I've always enjoyed the game of cricket. The rest of humanity is on a journey towards a similar enjoyment, but they just don't realise it yet. Ever since my Dad retold stories of his boyhood Aussie heroes on that flight from Brisbane to Sydney when I was a little boy, I've been captivated. I was never good enough to find great pleasure in playing the game. It is the stories and statistics that swirl around it that fascinate me. There is no other sport under the sun quite like it.
In more recent years, it is the social history that slips in with those stories that interests me. Ramachandra Guha did this so well with Indian cricket (reviewed here). Then when I spotted Peter Oborne's Wounded Tiger among the new books at Blackwell's in Oxford, I was caressing it within seconds - and finishing it within days. A History of Cricket in Pakistan.
Oborne (chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph) had me from the moment he wrote these words in the opening paragraph of his Preface.
Cricket writing about Pakistan has sometimes fallen into the wrong hands. It has been carried out by people who do not like Pakistan, are suspicious of Pakistanis, and have their own preconceptions. Autobiographies by England cricketers, with some exceptions are blind to the beauty of Pakistan and the warmth and generosity of its people (xvii).Preach it, brother. And he does... Without loss of a critical objectivity, Oborne writes with such empathy (it is reminiscent of Lieven's Pakistan: A Hard Country, reviewed here). Believe it or not, the final chapter moistened the eye with its gentle tenderness. Entitled "White on Green" (the Pakistani flag mirrors the colours of a cricket field, with white flannel set against green grass), Oborne revisits some of the main protagonists in the story in their final - or, post-cricketing - days. Kardar, Saeed, Fazal, Hanif, Cornelius - and Imran. A grace shines in their latter years in these closing pages. This mingles with the author's self-reflection on his own journey in writing the book.
Like everyone who gets to know Pakistan at all well, I fell in love with the country, and always felt an intense excitement whenever I returned (506) ... [On his train trips on visits for research] - I would go to bed watching the sunset over Sindh and wake up to sunrise over the Punjab (505) ... [And then his final words] - (Cricket in Pakistan) is magical and marvelous. Nothing else expresses half so well the singularity, the genius, the occasional madness of the people of Pakistan, and their contribution to the world sporting community (509).Enough for sentiment. Now for substance.
The book is structured with two pairs of sections: (a) the age of (AH) Kardar, 1947-1975 followed by the age of (Imran) Khan, 1976-1992; and then (b) the age of expansion (1992-2000, after winning the World Cup) followed by the age of isolation (2001-present, while 9/11 is in mind - it is the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2007 that sticks with me). Neatly done.
Here are a few highlights:
The birth of Pakistani cricket is told through the eyes of a 20 year old strike bowler, Fazal Mahmood. His heart set on being in the Indian team for a tour to Australia - and the opportunity to bowl at Don Bradman. He makes the squad and is told to report, some months later, 'to training camp at Poona on 15 August 1947'. [This is the very day of Indian independence, with Pakistan's day being the 14 August]. Fazal's hopes sank in the horrors of partition. Friends with 'a common inheritance' (40) became enemies by powers beyond their control. Hindus moved from west to east. Muslims moved from east to west. 'The whole of the Punjab was aflame amid the complete collapse of civilization' (12). It is just 35 miles from Amritsar to Lahore and, for decades, they were part of the 'same easygoing and tolerant Northern India culture' (78). After Partition, 'there were no Muslims in Amritsar and no Sikhs or Hindus in Lahore' (78). Fazal never made it to Poona.
While Indian cricket retained the cricketing infrastructure, Pakistani cricket needed to be born against this bloody backdrop. In time two Pakistani cricketing families came to the fore - the Burki clan in Lahore (offering many of the Khans, including Imran and his cousin Majid) and the Mohammed clan in Karachi (offering four brothers, Wazir, Hanif, Mushtaq, Sadiq) - but both families have their origins in the India of today. They are among the ones who moved home. The Mohammed family traveled by boat from Gujarat to Karachi and established their home in a vacated Hindu temple. One of the Mohammed brothers played in each of Pakistan's first 89 Tests. There is a delightful photo of three Burki sisters who each became mothers of Pakistani cricket captains.
