white on green

I have this fascination with the history of cricket in South Asia.

"WOW - way to go, Paul. Great opening line. You've just lost 99% of your readers."

"But doesn't speaking from out of our passion tend to gain us an audience?"

"Well, yes ... but cricket? ... and cricket in South Asia? That is asking a lot of people."

Too bad. I am going to keep going.

Two of the best sports books that I have ever read are Ramachandra Guha's A Corner of a Foreign Field and Peter Oborne's Wounded Tiger. It may not surprise you that I have reviewed both of them, here and here. Nor might it surprise you that they are both about ... drum roll, please ... the history of cricket in South Asia.

Now, can you imagine my unalloyed joy, strolling through Hyderabad airport last month after a heavy week - when my eyes settle on another book with Oborne's name on the cover and a title which picks up the final chapter of the book mentioned above: White on Green (a clever way of noting how the colours of the Pakistan flag are the same as the colours of the cricket field, with white clothing running around on green grass).

Well, you don't have to do much imagining at all because I took a photo to mark the occasion. "Don't buy a book by its cover?" Too late, the deed was done before the cover was opened ...

... but as I drew nearer, there were mixed feelings. The subtitle had me racing for the pages inside: "celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket" (no sport or country produces drama quite like Pakistan cricket!) ... but the Table of Contents was so disappointing  It is an edited book. What?! A collection of 40 different stories, without an over-riding plot. No?!

Never mind. Passion trumped disappointment. In I waded to 'celebrate the drama of Pakistan cricket' with the authors. 40 stories, as the authors wandered their way around Pakistan, interviewing people.

Here are five of the best stories (in ascending order)...

5. If you know anything about cricket or about Pakistan, you'll have heard the name 'Imran Khan' (now, a leading politician). Long before Imran ruled the Pakistan cricket world with his charisma, there was an AH Kardar who did the ruling. An autocrat who appears to be vindictive, biased - and extraordinarily powerful as captain. On one occasion, on the way home from the West Indies in 1958, the team stopped in the USA and Kardar was invited to appear in a TV quiz show, To Tell the Truth. What?! Here is the episode (first 10 minutes):

4. Stories around Partition, when Pakistan was formed as a nation, are incredible. They alone could fill a book, with all the drama related to families being split apart. 'Many of Pakistan's early cricketers suffered at Partition' (27). Can I squeeze in two of the stories here - about two 12 year olds?

Prince Aslam, heir to a wealthy, princely state in pre-Partition India, shifted to Pakistan with his mother. While he became a generous, open-hearted, fun-loving party guy, he was also a genius as a spin bowler. 'As a party piece he liked to bowl a ball close to the garden wall and make it stop dead with backspin' (15). He was the inventor of the doosra, the ball that spins the 'other', or unexpected, way. He once totally 'mesmerised' (19) a visiting Australian cricket team. On one occasion he was so angry at being given out that he went straight to his car, took out two revolvers, walked back on to the ground, fired the guns in the air ... everyone fled and the match was abandoned (20-21).

In this second story it was the father (Master Aziz) who shifted to Pakistan, while the 12 year old son remained with relatives in India. The chapter title? "The Many Sons of Master Aziz" - because the father became a coach and 'guiding light' (33) for many of Pakistan's finest players, even as his son 'whom he adored and (had been) grooming to be a Test player' (30) was lost to him back in India. Actually, 'at his birth (this father) had passed a new cricket ball in front of his son's eyes to get him used to the moving ball' (32). 'For the rest of his life, Master Aziz could not talk about his son without tears' (31). He coached the five Mohammed brothers, four of whom played for Pakistan - while his own son did go on to play for India - Salim Durrani by name, 'a flamboyant, crowd-pleasing all rounder' (30). I remember watching him play...

There are full movies in these single stories.

