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A lifetime experience to tour and explore Pakistan

In 1994, I walked across the border from Amritsar, turned right at Lahore and entered the magical tribal world of what was then the North West Frontier Province. Months later, having braved Durra Adam Khel, marveled at the mountains and been moved by the verdant valleys of Kailash and Swat, I made a quick exit without travelling further.

The abiding memory, apart from the beauty, was the hospitality.

Fast forward 28 years and I leave, sadly, without visiting what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but in Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore, I have experienced warmth and hospitality that far exceeded memory or expectation.

The people of Pakistan were - to a woman, child and man - delighted to see the Australian men’s cricket team arrive and even the straggle of journalists, who accompanied them on this tour.

Pakistan’s media has been so welcoming too, celebrating our presence and going out of their way to assist us. It’s set a high standard for when they come to our country and one I am concerned to say we will struggle to meet.

It’s no secret that some of the Australian team were hesitant to visit, but a full squad came and every single one of them is glad they did.

Usman Khawaja, Shane Watson and the like were important in persuading them of the importance of this series. Pat Cummins, who shapes as a wonderful leader, understood it and soon even the most apprehensive came around.

Both boards and administrations must be praised for pulling this off. PCB Chief Executive Faisal Hasnain spoke of the “sincere intent” in negotiating the series. It is an important phrase.

Many contributed to arranging the historic Benaud-Qadir series, too many to be acknowledged unfortunately. Zakir Khan and Nick Hockley were important, so too Wasim Khan, who went before, and Stuart Bailey who liaised with Lt Col (retd) Asif Mahmood.

I can’t list them all and apologise for not doing so.

The security had been extraordinary, hopefully there will be less next time.

What a success, however, it has been.

To see David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne’s face light up as they engaged with the besotted crowds during the first Test at ‘Pindi brought joy to my heart.

Australian teams are never received this well in other countries.

The spirit that flowed from the crowd was obvious too in the warmth between the sides.

Rizwan seemed to be every Aussie’s mate. And the theatrics between Shaheen and Warner later in the series were moments cricket should cherish. Their mock challenge and eventual mirth embodied the spirit of the game (something which seemed to exist in name only for most of my time).

For the Australian team, it was important to be involved in a series, which invoked such goodwill after events of the not so distant past. Too often Australian cricket has been self-interested. While both sides are richer for this experience, the visitors might come away with a little more from the visit. Sorry to bring marketing language into this, but this has enhanced the brand as well as opened eyes to the joy of cricket in Pakistan.

I felt a little sorry for the cricketers, to be honest, trapped in a gilded bubble because of things too tiresome to mention. They missed much. But, such is the lot of travelling cricketers in most countries these days. At least they got out for golf and BBQs and the like.

The PCB kindly offered security to the journalists too and while that was kind, we felt it unnecessary.

Without it, we have been free to explore and immerse ourselves in Pakistan, our sense of adventure growing as time opened up toward the back end of the series.

This was a hectic tour, the Tests close together and the demands on us excessive. The tragic deaths of Rod Marsh and Shane Warne, combined with the strange deadlines, as well as radio and podcast commitments took up too much of our time.

We had to turn down so many hospitable offers and for that I am sorry. Next time …

In Karachi, however, we had BBQ by the sea at Kolachi and marveled at the serene architectural beauty of the Coconut Grove restaurant. These places are stunning and would turn the heads of the most well-heeled tourist.

Boat Basin, however, was more to our liking and frequented often. Burns Road was as an experience recommended by Bazid Khan and a memorable one.

Alas, dining was the closest we could come to exploring the cities culture, but isn’t that what Pakistanis do anyway?

In Lahore, we have had more time and explored the walled city, wandered the fort, eaten on the rooftop by the mosque and dined at Café Aylanto - which could have been in New York or London, but in neither of those places would management have arranged a chocolate plate welcoming us to Lahore!

Later, I got to walk the streets of Walton where the back lanes, with the chickens and goats and crowds, make for a wonderful wander.

I swear, I had the best food of the whole trip in a small chai shop. Those hot chappatis!

Laxmi Chowk is elegantly disheveled and distracting, an impromptu tour of the Odeon Cinema was a step back into another era, the chai shops were fun, the Takatak a cultural experience I talked about for days.

What’s going on with those roosters outside the restaurants!

And then there was Anakali Bazaar.

The cricket has been fun, but the chance to explore has been enriching. We’ve been invited into mosques and cricket academies, homes and shops … we’ve had a time we’ll never forget.

Every single person has been kind and welcoming. Every time I’ve had the chance on radio or in print or on the Cricket Et Cetera podcast, I have told the Australians how good this place is.

The English media have been asking and receiving the same answers.

Too often we’re thanked for coming to Pakistan, when it should be us thanking you and asking you to forgive us for being absent so long.

It won’t be that long between visits again. Inshallah!

Peter Lalor is The Australian’s chief cricket writer and has been a reporter for over 30 years. An award-winning journalist and author he has covered Test cricket in all parts of the world for the newspaper. He has written, among other things, a history of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a biography of Ron Barassi, a bestselling true crime book and co-authored a biography of Phillip Hughes.