The enduring memory of Pakistan at the recently concluded World Cup was a spell by left-arm paceman Wahab Riaz. For a while, he terrorised the Australian all-rounder Shane Watson with a spate of bouncers. Forget run making, just staying at the crease was enough. Dare one say it but physical injury was a real possibility. The drama was enhanced by Riaz who mockingly applauded Watson for every delivery he endured.
Arguably, in a campaign that brought despair-inducing performances, nothing symbolised Pakistan like the spell by Riaz. It was a gift of the legacy bequeathed by that towering figure, Imran Khan. It was in Sydney, in 1977, when Imran unleashed an iconic spell of fast bowling. Lions, even if they tried, could not have matched his aggression.
While Imran gave Pakistan many reasons to smile, his predisposition to discover and nurture young pace bowlers has ensured the national side continues to remain relevant at the biggest stage. Pace bowling is one of the manifestations of Pakistaniat, a term that comes alive in Osman Samiuddin’s eminently readable history of the sport in Pakistan.
Samiuddin also brings to light words like jazba and izzat. Few terms describe the ethos of Pakistan and its cricket as well as them. Jazba, Samiuddin describes, is a combination of hope, sport and passion. Izzat stands for self-respect, a belief that has no room for a sense of inferiority.
The terms carry greater meaning in today’s age when Pakistan cricket struggles to recover its glory days. In fact the national side always seems to be teetering on the brink; crisis never seems far away. Albeit a simplistic argument, the same could be said of the country too. However, it won’t be unfair to claim that the men’s national side has often represented the country’s hopes, worries and beliefs. No wonder then that the prevailing administration of the day has had an undue say in the running of the sport.
An example oft-quoted in Pakistan states, with much justification, that the country does its best when run by dictators. The argument finds its support from the supposition that it is easier to ‘get things done’ in the absence of bureaucracy and red-tapism.
Former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and current Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Shahrayar Khan promotes this idea in the book too. Although his first stint as the board’s chief was viewed positively by most, the body remained under an ad-hoc administration for three years as there was no constitution. “If you have a normal system, it slows down things a bit, although it is democratic,” said the chairman in defence of adhocism.
It is not a surprise then that Pakistan’s greatest captains, Abdul Hafeez Kardar and Imran Khan, were defined by their autocratic leanings as well. Of them Samiuddin writes, “Pakistan has experience with such leadership types, men who hijack the voice of a country rather than necessarily speak for a nation. In many ways the country is set up to perpetuate this lineage. Kardar and Imran are, in this sense, stroked from the same old, dried paintbrush as Jinnah and the Bhuttos.”
There’s more to this comparison. As has been the case with numerous leaders and public faces in other walks of life, an Oxbridge education went a long way in establishing a captain’s credentials. Kardar and Imran were worldly men, a consequence of their education at Oxford. Although despised for their akkri gardan (stiff neck), the lure of their gravitas was too strong to resist.
The Madras writer N. Ramaswami was another victim of Kardar’s charms. “If Plato were to be imagined as a cricketer, a wild fancy, he would perhaps comport himself much like this late scholar of Oxford,” wrote Ramaswami about that architect of Pakistan cricket. A different type of cricketer also affected the nation. The likes of Fazal Mahmood and Javed Miandad were more earthy characters; they shared the commonly held dislike of English-speaking Oxford types as well. However, that did not stop them from making a legendary contribution to Pakistan cricket.
As years have passed, the sport has acquired a more democratic character in the country. Samiuddin writes that till India’s visit of Pakistan in 1978, only eight cities and towns had been represented in the Test side. Since then, the number has gone up to 27 and it now includes villages as well.
While democratisation reaches unprecedented levels, there are problems that threaten to affect Pakistan cricket to an almost similar degree. Corruption and terrorism have become inescapable ills in public life over the past few decades; cricket has suffered on account of both too. No major side has travelled to Pakistan since the terrorist attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in 2009 while corruption, not just in the form of match-fixing, continues to grate the soul of cricket nationwide.
As Pakistan cricket battles for a brighter future, it’s blessed to possess a reliable story teller in Samiuddin. Time has also allowed him to analyse the subject objectively without losing his gift for witticisms. The result is an account that provides a comprehensive insight into Pakistan cricket. A recent book, Wounded Tiger, by Peter Oborne had lent considerable insight into the subject. The Unquiet Ones enhances one’s understanding like never before.
The Unquiet Ones — A History of Pakistan Cricket: Osman Samiuddin; HarperCollins Publishers, A-75, Sector 57, Noida-201301. Rs. 799.