Three grainy images encapsulate the last thirty years of cricket between England and Pakistan. Mike Gatting and Shakoor Rana, jabbing fingers aligned, frustration and affront written across their respective faces. Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe jubilant, their whites lit brightly against the Karachi night, the National Stadium fading to black. Mohammad Amir, popping crease bisecting his delivery stride, watched by Salmat Butt, the captain’s eyes wandering, seemingly guiltily, towards the bowler’s feet. Accusation; victory against the odds; skulduggery.
These themes run through the rivalry, for both sides, creating rancour unrivalled in many cricketing contests. Pakistan see beating England as a statement of postcolonial belonging, a triumph of the nation-team over the arrogant English. England see playing Pakistan, especially away, as an onerous task, one bound up with frustration, discomfort and disrespect. As Ian Botham said, Pakistan is the “sort of place every man should send his mother-in-law to, for a month, all expenses paid”. Touring the UAE might seem less stressful off the pitch, but playing conditions remain challenging.
The history of England versus Pakistan is often overshadowed by other contest – the weight of history and politics that hangs over Pakistan’s matches against India, and England’s love of the sibling rivalry that is the Ashes. But, for England in particular, playing Pakistan might be more important than any other sporting contest. England may love the Home Nations rivalries of rugby and football, the antagonism of playing the French, the historical charge of meeting Germany or Argentina, but none matter as much to the nation today as playing Pakistan.
The animosity that accompanies the matches has built up steadily, the accumulated sediment of sixty years of controversy. From Pakistan’s almost instant success, winning at the Oval in 1954, inspired by Fazal Mahmood’s bowling and Abdul Hafeez Kardar’s captaincy, barely a Test series has passed without an untoward incident of some sort. On the 1955-6 tour, a group of England players essentially kidnapped Idris Baig, a Pakistani umpire, nearly causing a diplomatic incident. On later tours to Pakistan, Tests were disrupted by political unrest – Pakistan picked an influential student leader, Aftab Gul, for the 1968-9 Lahore Test, whilst he was on bail, and who went on to represent Salman Butt at his spot-fixing trial.
The relationship soured for good in the 1980s. Pakistan won in England in 1987, and England’s tour that winter saw the infamous Gatting-Rana clash, Chris Broad refuse to walk, and each England player receive a “hardship bonus” at the end of the tour. Rana had previously incensed Jeremy Coney when New Zealand toured, and Imran Khan’s calls for neutral umpires seemed increasingly necessary. Gatting’s response – “does Maggie [Thatcher] back down when she’s given no choice?” – suggested a hardening of English attitudes towards Pakistan. Home umpires were the catalysts of the next dispute, when Aaqib Javed clashed with Roy Palmer when Pakistan toured in 1992. That tour escalated into mutual recrimination, with accusations of ball tampering.
In the twenty-first century, Moin Khan’s time-wasting, Shahid Afridi’s pitch-scuffing, Inzamam’s forfeiting, and Butt, Amir and Mohammad Asif’s spot-fixing have all lead to the further deterioration of the relationship. Add in mutters about bowling actions, crowd trouble, and political instability, all of which have cropped up before, and the situation seems practically irreconcilable.
Moreover, the geopolitical situation has deteriorated further. One of the reasons that Pakistan versus England should be taken more seriously as a sporting rivalry is that it is one of the few that exists based on the defining questions of the century so far, what has been loosely termed the War on Terror. Perhaps only the footballing rivalry between France and Algeria has the same post-colonial tension, morphing into new questions about national identity. This is not to argue that England playing Pakistan should be seen as somehow representative of some specious “Clash of Civilisations”; rather, as Mike Marqusee argued in 1994 (!) – the Pakistani cricket team is often used, especially by the English media, as a sporting shorthand for Islam, perpetuated through negative stereotypes. The vocabulary – “volatile”, “excitable” – the suggestions of untrustworthiness and suspicion of religiosity, casually elide, as Marqusee noted, the Pakistani cricket team and Pakistanis, especially British Pakistanis.
It is notable then that there were three British Pakistanis in England’s original touring party – Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and Zafar Ansari. Moeen and Rashid are from Birmingham and Bradford respectively, home to two of the largest British Pakistani communities. Ansari’s background (Hampton; Trinity Hall, Cambridge) is recalls a different generation of England cricketer, but his father is an academic, who specialises in British Muslim identity. Perhaps a clue to détente lies with them. They are not ambassadors, and have no duty or special task to perform. But Moeen in particular, open about his faith and close to Saeed Ajmal, who other England players have denigrated, suggests that a working relationship might be possible between England and Pakistan.
For the series not be marred by controversy would be a major step. Both teams would of course love to win, but perhaps something of a “hard but fair” attitude might prevail. There is historical baggage that the contest will never be able to shake. But the possibility of moving beyond a strictly oppositional relationship, the logic of the Tebbit Test, and mutual recrimination would be a huge positive. At a time where many British Muslims face suspicion, a broader acceptance of complex identities could be reached.
A multiracial national team, reflecting multiracial clubs across the country, is a sign of a new England, hopefully one less irascible towards its supposed other. British society still has a long way to go, and international sport rarely provides a healthy atmosphere for national reconciliation. But the nation would benefit with a more fraternal relationship with Pakistan on the cricket field, a recognition of past faults and of common identity over misunderstanding and ignorance.