One of the great South African touring pictures is of bowler Fanie de Villiers riding a bicycle through the streets of Pakistan in 1996. Behind him, perplexed locals look on as the frame barely accommodates his legs. The grin on his face couldn’t be bartered at the market for any price, however.
It speaks of an innocent joy and a freedom for which the world now longs more than ever. After almost 13 years since their last Test tour to Pakistan, South Africa’s 2021 visit to one of cricket’s most enduring lands holds terrific significance.
For a decade, Pakistan have played their home matches on neutral territory because of security concerns. This saw a generation of players almost forget what it means to have the home advantage. “It was extremely challenging for the Pakistan Cricket Board, and very sad for so many players and fans,” international cricket analyst Mazher Arshad explained from Pakistan.
After the Lahore attack in March 2009 – during which a dozen masked gunmen shot at the Sri Lankan team bus on its way to the Gaddafi Stadium, killing six security officers and two civilians – international visits ceased for years. Five Sri Lankan players were injured in the attack.
At the time, then Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq expressed his fears for the future of cricket in the country. “Pakistan’s image will be hit, and only time will tell how much damage has been done,” he said helplessly.
Inzamam was correct, and rebuilding trust has been a long and slow process. Former South African allrounder Mike Procter was the International Cricket Council (ICC) match referee scheduled for that day in Lahore, and he recalls the sadness of the people.
“There was so much concern,” said Procter. “It was something out of their control and there really was no choice but to cancel the tour immediately. It was a very sad day for cricket, because the Pakistani people have always been so passionate about the game.”
In years gone by, a tour of Pakistan was regarded as a rite of international passage. Fittingly, it was Sri Lanka who embarked on the first Test tour to the country in more than a decade, when they toured in 2019. Time remains the greatest healer and the collective sigh of Pakistani relief was palpable.
Fast bowlers’ paradise
As Arshad explained, South Africa’s visit is key to other big cricketing nations returning to the country. “It is such a vital tour. In the next ICC Test Championship window, Pakistan are supposed to host England, New Zealand and Australia. If all things go smoothly with South Africa, there is no reason why those other nations won’t come, too.”
The thrill of playing in Pakistan lies in conditions that are not what you expect or find on the rest of the subcontinent. They are the oil to Indian water. “Pakistan conditions are very different. There is not as much spin in our surfaces, and our wickets have more pace,” said Arshad with pride.
Pakistan has a long and legendary legacy of fast bowling with its brilliant sorcerers of speed, swing and no shortage of aggression. “Certainly, in Rawalpindi, there is going to be a lot of encouragement for the likes of Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada. We are looking forward to seeing them here,” added Arshad.
South Africa has a proud history of touring the country. They are one of only two teams to win a Test in Karachi, the venue for the opening game on 26 January. Their last visit, in 2007, was the beginning of their rich vein of form on the international road, and there is a love and admiration for expressive players who take the game forward.
Looking back on that 2007 trip, then Proteas captain Graeme Smith recalled just how tense the cricket was. “It was such a breakthrough for our belief to win that series, because Pakistan were such a tough nut to crack at home.
“They had a quality team, with experience. Winning in Karachi showed that our new approach had potential, and drawing in Lahore to seal the series was hugely satisfying,” said Smith.
In many ways, the 2021 squad finds itself in a similar place to Smith’s class of 2007. There is rebuilding on the go and some young players are expected to start taking on far more responsibility. The great pity for this trip, however, is that the Covid-19 pandemic will not allow Pakistan to fully embrace this generation of South African players.
They will not have their Fanie moment, rumbling through street markets on a rickety old bike. But the might of Pakistan will be evident on home soil once again. The lone star nation has been crashing on the Arab Emirates couch for too long, awkwardly bringing dates over for dinner, with no place of its own to break roti and devour chicken karahi.
This has all changed now and the sport alone is a tantalising prospect. Pakistan has not stopped producing the pace prospects, as their Twenty20 Pakistan Super League has grown and tapped hidden talents.
Passion in the region
Newly installed South African performance analyst Rivash Gobind is on his first assignment with the Proteas, having left his post as Afghanistan assistant coach to Lance Klusener. He has up-close experience of the passion for the game in the region, regardless of political circumstance.
“It has been a real eye-opener, working with Afghanistan. It has put quite a few things that we take for granted into sharp perspective,” said Gobind. “Cricket is everything for so many people in that part of the world. It gives people hope, and that explains why they put so much into it. Even practice sessions with Afghanistan would get heated, because they care and cricket is an outlet for that passion.”
Given those deep-seated feelings for the game, Gobind said playing Pakistan on their home soil is a journey into the unknown for everyone. “They have had to learn to play without a home, so getting back on to their own grounds will be a challenge for them, too.”
Gobind is also breaking new ground. After a solid playing career with the Dolphins, he quickly got into coaching, starting at Kingsmead and then working with the Warriors. Though he said he feels that the Afghanistan project was unfinished, the chance to wear the colours of his nation were irresistible.
“We had massive plans for Afghanistan and Covid-19 set quite a few of those back. There is so much potential in that country, and we are now seeing more and more of them come to the fore.”
Gobind and Klusener had been plotting to take down South Africa in the T20 World Cup group fixture in Adelaide, Australia, last year. When that fixture list initially came out, spin superstar Rashid Khan turned to Gobind and smiled: “Don’t worry coach. That will be a home game for us, because they love me in Adelaide.”
That was pre-pandemic and the tournament being postponed. The venue has now changed to India, later this year. Come October, Gobind and Khan will be on opposing sides. “That is the nature of sport, and things have certainly changed a lot in the past year. I couldn’t be more excited to work with the talent in the South African team. And Pakistan is an incredible place to start.”
In so many ways, then, this South African tour of Pakistan is a new dawn. Carefree bike rides through crowded markets have been replaced by a substantial security detail and empty streets, but the significance is no less.
International cricket in Pakistan has a heartbeat again. And soon its roar will reverberate across the mountains once more.