Batting and bowling amid the shadows

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

LAHORE, PAKISTAN -- Back in the warrens of Lahore's old city, the boys and young men don't seem too worried about whether American politicians (Hillary Rodham Clinton) or American newsmagazines (Newsweek) think Pakistan might be the most frightening country in the world. Emergency rule doesn't seem to have changed the nightly routine much either.

On Noor Street after dark, the cricket bats still come out, an old metal wicket gets set up, and spin bowlers show their stuff to the neighborhood.

Cricket is oxygen to millions of Pakistanis. It is the sport that has brought them glory in the past -- a 1992 World Cup win over England -- and, more recently, acute heartbreak when the national team was ignominiously bounced from this year's World Cup by Ireland (Ireland!). Across Pakistan, furious fans burned some of the players in effigy.

But the beauty of the game is the joy it brings to those who play it in back alleys and parking lots and roadside gullies, wherever there's space to bowl and bat. Lahore's heavy traffic has a harder time penetrating back alleys like Noor Street. And unlike the dimly lighted lanes nearby, Noor Street is ablaze under a single, powerful street lamp. It's perfect for night cricket, even if an errant shot can occasionally knock out the kunda -- the illegally wired electricity that then requires a little improvised re-wiring.

Here they play for fun and bragging rights. They play as the market stalls come down and the barbers shave their last beards before closing. And they play right through the muezzin's last call to prayer for the day, his song blending with the pop of bat against ball, and with the shouts of joy that echo off the walls of the alley.

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