In recent months, cricket in Pakistan has been defined by two returns. Most significant was the visit of Zimbabwe and the first international cricket played in the country since the attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009. When, as in Pakistan, the national team is seen as an extension of the ship of state, its return from exile is deeply symbolic and highly charged. Pakistan can dare to hope for normalcy. The other return is that of Mohammad Amir to competitive cricket after his five-year ban for spot-fixing. Amir is Pakistan’s prodigal son, his searing talent making him the heir apparent in the great tradition of Pakistani fast bowling. However, his tale is more cautionary than Boy’s Own, that of a sporting Icarus who ventured too close to the other great threat to Pakistani cricket, match-fixing.
Despite these twin flickers of light in the darkness, Osman Samiuddin’s new history of cricket in Pakistan starts in the pitch black of terror. Since the 2009 attack and 2010 scandal, the national team’s condition has been one of loss and exile. Displacement has not always been joyless – the crowd at Edgbaston for the one day international against South Africa in the 2013 Champions Trophy was as lively and passionate as I have seen in a British cricket ground, a sea of white and green flags, facepaint and horns, women and children cheering their heroes even in defeat (despite a Misbah fifty, of course). But diaspora is never an enviable condition. Separation cannot breed optimism.
Even before Zimbabwe’s hesitant tour, Osman Samiuddin’s book, The Unquiet Ones, will have been a fine consolation for Pakistani cricket lovers. Samiuddin is perhaps the finest recent chronicler of Pakistan cricket, whose seminal “haal” article attempted to understand the Pakistani ability to spark batting collapses by using ideas about Sufism to extend the idea of “the zone” in sport. His book follows shortly after Peter Oborne’s Wounded Tiger, another similar history, and whilst they cover much of the same material, Oborne’s style is more encyclopaedic, whilst Samiuddin’s is more essayistic. The Unquiet Ones is arranged as a broadly chronological series of essay-like chapters, including a range of extended match reports, profiles, and political and social context. Samiuddin writes beautifully, and has a fine eye for illuminating detail. For example, in 1956, after President Eisenhower watched a turgid day of Test cricket in Karachi played on a matting wicket, he commented to President Ayub Khan that he “thought cricket was supposed to be played on grass not on the mat”. Ayub was mortified, and international cricket has not been played on matting in Pakistan since! Other gems include the discovery that Mushtaq Mohammad was the first man to play the reverse sweep – to Fred Titmus’s horror – and that Aftab Gul, a prominent student leader, was picked for the national team to appease protestors, and later played a first-class match whilst on bail.
Like Oborne, Samiuddin focuses on several key individuals in the development of Pakistani cricket. The progenitor for both is Abdul Hafeez Kardar, whose patrician manner and unbending will, was crucial in establishing Pakistan as a competitive cricketing nation, much aided by the skill of Fazal Mahmood, who combined matinée idol good looks with a mastery of bowling on matting wickets. Samiuddin is particularly good in his depiction of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad, the two cricketing leaders of the 1980s. Imran is characterised as “never knowingly defeated”, a man who refused to admit he couldn’t be a great fast bowler, that the World Cup couldn’t be won, that he couldn’t be a political force. Imran was and is never still, always forcing more out of himself and others. Javed Miandad was similarly driven towards improvement, but for him, it was a “quest for izzat, an amalgamation of honour, respect and repute”. Miandad was driven by a sense of grievance, a determination to right wrongs against himself and his nation. Like Imran, he drove the team into belonging and success. Javed’s famous last ball six in Sharjah epitomised an age – as Samiuddin puts it, “that one shot was like a mince grinder in reverse. Into that burst went every strand of the transformation Pakistan had undergone over the preceding decade and half… [and] on the other side came out one solid lump of a golden age, the most golden age, in fact, Pakistan has ever had”. Through money, TV rights, player power and administrative reform, Pakistan was placed to achieve more than ever before, driven by the wills of Imran and Javed.
Imran Khan’s political exploits should perhaps not be surprising. The interaction between cricket and society is particularly strong in Pakistan. Political influence has always been felt, and the successes and failures of the cricket team have reflected the state of the nation. Samiuddin focuses less on the ideological meaning of the team than Oborne, but comprehensively discusses the seepage of corruption into the sport in the form of match-fixing. The final chapter is perhaps the finest, tying together Pakistan’s fast bowling culture and match-fixing in the figure of Mohammad Amir. As Amir attempts to return, the potential is there for him to reinvigorate Pakistan and fulfil his promise. Wahab Riaz reminded the world of the thrill of Pakistani fast bowling during the World Cup quarter-final against Australia, with a brutal spell, an artillery barrage of bumpers targeting Shane Watson. It was, perhaps inevitably, in vain. But its reception was indicative of Samiuddin’s description of the Pakistani fast bowler as an anti-establishment hero. The fast bowler is Byronic and quixotic, a product of history and environment, master of the tape ball and keeper of the flame, which has passed from Fazal Mahmood to the present, through Sarfraz Nawaz and Imran Khan, Wasim and Waqar. In Samiuddin’s words, it is “emotion, adrenalin, impulse, exhibitionism, drama” – surely Shoaib Akhtar to a T. Bowling fast is escapism and it is struggle, against exile and the fading of hope. Fast bowling is to fight, to rouse the unquiet. In Pakistan, it is more important than ever.