Two nights before England’s T20I squad flew to Pakistan, some of the touring party were in London for Eoin Morgan’s testimonial dinner. Conversation naturally turned to the trip and what to expect in a country where nobody present had played international cricket before.
Or, at least, almost nobody. Among the dinner’s attendees was England’s Player of the Match from their previous international game in Pakistan, who is due to return in December with the Test squad. As Jos Buttler recalled, “Morgs said to Jimmy [Anderson]’you’re the only bloke who’s been to Pakistan and you still remain, you old b*****d!'”
James Anderson was an unused member of the Test squad on that last tour back in 2005, but was a promising one-day bowler at the time. During the five-match ODI series that wrapped the trip up after three Tests, he ran in with a hint of blond highlighting his hair and was England’s leading wicket-taker [alongside Liam Plunkett and Andrew Flintoff].
In the fifth ODI, a dead rubber which England won by six runs in Rawalpindi, Anderson won the match award – no mean feat, given he had not been picked in their starting XI. With Flintoff playing as a batter because of an injury, Anderson came in via the short-lived Supersub rule, and took 4 for 48, three of them at the death.
Two weeks previously, Anderson and England had played their only warm-up match ahead of that one-day series, against Pakistan A at Lahore’s Gymkhana ground. It is a small, quaint venue, tucked away in the old Lawrence Gardens – now known as Bagh-e-Jinnah – but one teeming with history.
Seventeen years ago, Anderson was the last England player to bowl a ball there when Bazid Khan – who has since established himself as a respected pundit and broadcaster – lap-swept him for four to seal a one-wicket victory. His partner, who did not face a ball, was Imran Tahir, playing in his hometown five-and-a-half years before making his South Africa debut.
The Gymkhana ground had hosted three men’s internationals when Pakistan was a young Test-playing nation – and country – between 1955 and 1959, but the Gaddafi Stadium and its adjacent national high-performance center have dominated the Lahore cricketing scene ever since.
England teams have often played at the Gymkhana ground down the years, as have a number of other touring sides. As recently as 2007, South Africa warmed up for an ODI series against a local XI there, Mark Boucher and AB de Villiers both hitting hundreds.
With every step around the boundary’s edge, it feels increasingly unlikely that an international team would ever play there again. As more and more fixtures are squeezed into a calendar which is already close to breaking point, few tours leave enough time for warm-up games; when they do, teams often prefer to play intra-squad matches to ensure a higher quality of opposition.
England did not play a single warm-up game before this T20I series and when they return for the Test tour, most of their preparation will take place in Abu Dhabi. Presidential-style security has confined the touring party to their hotels, aside from a couple of rounds of golf, but players have become grudgingly accepting of the restrictions.
The Wisden Almanack review of the 2005 tour detailed “all-embracing protection from which the players could not escape” and noted that only five squad members made the trip to Wagah Gate on Pakistan’s border with India, “just 30 minutes’ drive from their hotel in Lahore”. Security has ramped up a notch in the years since, with no expense spared.
On this tour, the schedule has been relentless. England have not trained at all since the start of the series, with seven games crammed into 13 days. “It makes it tough because we can’t practice consistently on the wickets we’re playing on,” Dawid Malan said. “I wouldn’t say that’s an excuse but that’s ultimately the nature of international cricket.”
Tour games, particularly at boutique venues, are not commercially viable. In a sport where the bottomline has become increasingly important, that will continue to outweigh the opportunity they provide to see another side of a country and engage with its cricketing heritage.
It may be too soon to lament the death of the tour game. England played them in Barbados and Antigua earlier this year and are due to play one in New Zealand early next year and two in Bangladesh in late February. As the world emerges from the Covid era, they may yet feature more prominently in teams’ schedules.
But, increasingly, the idea of the world’s best traipsing down to grounds like Lahore’s Bagh-e-Jinnah feels like an anachronism. Somewhere along the journey towards a more corporate, more professional sport, some of cricket’s romance has been lost.