3. What about about the bunch of teenagers from the little town of Dera Ismail Khan, eager to represent their town in its first ever cricket match. It is a sleepless overnight trip just to reach the venue, starting with a three hour trip (including crossing the mighty Indus River on a pontoon bridge) just to get to the nearest railway station, 15 miles to the east.
The young men might have done better to miss their train. The Railways beat them by an innings and 851 runs. It was the biggest victory in cricket history. It seems certain to stay in the record books for ever. (113)

2. Warning: another movie is in the following story. 'Pakistan's Cricketing Suffragettes'. The start of cricket for women in Pakistan - thanks to two sisters (and their wealthy benefactor-father), Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan. They were living in the UK at the time, but they moved back to Pakistan just to make this dream happen. They faced so much opposition, from the laws of the land, the expectations of families, and the prejudices of men. One of the early efforts at a game had 'no spectators, except for eight thousand policemen' (204). On another occasion, as they set off for a tour to play in another country, they smuggled their kit-bags (playing gear) into large cartons - and changed into their Pakistan uniforms in the toilets on the airplane.

1. 'Chitral: Cricket in a Magic Kingdom' (281-287) is a reprinted story which first appeared on the cricinfo website here (check out some breath-taking photos!) where a 'group of bumbling British amateurs sally forth into a remote, spectacular corner of Pakistan' - to play cricket against the locals. Chitral is way back in the old North West Frontier province (now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) not that far from the border with Afghanistan - and in the heart of the Himalayas. It is now on my bucket-list. The British 'limped from one defeat to another' (284) - and at one point, 'fifty school boys had been deployed to scurry down ravines to retrieve balls that would otherwise undoubtedly have been lost' (283).

The article is written with that same tenderness that marked Oborne's Wounded Tiger and Pakistan: A Hard Country (reviewed here) - not such a bad thing for a people that are so easily and so commonly misrepresented. It finishes with words that I can only echo from my own experience: 'Pakistan might be a hard country, but for those who take the trouble to go, it will never leave you' (287).

There are so many other good stories in the book. The story of the guy who plays his first game for Pakistan, aged 47. The story of the Pakistani innovation known as 'tapeball cricket' (a tennis ball covered in electrical tape) - 'On a railway journey from Karachi to Lahore in 2013, we looked out the window and saw over 250 tapeball matches in progress, compared with fewer than ten hardball matches' (327). The story of the Pakistani cricketer (Mohsin Khan) who headed for Indian Bollywood as his cricketing career slowed down. He is now the only cricketer with more movies than Test matches in his CV. Here is his first song-and-dance routine, from the movie Raaz:

But there are two reflections I want to retain from reading this book. One is a throw-away line in the Chitral story and the other a persistent theme throughout numerous stories. Amidst all the heavy defeats for the 'bumbling British amateurs' it was said to them by a Pakistani journalist: 'You play, and that is what is important' (284). In these more troubled areas of the world, something happens with a willingness to visit, to participate - it is good for everyone. It is the power of solidarity.

That persistent theme? The way so many rise to cricketing fame from obscurity and the way so many who have known the cricketing fame, die in obscurity. With the former, it is the story of Tauseef Ahmed (176-180) that immediately comes to mind. He is asked to come over and bowl at the Pakistani batsmen 'in the nets' where they are practicing. Next thing you know, he is in the team - and has a successful career. It is uncanny how often this happens in Pakistan! 'The unknown genius who goes from nowhere straight into the Pakistan team' (340).

It is also uncanny how many live their final days - and die - in obscurity. Of those mentioned above, AH Kardar, in his final years, 'shared his bedroom with his younger grandson' (79). And that one who was 47 when he played his first game for Pakistan? 'He died alongside the roadside not far from his house. No one recognised his body' (67). What about Prince Aslam? 'Undermined by cheap drink and depression, ("the Lost Prince of Pakistan cricket") died suddenly and alone, aged only 45' (24). And Master Aziz? Not only did he never see his own son again, when one of his 'many sons' (Mushtaq Mohammed) led Pakistan to a victory over India in Karachi, 'Master Aziz sat alone and unrecognised in the stands, eating an omelette wrapped in old newspaper' (35).

Ah yes, 'celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket'

nice chatting



Popular Posts