Seeing young children playing cricket on any available bare patch of land, in the streets or alleyways, is a common sight in the plains of Pakistan. There they are emulating their heroes who they regularly watch on their television screens nearly every day of the month but rarely get an opportunity to see in the flesh or watch live in a cricket match.
The game’s popularity is such that now even in the remotest corners, in valleys and on top of towering mountains, the enthusiasm and interest shown has got to be seen to be believed. In the early years of Pakistan teams consisted of only Karachi and Lahore-based players but now there is no dearth of talent in any region of this country, if explored properly.
The rewards and incentives for playing in the national team are such that if anyone makes it to the top the sky is the limit for him as we can see from the example of those who have already become a part of this team.
Hockey, once Pakistan’s national game, has now taken a back seat compared to what cricket has achieved in recent times despite the unavoidable and disturbing security worries that have kept international teams away.
Interest in the game and the talent that we have now abounds even in the remote regions of Pakistan as I saw recently on my visit to Chitral in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. It only needs to be explored and unearthed.
Peshawar, Mardan and Swabi’s contribution in the shape of Younis Khan, Umar Gul, Wajahatullah Wasti and Junaid Khan we all know about unfortunately the authorities who control the game in the country do not seem to have ventured deeper to explore the treasure trove of talent that we have in the length and breadth of Pakistan.
|Chitrali children wearing Pakistan cricket team caps watch the matches / Photos by the writer|
I wouldn’t have ever known this had I not visited Chitral Valley and seen for myself the local cricketers and the local teams there competing against the Englishmen of the Wounded Tiger XI from London comprising club cricketers keen to see Pakistan.
The visiting team led by Peter Oborne, a celebrated British journalist and the author of Wounded Tiger: The History of Cricket in Pakistan found to their peril how difficult it was for them to play at equal level and beat the local teams.
The story was always the same on the mud-rolled pitches tucked in the rich green meadows of the Kalash Valley, Drosh, Ayun Valley, Booni and Mastuj in upper Chitral. The local boys showed to them that even in Chitral a game of cricket is as vibrant as in any other part of Pakistan.
Visiting English cricketers are pleasantly surprised to find so much talent and love for cricket in Chitral Valley
The beauty of Chitral with its gushing Chitral River and Kabul River bordering Afghanistan and the towering mountains like the snow-capped Hindukush range, Trishmir Peak and Lowari Top and with all that a cricket match in the lush green valleys was what the visiting team needed to make their trip worth coming.
Down in the valleys the hot springs at Garam Chashma and fruit-laden cherry and mulberry trees provide their own breathtaking view as the cricketers display their skills. But what really took my breath away was the fact that here in this remote part of Pakistan where the game still remains unexplored and not much heard of there is an abundance of cricketing talent only waiting to be discovered.
|Prince Siraj-ul-Mulk (wearing a pakol) with players of Ayun Valley XI and Wounded Tiger XI along with its captain Peter Oborne (in the floppy hat)|
To be realistic it was unthinkable for me to see so many fast bowlers and in such great numbers in the region. They were a mixture of strong, tall and slim youngsters, fearsome in pace and in line and direction running up to charge at the batsmen. They may have been raw and with little skill but were still impressive to say the least. Such talent must not go undiscovered and unharnessed. I have no doubt in my mind that the country will benefit from it immensely if they are scouted by our cricket officials.
The Chitral Cricket Association (CCA) have been vying for years to have their region registered with the cricket authorities, the Pakistan Cricket Board, but so far have had little encouragement or success as Javed, CCA’s president, informed me.
Down in the valleys the hot springs at Garam Chashma and fruit-laden cherry and mulberry trees provide their own breathtaking view as the cricketers display their skills.
Interest in the game has been kept alive through the patronage of various individuals. Prince Siraj-ul-Mulk (a former national airline captain), who travelled with the Wounded Tiger XI wherever they played and also hosted them at Hindukush Heights, a location from where you can only sit and admire the breathtaking scenery down in the valleys is one of them. His cousins Prince Masood-ul-Mulk and Maqsood-ul-Mulk have also been helpful. Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), led by their engineer in charge Khadimullah, also plays a role.
In my experience of travelling the world with various international teams I have never seen such hospitality, warmth and generosity as I saw while in the valley. Being greeted in Chitrali tradition, with music and dance, and being showered with rose petals as they entered the premises for the matches would forever remain etched in the minds of the visitors. The Chitral Scouts (Frontier Constabulary) who guard the borders of the region, the Langland School and College headed by Carey Schofield, an English lady, and the Ayun Government High School and its principal Waqar Ahmed, who also hosted Wounded Tiger’s XI, were all responsible for it. At times they even wondered if they were playing in Pakistan.
|Students of the Langland School and College greet the visiting team from England by performing a Chitrali dance|
They felt no security risk, no fear and there was not even a minor incident as they moved from lower Chitral to its upper regions. In Lahore at the same time there were road blockades, armoured vehicles and security men keeping a careful watch on every move around them as Zimbabwe and Pakistan played a successful home series at the heavily-guarded Gaddafi Stadium, the first international matches in Pakistan after six years.
Hundreds of school children wearing Pakistan team caps mostly made up the crowd in the heavenly Chitral Valley, cheering every stroke or a menacing delivery racing past the batsmen. In a couple of matches even the paragliders in colourful parachutes from mountains as high as 7,778m glided down to land on the pitch and greet the visitors while holding welcome banners.
Fresh air, ideal surroundings, gushing rivers and falls, the fragrance of flowers and the shrubbery in the valleys and snow-laden mountains above and around was heaven for these lovers of cricket. And why stop at just cricket? At five to seven thousand feet above sea level, the visitors along with myself were also able to witness a game of polo. The unforgettable experience left us with many memories to carry with us and cherish for as long s we live.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine June 21st, 2015