But the story flows the other way as well. One of the early captains of India, Lala Amarnath, was a Hindu from Lahore. He had to leave. In the very first test between India and Pakistan, the two captains (Kardar and Amarnath) 'would have understood each other very well':
They had been brought up in the same same city, played as boys on the same streets, represented the same clubs, and tested their skills against the same players. They spoke the same language, ate the same food, and wore the same clothes. But for accident of religion and history, Amarnath and Kardar would have been on the same side (70).Years later (1978), when Amarnath returned to Pakistan with the Indian team as a commentator, a Mercedes was waiting at the Lahore airport. The manager of the Indian team thought it was for him - but, no, it was for 'Lala-sahib' - being welcomed back to his hometown. Still today, at a national level there is conflict and tension across the border - but at a personal level there can be real affection.
Pakistan had a remarkable start in international cricket. In their first ever 'Test' (not official in 1948 - but still against a full strength West Indies side) the Pakistani opening bowler (Munawwar Ali Khan) cleaned bowled the first two batsmen with his first two balls - and then had Clyde Walcott dropped at slip with his third. It almost started with a hat trick...
In their first handful of years in Test cricket they beat India, Australia, West Indies - and England. Imagine New Zealand having that kind of start? The defining win was against England at the Oval in 1954 - and not just any England, this was 'Hutton-Compton-May-Graveney-Bedser-Trueman-Statham-Laker-Lock' England. Thumped in the first three Tests, Pakistan turned things around. The same Fazal mentioned above took 6/53 from 30 consecutive overs (as a fast bowler), including Hutton-May-Compton-Graveney!
The 1960s were an aberration with it being a period of 'defiance, dullness, deference, and defensiveness' (256). Pakistan only won two Tests - both against NZ and just two weeks apart from each other (on this series Oborne remarks, 'On the one hand, neither side was good enough to score many runs. On the other hand, neither side was good enough to bowl the other out' (178)). But then 'a new generation emerged which played the game with a compelling and instinctive genius ... (and who) came to be feared and resented' (290): Imran, Miandad, Wasim, Waqar. Qadir etc. The section on leg-spinner Qadir's story is entitled 'a portrait of an artist as a great cricketer' (291).
Their brilliance is characterised by a resilience and an innovation. There is the punishment which Hanif's body endured in his 337 against the West Indies (batting for 999 minutes) - the highest second innings score in history and 'the greatest defensive innings ever played, and beyond question the most heroic' (154). 'Through his heroism and determination, Hanif had turned himself into a sporting symbol of his country's implacable determination to survive in a dangerous world (204). Then Imran Khan - 'a gorgeous manifestation of the Indian princely tradition' (287) - once played the majority of a series against India - bowling long, long spells - with shin splints that actually developed into a serious fracture that almost ended his career.
Then there is the innovation. When they pioneered 'reverse swing', the accusations of cheating rained down on them, but now that Jimmy Anderson and Dale Steyn reign - we consider them to be gifted bowlers. Excuse me?! What about the art of leg-spinning? Even Shane Warne acknowledges that Abdul Qadir is the reason for it being born again on a cricket field. Oborne rates Imran's influence on the game of cricket to be akin to WG Grace and Don Bradman (286). Amidst 'the exuberance and chaos' which is Pakistani cricket (348), has there been another cricketing nation which has combined resilience, innovation and brilliance quite like Pakistan? I cannot think of one...
But don't for one minute think that the author is some sycophant. Some of the best pages in the book are where Oborne makes critical 'assessments' of players - for example, Fazal and Kardar (168-169); Imran and Miandad (340-343). His critique can be sharp. I gained a new appreciation for Javed Miandad. I was sorry there was no inside story of Yousuf Yohanna's conversion from Christianity to Islam on his way to becoming Mohammed Yousef. And I had no idea that the current captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, is such a classy leader - but almost 40 years of age now.
Like most of his predecessors, he has had to cope with infighting, selectorial caprices and the chaotic administration of Pakistan cricket, aggravated by political and judicial interference ... (but now life as a captain) is a perpetual shuttle between foreign hotel rooms, playing home matches in deserted stadiums in places with no roots in cricket, and cut off from extended family and community networks which are so important to Pakistanis (498).politics
The impressive Justice Cornelius, the Father of Pakistan cricket - made one critical error in those early years. The system he put in place has the Head of State appointing the Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and half of the governing Board. In time Pakistani cricket became the plaything of dictators and generals and presidents, as cricket's problems reflected the problems of the state. The lack of continuity, the failure of leadership, the coups, the patronage, the volatility - and the petulance. It is all there. It is very sad.
