Luke Alfred looked back at South Africa’s 2003/04 Test series defeat in Pakistan and a cultural experience that few cricket writers have had the opportunity to repeat since.

Published in 2017

Published in 2017

There was a palpable lack of enthusiasm in my office when the sports editor asked who’d like to go to Pakistan. I looked around at the slightly glum faces and evasive eyes, ignoring the standard repertoire of cheesy jokes, and gingerly raised my hand. Pretty much the next thing I knew I was in Lahore, sweeping through night-time streets in the back of a taxi. Pakistan, I noticed, looked and smelled like India, even in the soupy light. The trunks of the old chestnuts and London planes were whitewashed, the roads colonial wide, the traffic circles ubiquitous.

Yet it didn’t always feel like India: it felt more watchful, more breath-holding. The shadow of the military was everywhere. India’s jolly mayhem was nowhere to be found.

Pakistan not only represented an opportunity for adventure. A South African side was taking shape under Graeme Smith and Eric Simons and I wanted to see how they’d cope in the dust and sun. Smith had come into the World Cup side, to replace Jonty Rhodes, earlier that year but the tournament had been an unmitigated disaster. An inability to read the Duckworth/Lewis table had been their undoing under lights at a rainy Kingsmead against Sri Lanka, and it later emerged that the formation of a fledgling Player Association was deflecting the players’ attention. As World Cup hosts, the social and sponsor demands were intense. It didn’t help that South Africa had chosen sentimental favourites. Allan Donald was patently past his best and, not for the first time, their bowling lacked flavour. Under the microscope of intense expectation, the Proteas never gelled, fear of failure being a constant companion.

By the time they went to Pakistan eight months later, things had changed. Shaun Pollock had been jettisoned as captain and a 2-2 draw against England was already under Smith’s belt. He’d been superb in England, scoring 277, 85 and 259 in his first three innings of the series, and although South Africa had reached the final Test at the Oval 2-1 up and were unable to take the series, there was a ‘Let’s-wait-and-see expectation’ in the air.

Smith was educated in Johannesburg but decided to move down to the Western Cape before he played international cricket. The person who collected him from Cape Town airport when he first arrived was Simons. The two, it was felt, would work well together. The early net sessions in Lahore unfolded in a relaxed, cheerful way. In time-honoured fashion the press corps got their accreditation as late as possible, but we were here, in Lahore, and Test cricket was only a day away. We pinched ourselves in anticipation.

I remember several things about the first Test: Paul Adams’ 7-128 in Pakistan’s first innings and the watchfulness of Taufeeq Umar’s batting, which set up an eight-wicket win for the hosts. The most dramatic passage of play during those opening days came from the fiery Shoaib Akhtar, who delivered a bouncer to Gary Kirsten that somehow smashed through his helmet visor. Kirsten received a 10-stitch gash across his cheekbone but returned later to front up to Shoaib, who was the complete wild, wobbly, hypochondriac package. Smith spoke in the press conference about struggling to line Shoaib up. There was a moment just short of the fast bowler’s gather when you lost sight of the ball because his slinging action came from behind his head. Listening to Smith’s explanation you rather felt it might be more difficult for left-handers. Kirsten, we muttered into our notebooks, was sconned by one he didn’t see.

The days passed by uneventfully. Every morning we’d haul our plastic chairs onto the roof of the Gaddafi Stadium before lighting up a Wills cigarette. Once settled, we’d engage in the pleasant ritual of pre-play shit-talking. Often, the ritual spilled over into the day’s play itself, taking a slight detour while someone wondered aloud what would be served for lunch.

Sometimes, in a kind of sleepy stab at professionalism, we’d watch an over or two and, if feeling engaged, possibly scribble a few notes. Then we’d play ‘What-meals-are-you-most-missing?’ Soon enough, the discussion of forgotten food would inspire a joke about a cold beer. Lunch would be served and some of us – the unlucky ones – would have to file 300 agency words and a scorecard, while the literati were busy on columns or think pieces, features in which we’d have to try and make Adams sound a marginally cleverer bowler than he was – an immense task. We couldn’t help but noticing that the locals weren’t much into Test cricket. After the first couple of days we weren’t always that much into cricket ourselves, frankly, but being in Pakistan beat subbing horse-racing copy or working the graveyard shift back in the office on Saturday night.

The second Test was played in Faisalabad, a three-hour journey across the parched countryside. We travelled under military escort, led by a truck with a mounted machine gun and paramilitaries in black fatigues. We stayed in the Serena, a gracious hotel set amongst delicate brick canals and fountains. It was a calming oasis with beautiful alcoves and charming little features. Every room had a tiled prayer nook and I remember the staff being gently dutiful. I’d like to think that the shit-talking stopped at the Serena but it probably didn’t – in all likelihood the tall stories continued well into the night.

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The South Africans were scalded by their loss in Lahore and fought to a teeth-clenching draw in Faisalabad, losing the series 1-0. Kirsten, now batting down the order, scored a grim second-innings century amidst talk of the side being “in transition” and that transition being “a process”. The Test closed with the advent of Ramadan and we filed our last stories in virtual darkness, soft light radiating from a yellow moon. Before we left, we were all presented with supper in a little white box used in bakeries. There wasn’t anything fresh in sight, but I remember being touched by the staff ’s kindness. No one in the rickety press box said anything but ‘Thank you’ for the rest of the evening.

The incoming tourists back in South Africa six weeks later were the West Indies. The South Africans scored a shedload of runs and Merv Dillon seemed to never stop bowling. The Test series was won 3-0 without the Proteas really breaking stride, as Smith and Simons began to forge the working relationship we’d all hoped for. Simons wasn’t to last for much longer, but we didn’t know that then. Neither did we place too much store in the comparative peacefulness of the season. There were no racial spats, no Hansie crisis, no Kolpak defections, no misreading of the tables or general fractiousness. The mellow summer passed lazily, as summers should.

I felt strangely privileged to have visited Pakistan. I wandered around the streets without fear and wrote a feature for our newspaper’s monthly sports magazine about night cricket in the alleyways and deserted streets. I bought cricket equipment for our sons back home in Johannesburg and spent a few nights playing pool in the American Club in Lahore, vaguely hating myself for slipping back into the comforts of home but loving the beer and burgers. I was younger and more wide-eyed, we all were. Little did I know that few visiting journalists would watch cricket in Pakistan in the years that followed after the Lahore terrorist attack of 2009.