THE PCB WAY OF DRAWING CROWDS

Sourav Ganguly with his wife and daughter at one of the eating joints on way from Lahore to Faisalabad.-

"India was visiting Pakistan for a Test series after 14 years in 2004 and that tour was an EMOTIONAL AFFAIR. This time there is more focus on cricket," says Abbas Zaidi, Director of PCB's Board Operations, to S. Dinakar in Lahore.

Lahore is an elegant city of buildings that are ancient and modern, of broad roads and fountains, of gardens, of markets and monuments. It is also a city rich in culture, a place with a distinct heartbeat of its own.

It is a colourful city; the Liberty market buzzes with life till midnight, so does the bright Anarkali Bazaar, whose Food Street is famous. Theatre and drama abound in the city, which has an energetic student presence.

Despite the hectic pace of life, there is a sense of serenity about Lahore. It is a battle-scarred place, and the Lahore fort has been a witness to some timeless tales from the past. Meanwhile, the Indians get busy in Lahore, so do the Pakistanis. The net sessions are hard and intense. The expectations from the first Test are high.

Predictably, much attention is on the pitch. Indian captain Rahul Dravid spends much time looking at it. After the match, he would say "Preparation of the pitch is a difficult exercise. Even some of the cricketers, after so many years, are not able to read the wicket correctly." One catches up with Abbas Zaidi, Director of PCB's Board Operations. He speaks about PCB's initiative to draw the crowds back to Test cricket. "We saw that the rich people, who received complimentary tickets, hardly turned up for the Test matches. So we decided to distribute 60 per cent of the tickets to those who were great supporters of the game, but did not have the resources to buy tickets."

Zaidi revealed all that these fans had to do was to collect their free tickets from one of the local banks near their area. "This really worked. We had wonderful crowds for the series against England."

The PCB has earmarked 50 per cent of the tickets to be given away free during the India-Pakistan Test series. "The Gadaffi Stadium has a capacity of around 30,000 and I expect tremendous participation from the spectators. We have also lowered the cost of the other tickets," he says. The Test is no more than a day away, but the palpable excitement, that accompanied India's historic tour of Pakistan in 2004, is conspicuous by its absence. There is less hype on this campaign, and the man on the street seems more concerned about issues other than cricket.

Questioned about the essential difference between the India-Pakistan series of 2004 and the present tour, the former diplomat responded: "India was visiting Pakistan for a Test series after 14 years in 2004 and that tour was an emotional affair. This time there is more focus on cricket."

The Test gets underway and runs begin to flow. Soon it becomes obvious that the surface is as docile as they come. There is more attention on the drama that preceded the Test where the television cameras catch captain Rahul Dravid and former skipper Sourav Ganguly locked in an animated conversation. It is obvious that the discussion centred around opening the innings.

BCCI President Sharad Pawar makes an appearance at the Gaddafi Stadium. He talks about all the four sub-continental Test nations making a joint bid for the 2011 World Cup. India and Pakistan draw up a schedule where the two countries will meet, home and away, once in two years for a Test series. Plans for a yearly five-match ODI series at an off-shore venue with a sizeable Indian and Pakistani population are also mooted. Meanwhile, as both teams pile up the runs and the pitch comes under fire, the PCB chief Shaharyar Khan moots the idea of a six-day Test. The contingent of fans from India to watch the Test is smaller. But they are a lively bunch and are kept in good spirits by the astounding opening partnership between Dravid and Virender Sehwag. Sadly, despite PCB's drive, much of the stadium is empty when Sehwag dismisses the bowling and Dravid blunts the attack. Shaharyar Khan says, "The crowds in Pakistan for the Test matches have always been poor. I still feel it is getting better now."

There is a surreal feel to the Gaddafi Stadium with dark clouds resulting in the umpires frequently pulling out their light meters and the floodlights often being switched on. The gloomy atmosphere is brightened by Sehwag's blistering strokeplay.

The Gaddafi Stadium undoubtedly has one of the most spacious and well-conceived press boxes; in fact there are two of them flanking the rooms meant for television and radio. The only irritants are the fixed chairs that hamper the movement of the journalists.

In one of the frequent hold-ups due to fading light and rain, Sachin Tendulkar catches up with a handicapped friend, who goes up to him in his wheelchair. It is one of those occasions when cricket stretches out a caring hand.

The Lahore Test draws to a close. Dravid and Sehwag fail by a proverbial whisker to achieve the world record first wicket Test partnership. The Indian captain smiles wistfully. Sehwag cannot quite mask his disappointment. A chance to make history appears and then disappears.

The drive from Lahore to Faisalabad is a 150-minute journey in one of Pakistan's several modern motorways. Darkness sets in when we stop for refreshments on the outskirts of our destination. Even as we munch into the food, Ganguly emerges from the darkness and walks into the restaurant, with his wife Dona and little daughter Sana following him. Behind him are the security personnel.

The Dada has not travelled with the rest of the team to Faisalabad since he had stayed back to receive his wife and daughter who had flown into Lahore during the evening.

The man is going through a testing phase, but retains his confidence and smile. Dona talks about her dance performances and how the four-year-old Sana has already started receiving dancing lessons. "She will not have any problems with her footwork," Ganguly quips.

Soon the former Indian captain and his convoy of security vehicles disappear into the mist and the stillness of the night. In the days ahead, Ganguly too will seek to emerge from the fog enveloping his career and embrace brightness.