Cricket in Pakistan has always been that bit different. The brilliance, the madness, the controversy; all seemed to a foreign observer to be exaggerated, defining features of the nation’s cricketing style. Where else could have produced Shahid Afridi or Shoaib Akhtar, capable of days of staggering skill and inexplicable awfulness? Who else can harness the haal, so memorably described by Osman Samiuddun. Even the consistent greats, like Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram were controversial on and off the field, with their teammates and their opponents. Inzamam-ul-Haq, capable of playing brilliant innings with transcendent economy of movement, was provoked into attacking a fan with a bat during a game. The “aloo” story is well-known enough to have lost some of its shock value, but try to imagine it happening again. On a more prosaic level, Abdul Razzaq once missed a Test match because he was ill from eating too much spinach…
You might expect a conservative English journalist to perpetuate stereotypes about the exoticism and unreliability of Pakistan. Instead, in Wounded Tiger, Peter Oborne has produced an exhaustive and perceptive history of cricket in Pakistan, from its pre-partition roots to the modern age of Misbah and Ajmal. It is extensively researched and comprehensive in its coverage, especially of the first couple of decades of Pakistan’s existence, and balances the cricketing detail and trivia with a contextualising political and social history. This is the key to Wounded Tiger, and to a deeper understanding of Pakistani cricket: this is sport as a purposeful postcolonial, Islamic venture, interwoven with national identity. The Pakistan cricket team is an embodiment of national values, an extension of a project of the state.
This point is crucial to understanding many of the later problems that the sport and the nation have encountered. To complain about political interference is to miss the point – the results of the national team, especially in politically sensitive matches – must be either utilised or explained. Unlike India, where cricket was primarily introduced by traders, and then patronised by a feudal elite, the game came to (what is now) Pakistan with soldiers. It was a far more clearly imperial sport, and one that was mainly spread through the middle classes and establishment schools. India’s cricketing world was “collaborationist, divisive [and] celebrated the British Empire”, a denial of the independence movement and Swaraj. In Pakistan, cricket became a “sporting manifestation of Jinnah’s Pakistan movement”. It defined itself in opposition to both Britain and India; Oborne emphasis the popular nature of the sport, ending the book with a specific reference to the inclusivity of the sport in Pakistan, and comparing the white and green of a cricket match to the Pakistani flag. Cricket and popular identity triangulate with national image.
Only in the West Indies is cricket tied so closely to a narrative of decolonisation. Viv Richards and others proudly expressed their pride in dominating the world as black men; those West Indians who toured apartheid South Africa were shunned. But playing cricket as an island federation also only highlighted continued injustice. The West Indies dominated as a pan-Caribbean force whilst the individual islands failed to maintain meaningful political or economic union, sporting unity an example of what could have been. In Pakistan, the national cricket team remained far more closely united with the nation and its self-identity, for good and bad.
Much of this was introduced at the very start of Pakistan’s Test playing history by Abdul Hafeez Kardar, the first captain and both inheritor and founder of Pakistan’s cricketing spirit of resistance. He helped to establish a strong Pakistan team, helped by fine players like Fazal Mahmood, who was instrumental in their famous victory over England at The Oval in 1954. Kardar, despite his Oxford education, fostered an outsider mentality for Pakistan, ensuring players and supporters were aware of slights against his team. One of the most striking incidences was the kidnapping of Idris Baig, a prominent Pakistani umpire, by members of the English touring party in 1955-6. A number of England players decided that Baig was biased against them, and so seized him off the street and took him back to their hotel, where they soaked him with water. The tourists saw it as high jinks; the Pakistani board and establishment saw it as a national slander. It foreshadowed the later Mike Gatting-Shakoor Rana incident, and set the tone for decades of misunderstanding. Particularly against England, Pakistan felt they were singled out for criticism and suspicion. No attempt to was made to understand them; instead the English attitude, from press and players, on ball-tampering, chucking and other skulduggery was somewhere between mockery and vigilantism. Pakistan can’t be trusted, to an extent where it makes for comedy.
It was Pakistan’s stubbornness, combined with the entropy that leaked in from the political world, that made Pakistan exciting, but it also created many of the problems the players and the game faced. Teams were often factionalised and in matches against India, the fear of defeat was all-consuming. Even probably the best Pakistan team, in the mid-80s, struggled with divides. Despite, or perhaps because of, the two best players, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad, both being fine leaders, their relationship was poor, with an effect on the rest of the team. The presentations of Javed and Imran in the English press was a classic example of their distorted view of Pakistan and its cricket: despite both men being well educated and middle class, Imran’s time at Oxford and grand air lead him to be depicted as a successor to the Indian maharajahs who patronised fin de siècle cricket, whilst Javed’s competitiveness led him to be depicted as a chippy urchin and a “wild man” who you might spot in an “ambush along the Khyber”.
It was the problems in Pakistani cricket that combined with social and economic climate to create many of the problems that have emerged in recent years. Corruption and poverty have contributed to match-fixing; Mohammad Amir’s case was the most tragic, considering his age and his background. Born into poverty, surviving disease, he was one of the most talented bowlers in the world at 17. Instead of having his talent nurtured and supported, he was betrayed and corrupted by teammates and hangers-on. The insurgency and militancy in parts of the country led to the tragic attack on the Sri Lanka team in 2009. Since the nadir of the 2010 spot-fixing, Misbah-ul-Haq done well to restore some pride to Pakistani cricket. He is the latest Great Man in Oborne’s eyes, joining the lineage of Kardar, Imran and others. In Saeed Ajmal, he has a wonderful spinner, whose relationship with Moeen Ali, the England all-rounder, has the potential to calm future series. The inflammatory tweeting of images of Ajmal’s action by Stuart Broad, among others, could do quite the opposite.
Pakistan can do little to control ignorant attitudes towards it, and should not seek to change for the sake of others. Oborne’s book is successful because it sympathetically presents the state of cricket in Pakistan, without withholding praise to support an argument. The national team is still a vehicle of statehood, and, as such, needs to be strong, now more than ever. India’s financial muscle has transformed the nature of cricket, with a post-colonial order being established. Pakistan’s geopolitics has ruled it out of profiting from the shift in power. Perhaps some hope lies in the rise of a strong Afghan team, which Pakistan has been eager to patronise. As a duumvirate, they stand a chance of taking their place on the world stage. Both with continue to produce wonderfully talented players; it is a case of getting their houses in order to support them.