How the Black Caps are being received in Pakistan

Police commandos stand guard outside the national stadium in Karachi as the Black Caps trained ahead of the first test.

Fareed Khan/AP

Police commandos stand guard outside the national stadium in Karachi as the Black Caps trained ahead of the first test.

“A guest is a blessing.” Words of intent, as the Black Caps will be discovering this week in Karachi.

For a generation, Pakistan has been without international cricket. The team has played in empty UAE stadiums, living in exile from family and culture. Scan revenue. Pakistanis have not seen their heroes in flesh: play consumed only through LCD.

As much as playing, though, Pakistan wishes to celebrate foreign cricket. Provide hospitality. Holler joy at Kane Williamson. It ain’t trans-Tasman here in the Islamic republic. Pakistan want to play cricket with New Zealand. Vitally, they want to do so in Pakistan.

Kiwis in Karachi are duly warned. Must your energy. Prepare your selfie face. Kindness is coming.

The Black Caps will be thanked – again and again – for visiting this country. It’s standard Pakistani practice: disconcert your guest with gifts and gentle attention. When finally humbled, feed them. To bursting point. Repeat the next day.

This is a world away from September 2021 when the Black Caps took flight and Pakistan spat fire. Then, fear was of a stone rolling back on the tomb. Return to exile was too real a prospect. Cricket and anxiety being twin in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Cricket Board chairman, Najam Sethi, showed stern kindness today: “There was not sufficient cause to withdraw at that time. But shall we say that’s water under the bridge?”

Pakistani police officers stand guard while a convoy carrying the New Zealand cricket team enters the Pindi Cricket Stadium for a practice session in Rawalpindi in 2021.

Anjum Naveed/AP

Pakistani police officers stand guard while a convoy carrying the New Zealand cricket team enters the Pindi Cricket Stadium for a practice session in Rawalpindi in 2021.

The Fazal Mahmood Stand sung it even sweeter on day one of the first test. Chacha Cricket (part-uncle, part-Gandalf) marshaled schoolboys to chant through the morning air:

WELCOME

WELCOME

NEW ZEALAND

WELCOME

This is Pakistan’s international rehabilitation.

What mortifies Pakistan is being stereotyped with terrorism. In living memory, Peshawar was a hippy hash dream. Karachi an Asian hub of liberalism. This land is a trading center of the world.

Now, after two decades of discord – tens of thousands of civilian lives lost – cricket has a security mandate. And Pakistan’s response is not lacking.

Across five-day test matches, city districts are shut so team buses may travel empty roads. Locals mass in dark side streets behind barricades, waiting on the athletes’ convoy before and after play – just to cross the block. Hours are added to already long commutes. Hundreds of thousands’ lives disrupted and business spoilt so cricket may take place.

SKY SPORTS

Pakistan captain Babar Azam was dropped by Black Cap Daryl Mitchell on 12 and went on to finish day one of the first test unbeaten on 161.

Police from across Pakistan’s great provinces are massed into town. Snipers watch from roofs.

The foreigner in Pakistan is repeatedly asked, “Are you happy? Do you feel safe? Boss, any tension?”

But here is a warning for the Black Caps.

Don’t mention food. No references to an upset tummy in public. England recently fouled the waters by bringing a chef on tour. Pakistan was not dripping with sympathy when their opponents fell ill with a virus.

Blair Tickner can brew all the Christmas coffee New Zealand wants. In this land of milky tea, that’s just foreign cache.

But if the daal mash is so oily its texture is like pesto, eat a banana. If weighed down by the unending roti of Pakistan, try the rice. Diplomacy is at a premium.

Pakistan is trending among international travelers – mass tourism is tangible. Hunza, in far north Pakistan, has the potential of Queenstown. From the Karakorum and Pamirs into the Roof of the World. Here on the plains, thousands of English accompanied Ben Stokes’ team. Quiz them about it in Mt Maunganui. (There are stragglers at this Boxing Day test.)

Instagramable Islamabad – “your next uni-break!” – is a stretch. Pakistan is still devastated by flood. The Prime Minister was deposed, and then shot. Just some of her problems are corruption, poverty and climate change.

But cricket has as much potential as anything to renew Pakistan. This is the sport of tribal warlords, street pedlars and women. There’s no off-season. No concept of winter football. And those volatile politics have of late starred Imran Khan, Pakistan’s greatest cricketer.

So when you catch a glance of the sea-breezed stands at Karachi this week, realize there’s more going on than the empty concrete blocks suggest.

Benjamin Golby is a freelance cricket writer

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