It is here that Dravid led the country to its first Test victory on Pakistani soil in 2004. But the Marauder of Multan, Virender Sehwag, has already left for India after straining his shoulder.

The cricket ground, on the outskirts of the town, is arguably the finest in Pakistan.

It is a wonderfully conceived and aesthetically pleasing structure. Will the cricket match the grandeur of the arena?

Inzamam is under increasing pressure. Pakistan faces a must-win situation and the host is under fire from the local media. Inzamam is also hampered by injuries to his two match-winners Shoaib Akhtar and Shahid Afridi. To make matters worse, Umar Gul, who impressed in Lahore, is ruled out with a back strain.

Meanwhile, trigger-happy match referee Chris Broad continues to shoot from his hip! His latest victim is Pakistan paceman Mohammad Asif, fined 10 per cent of his match fee for excessive appealing in Lahore.

Interestingly, as an obdurate left-handed opener in his playing days, Broad once knocked the stumps out of the ground when he received a rough decision. But like Multan itself, Broad now has embraced non-violence!

Broad is not a great communicator as a match referee, though. For reasons best known to him, he declines to give his mobile number to the journalists. "Only if there is a verdict on some issue do you need to know about it. If I call a captain or a player into my chamber over an incident, the media does not have to be informed about it."

Little does he realise that when it comes to passing on information in Pakistan, confusion abounds — a proper press release is as rare as a classical defensive stroke from Afridi. But Broad continues to stonewall.

The fourth ODI coincides with a Bandh call. The security at the team hotel and the venue is tight. Visitors and vehicles are screened; the commandos of the Elite Force form a barricade.

Comes the Big Day and Multan passes the test although Pakistan loses the series. A sea of spectators, unmindful of the difficulties of travelling to the venue, throngs the stadium and cheers good cricket from both sides.

The Men in Blue sweep to a series triumph. Rudra Pratap Singh lives a dream as he walks up to receive the Man of the Match award.

This small-town lad is waltzing on the big stage. "The youngsters have been given opportunities in different roles under pressure, and they have come good," says a proud Dravid.

Karachi is the series' final destination. Dravid maintains that India is seeking to close out the series 4-1. "Every match is important since we take the process of developing the team forward."

But then, the match is held in the aftermath of a massive `bandh' and armed police jeeps patrol the city. There are apprehensions about the conduct of the match in this otherwise buzzing and lively port city. Policemen in plain clothes swarm the stadium.

The match begins. The Indians rest Sachin Tendulkar and Irfan Pathan — in a heartening gesture Tendulkar carries drinks on to the field — but Dravid's men coast to a comfortable win.

Former Indian opener and presently Member of Parliament Navjot Singh Sidhu makes a brief appearance in the Press Box.

He remembers the Karachi one-dayer of 1989 when an irate spectator runs on to the field and puts an end to the contest when India holds sway. How much the crowd has matured over the years!

The two Board chiefs Sharad Pawar and Shaharyar Khan pledge India and Pakistan will work together in the future on key issues. Friendship is very much in the air.

The Indian cricketers complete some last-minute shopping. They are mobbed wherever they travel indicating how cricket cuts across boundaries. "We have happy memories," says Chappell.

In the coffee shop at the team hotel, an elderly singer is rendering a haunting Frank Sinatra melody — "Strangers in the Night." It's time to say goodbye to friends.

Next morning, the Pakistan International Airlines Staff are typically friendly. One of them stretches out a hand — "Congratulations on India's victory."

India's tour of Pakistan, 2006, concludes.