Cricket on the streets of towns and cities of Pakistan is a way of life [Alan Fisher] 

It's Sunday morning on the streets of Lahore, and the weekly cricket matches are well under way. 

Everywhere in this city seems to be a potential pitch. We stumble across two games going on in a local car park, in front of a row of shops. Bricks mark the bowler's end, soft-drink crates are makeshift wickets. 

The games are loud, fiercely contested and a reminder that this truly is the people's game, the one loved and adored by the masses in Pakistan.

It's not just about batting and bowling; there is the more basic concern of avoiding cars when fielding. The pitches stretch across a main road. Arguments rage if a catch taken off a tree is really out or if a batsman made it past the chalk line to safety after a spectacular run out which knocked the top crate clean off. It's a scene repeated not just here in Lahore but across the country.

Speaking to a few of the players, there's a real love for the game. Asif wants me to understand why it's so popular: "I think that 99 per cent of Pakistan, not only guys but also girls, are interested in watching cricket," he says.

Another young man introduces himself as the captain of the team that has won two matches this morning already: "We have legends of cricket. That's why every man loves to play cricket. We have lots of cricket all over our city and all of Pakistan."

Sporting isolation

A short drive away from the street games, is the headquarters of Pakistani cricket, the Gadafi Stadium. Here, the Pakistani board runs the game, when it's not caught up in the sporadic in-fighting that burns through the organisation.

Inside, new executive boxes and offices are being built at the far end of the ground while the groundsman prepares the wicket for the next match here. When it is packed with 30,000 fans, urging their team on, it is easy to see why this is one of the most intimidating sporting arenas in the world.

"All the other international [cricket] boards talk about the security situation here, but is it really much worse than other places in the world?"

Faraz Haider, sports broadcaster

But it'll be some time before the fans return here for an international match. In March last year, the Sri Lankan cricket team was heading to the ground for a test match.  Their bus came under fire from militants. Eight Pakistani security people died, and eight of the Sri Lankan team were injured.

The Sri Lankans decided they couldn't stay, and headed home. Pakistan's sporting isolation began. They could go abroad to play, but no country could take the risk of travelling here.

Pakistan's cricket team did not play a single test match in the rest of 2008. One-day matches were moved to Dubai or Abu Dhabi. And now, as a test series against Australia draws to a close with defeat in all three matches for the Pakistanis, Faraz Haider, a sports broadcaster, believes the team is clearly suffering.

"They don't look as if they're match fit for internationals. It would be better if we could return to hosting matches here," he says.

"All the other international boards talk about the security situation here, but is it really much worse than other places in the world? I hope soon that international cricket will return to Pakistan."

Loss of income 

In one corner of the Lahore ground, there is a stand named after Imran Khan, one of the country's cricketing legends. In his luxury home, high in the hills above Islamabad, there are a few reminders of his glory days. 

There are concerns grassroots cricket could
be harmed due to the isolation [Alan Fisher]
Khan was a bold and brave all-rounder. He led his country to World Cup success in 1992 but he worries that the refusal of teams to travel will hit the long term future of Pakistani cricket.

"When international teams don't travel here, you lose the income that generates.  And that's the money that is used to fund your grassroots and pay your coaches.  And that's the breeding ground for future test stars."

He believes the love of cricket will always exist: "It is the top sport - it's where the glamour and the money is [in Pakistan] but we hope countries will soon return." 

Away from the cameras, people we spoke to around the street cricket games criticised militants for dragging sport into their battle.

"Sport should have been left alone. It is for the people, not the politicans," said one man, who was reluctant to give his name, but who got pats on the back from his friends.

There are no plans by any international teams to tour here in 2010, and matches in the 2011 Cricket World Cup scheduled for Pakistan have already been pulled and moved elsewhere because of the security situation. 

For the moment, the closest link with the national team is when the players here stand in an old car park, shut out the traffic noise, and - just for a second - dream of being their heroes.

Source: Al Jazeera