Crowd got in free but they paid in noise
Across the desert, they came. On foot, many of them. Small groups of men, fresh from prayers, this being the holy day.
It is not a vast expanse of sand
between the main road and the Sheik Zayed Stadium, hardly the stuff of
Lawrence of Arabia, but it looks about a mile and would have been hot
and dusty, and to make the trek a chap would really have to like his
And, delightfully, some people still do. Certainly if it is on offer gratis.
Open the door, let 'em in: Big crowd helped atmosphere
That was the tactic in Abu Dhabi, and it worked. The hosts granted free admission and the people paid with atmosphere.
'It was great to have a crowd in,' said England's Stuart Broad and it is sometimes forgotten that the No 1 Test team in the world spend a lot of time getting motivated to be wonderful in a void.
Australians reject Test cricket the moment their team start losing and its significance is dying on the sub-continent, too.
That was what made Friday a joyous occasion.
Suddenly, this felt like a tour of Asia again, not a series of matches cast adrift in some random outpost location.
There are no public transport links to this corner of the United Arab Emirates.
One day, Abu Dhabi Cricket Club will be absorbed by the suburbs of Khalifa City but it is not any day soon.
Little housing estates are still unfinished shells; the landscape is barren and its verdant centrepiece remote.
This week, the only humans visible beyond the stadium environs have been some distant figures playing cricket on an artificial pitch with an outfield of crushed sand.
Something to build on: Pakistan fans at Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi
On Friday, however, the pilgrims arrived. Steadily, 14,000 of them, through the afternoon, creating makeshift car parks of dust-caked pick-ups.
They stood on a grassy bank or in the shade of the main stand as, gradually, the areas of the arena occupied by the hosts filled to such capacity that two officials – they all seem to be young German girls, for some reason – began panicking about over-crowding.
At a cricket match in Abu Dhabi!
It was a beautiful sight. Their concerns were ridiculous, obviously.
The half of the stadium populated by English tourists remained sparsely numbered. The new arrivals just had to jostle for position in those parts instead, which they did, noisy in their support, some climbing over high barriers to then rejoin what might be termed the 'ultras' on the green verge.
Outside, large queues continued clamouring to get in.
Free admission had done the trick.
Why cricket does not provide it more often is a mystery. This is a sport played predominantly in poor countries. Let people in for nothing and make money from food, drink and merchandise.
Better for the players, better for the television broadcasters, who die a little inside every time a camera searches in vain for a spectator who cares.
We do not have this problem with domestic Test matches but from the Caribbean to the sub-continent, support for Test cricket is dwindling.
This was a glimpse of what could be.
Drama for the crowd: Kevin Pietersen collides with Asad Shafiq as Eoin Morgan (left) looks on
The fear was that in Abu Dhabi cricket would be the sport that, quite literally, could not give tickets away.
Well, it could.
Now ask the players what they prefer.
'It was so quiet on the first morning of the first Test that we could hear Bumble (Sky expert and Sportsmail columnist David Lloyd) commentating,' Broad added.
'We had to ask the umpires to turn the speakers down. So credit to the authorities for letting people in for free. It was quite lively towards the end and hopefully it will be the same tomorrow.'
Quite simply, there are too many wide-open spaces in Test cricket these days, too many occasions when the numbers on the field before play starts and the numbers in the crowd when the first ball is bowled total roughly the same.
The first morning of this tour, played at the DSC Cricket Stadium in Dubai, offered a tragic sight for those that truly love Test cricket.
Row upon row of empty blue seats gazing silently down on the world's best cricket team.
The predicted demise of the sport at Test level has never seemed more immediate. Here was a fading game, banished to a wilderness, its loss mourned by few.
It was going to be a long month. And then this.
Something to shout about: Monty Panesar took three wickets
There is an intriguing contest unfolding in Abu Dhabi, increasingly too close to call.
Yet the spectacle is hardly the point. People came to the cricket because it was cricket.
They brought flags and knowledge and enthusiasm and, above all, noise and for once it did not feel that we were watching on television with the sound turned down.
Cricket does still have a hold over the sub-continent, its exiles in particular, and inspired by Pakistan's resurgence, free admission and a free afternoon, they demonstrated that love.
The players responded, both sets, with a show. An even better one is promised today.
Those that think the world begins and ends with football may sneer at this fuss over a free event. What triumph is there in giving tickets away
Yet Pakistan cricket is a wandering, homeless, shambles of an institution; plagued by recent corruption and forced to play beyond its borders because violent men use sport as a vehicle for their cause.
Yet here, self-respect has been regained.
A three-day victory over England in the first Test has been followed by spirited resistance, and the vibrancy of the setting for the third's day play is the ultimate vindication.
People do want to watch Pakistan play, they still love their team, and they love their sport.
Whatever happens from here, cricket wins.