|| AFP ||
England's "Barmy Army" of diehard supporters brimmed with frenzied energy as they barrelled to victory in Rawalpindi this week, opening their first Pakistan Test tour in 17 years with barnstorming style.
As England sealed a 74-run victory in Monday's fading daylight, the gaggle of fanatical spectators chanted: "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to watch England win away."
Drenching the stadium in trumpet music, fans wore T-shirts reading "bring the noise", while also singing songs praising the host nation as they directed their infectious cheer towards commiserating home fans.
International cricket was suspended in Pakistan after a 2009 terror attack on the visiting Sri Lanka team, but Test play resumed under heavy security in late 2019 as the threat subsided.
"I couldn't wait to come back," veteran Barmy Army fan Andy Thompson told AFP.
Thompson attended a staggering 77 Tests and 22 ODIs on tour before "retiring" from his post in the Barmy Army three years ago.
"When they asked 'would you go back to Pakistan?' I said I will come out of retirement because I love this country," said Thompson, who last visited during the 2005 Tests.
I am very comfortable here. It's pretty much the same to 2005, the same welcoming smiles from the people and everybody wants to help you."
On the march
The Barmy Army was founded by three backpackers touring Australia in 1994, and have been a raucous presence at all of England's matches ever since.
They were given their name by the Australian press -- "barmy" because of their cultish devotion to the team, and "army" because of their huge numbers.
The fan organisation has since branched into a commercial venture, organising trips abroad to follow the England team wherever they play.
Beforehand "everybody was concerned and hesitant" about the return to Pakistan, said the firm's managing director Chris Millard. But "it's completely changed to what we thought", he added.
"It's probably the most welcoming community of people we have ever come across on a tour."
Among the heaving crowd of supporters now bound for the second Test in Multan starting Friday was Matt Root -- the father of batsman Joe Root.
"He is loving it here and so am I," declared Matt.
In non-Muslim nations, the Barmy Army are often buoyed by pints of lager, but in dry Pakistan fans bonded with opposing spectators over a shared love of tea.
The local food, spicy by European standards and avoided by the England team -- who hired a specialist chef -- was the subject of good-natured jokes.
One banner trailing from the stands in Rawalpindi read: "Imodium currently in high demand amongst the Barmy Army".
Matching the zeal of the Barmy Army is the group "Not Out" -- "a bit quieter, a bit older" but "on the same side", according to Ross Midgley, visiting Pakistan with his wife Alison.
"It is a wonderful country and we will spread the word when we get home," he said.