The national team was (once) an expression of the selflessness of the creators of Pakistan. More recently, the ossified arrogance of an entrenched political elite has brought the nation's politics to its knees and (Salman Butt's) fellow cheats did not simply commit a criminal offence - they were guilty of an act of unspeakable treachery to tens of millions of Pakistani cricket fans who looked to them to bring hope and passion to their lives (508).Just when leadership has been most needed, it has been most absent. In the recent era, Ijaz Butt has been the worst ever Chairman of the PCB ('I could not find anyone with a good word to say about him', 479). An appointee of Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widower, it is Ijaz who must take some responsibility for the current decline and isolation of Pakistan cricket.
But the abuse of leadership started back in the 1960s with General Ayub Khan. He once ordered Tests to be cut from five days to four so as to give less opportunity for his opponents in the crowd to cause mischief. He also interfered directly in team selection, insisting that when the team traveled to hostile areas, local players were to be selected so as to appease the people and lessen the possibility of a disturbance.
One chapter starts with a quote about how when an English umpire makes a mistake, that is all that it is - a mistake. But when a Pakistani umpire makes a mistake, it is cheating. Speaking of umpires many of us will remember the famous finger-wagging incident between English captain Mike Gatting and Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana, But did you know that long before that incident there was an occasion when the English cricket team abducted - as in kidnapped, during a Test match - a poorly-performing umpire (Idris Baig) and submitted him to 'innocent mischief' which was more serious than both 'innocent' and 'mischief'. For a few pages there I thought I was reading fiction. The English (and other tourists) were 'locked into too narrow a set of social and moral parameters to be able to fully respond to Pakistan' (113).
There are exceptions. Alf Gover is 'one of the rare Englishmen who approached Pakistan cricket without bigotry and ignorance' (93). Bob Woolmer, as the first foreign coach of Pakistan, 'absorbed and respected the culture of Pakistan and championed his players against prejudiced critics at home and abroad' (468). There has been prejudice aplenty and Oborne gets stuck in! When Christopher Martin-Jenkins could not find a place for Fazal in his top 100 cricketers of all time, he displayed 'the Anglo-Saxon bias which has long dominated global cricket writing' (168). In the face of supposed ball-tampering with reverse swing, Woolmer 'strongly defended Pakistan's bowlers and suggested that the accusations against them owed much to racial stereotyping' (351). Let's face it - Imran, Wasim and Waqar were magicians with the ball. As recently as 1992, the British tabloid media viewed 'Pakistani cricketers as representatives of an alien and barely civilised country' (361).
More exceptions are Geoff Boycott, David Gower - and Mike Atherton. I've been troubled about how it is possible that a 17 year old cricketer (yet another brilliant Pakistani fast bowler, Mohammed Amir) can be banned from cricket for five years for match-fixing. In one of those tender passages, Oborne visits Amir in his village and plays cricket with him on the local field, with taped tennis balls - the only cricket he is allowed to play (375-377). It is a 'hideous', 'heart-breaking' story and Atherton chimes in:
I thank God that I did not, at seventeen years of age, find myself in the kind of dressing room that Amir walked into. In my 25 years of playing and watching international cricket, I cannot think of a story that has sickened me more (377).My worst sporting memory - by far, second place has been lapped three times - is New Zealand's loss to Pakistan in the semi-finals of the cricket World Cup in 1992. After reading this book, I have made peace with my grief (!). In much the same way that South Africa beat a superior All Black team in the Mandela-Invictus rugby World Cup final - I am pleased that Pakistan had its moment in the sun.
Start with Ecclesiastes. Finish with Ecclesiastes. Vanity of Vanities. There comes a day when cricket will be seen to be like smoke of the fire and breath on a cold day - the sheer weightlessness and impermanence of the whole pursuit will see cricket vanish. But until that day I will value the opportunity cricket brings me to build my understanding and affection for the peoples of the world.
Having made that confession, I reckon there will be some white on green in heaven.