Jos Buttler and England aware of debt to Pakistan on first tour since 2005 | England cricket team

Jos Buttler does not recall much about England’s last trip to Pakistan. It was in 2005 and he was a teenager playing for Somerset Under-15s. He could tell you plenty about England’s win in the Ashes that summer – “probably the best series ever” – but he knows only fragments of the tour that followed it.

There are highlight-package snatches of Mohammad Yousuf’s implacable batting, Danish Kaneria’s sly grin as he schemed over his next delivery, and Shoaib Akhtar’s fringe flapping like a crow’s wings as he celebrated defeating another of England’s batsmen who, hapless and baffled, collapsed twice as they lost the Test series two-nil.

“I think I remember watching the Sports Personality of the Year awards that year,” Buttler says, “and I feel like, did the team get the award and they were all sat out here lined up?” They did. They stayed up till 3am to appear live on video link and paid for it the next day when they were ripped apart by Akhtar again in a one-day game England lost by seven wickets.

It has been 17 years since that tour. For six of those, immediately after the terror attack on the Sri Lanka team in March 2009, there was no international cricket played in Pakistan at all. There is a group of players who passed their entire time in international cricket without ever playing a game in front of their own home crowds. The careers of the fast bowler Tanvir Ahmed, wicketkeeper Adnan Akmal and spinner Zulfiqar Babar began after the exile and ended before it did. And there is a generation of fans who for six years saw their team play only on television in empty stadiums in the United Arab Emirates.

Shoaib Akhtar celebrates the dismissal of the England batsman Vikram Solanki in Rawalpindi in December 2005.
Shoaib Akhtar celebrates the dismissal of the England batsman Vikram Solanki during the fourth ODI in Rawalpindi in December 2005. Photograph: Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images

It is true, too, but less often said, that there is a generation of English players, such as Buttler, who have never had the chance to come and experience the sport as it is played here. “They’ve been robbed too,” says England’s coach, Matthew Mott, who came here with Australia’s academy side in 1995, when they, too, got worked over by Akhtar. “It was one of the best tours I’ve ever been on. As an Australian growing up, it felt so foreign and so exciting.”

It still does. Buttler has played in 15 different countries, across five continents, but has never been here before. Which is one reason why he wanted to come even though he is injured and it is touch and go whether he will be able to play.

Buttler has no real idea what to expect, except that the crowd will be loud and the bowling fast. Some of his squad do, from the Pakistan Super League. Alex Hales, who knows Karachi well, says it is a wonderful place to bat if you are in form and an awful one if you are not: a quick, skiddy pitch and a battery of tearaway quicks queuing up to bowl at your head and your toes.

England will get their first real taste of all that on Tuesday. It is an unavoidable shame that until then they will be shut off from the city around them. There is talk in the old reports about how the team were cloistered in 2005 but they still visited the local hospital, went on a trip to see the Wagah gate and even took a helicopter tour to Kashmir. This time they are confined to their hotel, where they exercise in the gym and play golf on a simulator. The players are better paid now but also a little poorer for it. They will not see the old polo grounds over the road where Hanif Mohammad and his brothers first learned the game and where the boys still go to play tape-ball cricket.

Chris Woakes bowls in the nets in Karachi.
Chris Woakes bowls in the nets in Karachi. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Or the Gymkhana next door, where Hanif, still only 17, scored 64 in Pakistan’s famous victory against MCC in 1951, a result that won the country its Test status. The game is all around here. Its noises are a part of Karachi’s racket, along with the cars and bird caws and muezzin calls as well as the sirens of England’s police escort, the chuntering of the helicopter that is following their bus to the ground and back and the 25,000 fans shouting at the ground.

Locals complain that the Pakistan Cricket Board has not done a good job of marketing the tour but it still expects much bigger crowds for these seven T20 games than the Tests that will follow in December.

The tour is a military operation, involving 7,500 soldiers who will perform security checks on the residents, close roads and shutter petrol stations along the route. England are imposing on their hosts and they know it. Which means they do not share that sense of hardship that England teams have felt here in the past.

The standard of their hotels helps soften it, of course, and so do their experiences playing in India and Bangladesh, but not so much as the sense that they are in Pakistan’s debt. Their team came to England at the height of the pandemic when death rates in the UK were 150 times what they were here. And then England bailed on the short thank-you tour they were supposed to make this time last year.

All this has apparently been brought up only once in the recent negotiations between the boards during discussions about the Test venues. Some of England’s staff were unhappy that the second game is being played in Multan, because the hotel and travel logistics there are difficult. The PCB politely reminded them that the England and Wales Cricket Board had made the Pakistan team endure 14 days in isolation in a Premier Inn in Worcester.

“It’s not just a great opportunity for the players; it is a great thing for all cricket to be here,” says Mott. “A lot of sacrifices have been made in England and over here for this to go ahead. We want to honour that by coming over here and embracing it as much as we can. And also by winning.”

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