White on Green: A reflective recollection of Pakistan’s cricket journey
‘White on Green’ is not a book about the history of cricket in Pakistan and yet it takes up the story through individuals who profoundly influenced the game. It is not a sequel and yet it is, in a way, a prologue to the ‘Wounded Tiger’ by Peter Oborne (2014).
One of these fascinating cricketing characters was Prince Aslam, a scion of Juna Garh ruling family, a handy all-rounder who nearly made it to the Test team. A colourful character with partiality for finer spirits, he passed away in his early 40s on account of alcohol addiction. An impression emerges that his demeanour and off-field indiscretions offended the then cricket supremo skipper, Abdul Hafeez Kardar.
The first chapter of the book is devoted to his cricketing abilities and some interesting aspects of his career. This chapter is followed by 39 chapters, all revolving around fascinating characters in the tumultuous saga of Pakistan cricket. Among the many persona are names like Master Abdul Aziz, the mentor of the Mohammad brothers, Intikhab Alam, Billy Ibadullah, Mian Baksh, Duncan Sharpe, Aftab Gul, Mohsin Khan, Tauseef Ahmed, the hero of every net bowler, Shahryar Khan, a diplomat, Younis Khan, and Misbahul Haq. All these are not merely names but stories in the rich and varied fabric of Pakistan cricket.
These names are interwoven in a way that lends itself to the evolvement of the game – its highs and lows. It makes an interesting point that Test cricket during General Ziaul Haq’s period was a success story and the winning ratio was highest during his tenure. General Tauqir Zia, on the other hand, contributed the most for the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), especially the setting up of the National Cricket Academy in Lahore and other provincial headquarters. The book also takes a peek in the sitting room of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan and his love for the game; the way he started the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) team, being one of the high profile contributions to the game. It also mentions how he intervened in an effort to try and save the life of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by asking General Zia to revoke the death sentence which the wily general declined.
Amongst other high profile promoters and benefactors of the game are names like Kafiluddin, Pir Pagara, Syed Hassan Mahmood (chief minister of Bhawalpur). This was followed by the likes of Dr Muhammad Ali Shah and his son Nadeem Omar. However, the role of Dr Shah (a minister in the government of Sindh) is somewhat marred by his impulsive act of snatching the Pakistan flag from the flag bearer of the Pakistan Olympic contingent at the London Olympics, despite his services to the game.
Among the more positive developments in the cricketing world is the invention of the “doosra” by Saqlain Mushtaq in connivance with Moin Khan. According to the authors, the credit goes to Mushtaq who had unblemished action as compared to later exponents like Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka) and Saeed Ajmal. Both Muralitharan and Ajmal had their deliveries and actions questioned for its legitimacy by quite a few Test umpires and were later scrutinised and rectified.
Tape-ball cricket gets special mention in the book and its roots are traced to the North Nazimabad area of Karachi. Tape-ball cricket quickly caught on the fancy of many cricket lovers in the main cities of the country. The reasons are not hard to fathom as its far cheaper and inexpensive in comparison to real cricket played with the hard ball, high quality bats and other accessories. In the new version, all you need is a tennis ball, some aesthetic tape and a lighter bat, with the rules of the game being also quite flexible. The matches yield speedy results, being generally around 10 overs a side. The trend is catching on in all parts of Pakistan, especially in the larger cities where tournaments are arranged regularly albeit with modest prize money.
Right from the get go, Pakistan cricket has been anything but a roller coaster ride. In geographical terms, it is often said to be a country of extremes. The team’s performance is always unpredictable as they swing from the sublime to the ridiculous, and at times, scandalous. The reasons varying from a weak domestic infrastructure to uneven playing conditions or infirmities in selection process, but there is no gainsaying sheer passion for the game. From the seashores of Karachi, the plains of Punjab, or the mountainous pastures of the north, the passion for the game is unbelievable. The authors, Oborne and Richard Heller, have transposed these images through the printed word with finesse and deftness.
Oborne has been a regular visitor to Pakistan over the past decade having almost traversed its entire length and breadth by rail and road. Heller, on the other hand, is a more recent convert to the Pakistani diaspora. The common factor between the two is that both are great friends of Pakistan and not only its cricket. The love affair seeps through even when they are overtly critical of our lapses. To illustrate, I refer to a story Oborne covered about the incident where an adolescent of Pakistani origin was hauled up by the Belgian police for carrying a cricket bat on a bus seen ostensibly as an offensive weapon.
The 40 chapters are all somehow intertwined with the history of cricket. Having reported on politics, both the authors offer a brief but insightful analysis on the history of the game and its enormous impact on Pakistan. For a nation often divided on political, religious and racial lines, cricket serves as a balming gel. As the title suggests, it is no less than a celebration of the drama that enthrals Pakistan cricket with its highs and lows.
Some of the snippets like ‘Chitral – Cricket in a Magic Kingdon’ and ‘A Prince and Diplomat’ make for compelling reading. A special mention is also made of Qamar Ahmad, a cricket commentator and writer, who has reported on more than 400 Test matches and stands tall even in the select company of Richie Benaud and John Woodcock. Ahmed also covered almost 750 One Day Internationals (ODI).
The book is full of nuggets drawn from the vast data pertaining to cricket memorabilia. It imperceptibly makes for the return of international cricket to Pakistan. Oborne and Heller have already symbolically taken a lead by bringing a team from Britain to play in Chitral and Lahore. Hospitality and the locations of the ground enamoured the team members so much that they lost all the matches in the Magic Kingdom (Chitral).
In the current scenario, where Pakistan cricket stands isolated and terrorism has taken a heavy toll on the fabric of society, we are in dire need of friends. There is no better way of acknowledging that friendship than reading ‘White on Green’.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.