Nation-builders on a sticky wicket: the farce and heroism of Pakistani cricket

A review of Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan, by Peter Oborne. Not even civil war stops play

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan Peter Oborne

Simon & Schuster, pp.509, £25, ISBN: 9780857200747

There is farce in Peter Oborne’s history of cricket in Pakistan. An impossible umpire is abducted by drunken English tourists and imprisoned in their hotel. Political uncertainty leads to the selection of rival captains and players for the same match against New Zealand. An ageing Pakistan cricketer is ruled out of a one-day international after eating a surfeit of spinach.

There is tragedy, too. England toured Pakistan in 1968–69, during the strife which ultimately led to the bloody separation of West and East Pakistan (modern day Bangladesh). The players landed in Karachi, in West Pakistan, which was under a curfew. The tension was such that they were billeted in a hotel near the airport, should they need to escape. There was little cricket, save for a few games in the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board’s distant powerbase and an unsatisfactory Test match in Lahore, which was stopped prematurely by the edict of General Ayub Khan, the ailing dictator of Pakistan.

The tourists were then flown across the sub-continent for an unscheduled Test in Dacca (later Dhaka), which was in the middle of a war zone. General Ayub was losing control of his country; cricket was to be the means of reuniting it. The British government and the English cricket authorities were complicit in this dangerous political theatre. The Foreign Office told the players that the absence of Pakistan security forces in Dacca made the city safer because their presence only incited violence among the supporters of the separatist Awami League. The players saw things differently. Armed agitators patrolled the streets in search of ‘corrupt’ sympathisers of General Ayub. John Snow, the fast bowler, recalls how people were ‘bound and gagged and tossed into the river to drown’. Others were simply shot.

It is incredible that the Test match proceeded; but it did. Oborne adds to the surreal atmosphere by describing the game in loving detail. We are told, for instance, how Basil D’Oliveira (the subject of Oborne’s previous cricket book) regarded the unbeaten 114 he scored there as the finest of his illustrious career. His reason was the treacherous wicket (never mind the murderous surroundings). The match petered out into a draw, which was perhaps for the best because God knows what a result might have inspired.

Chaos triumphed soon afterwards. The third Test, played at Karachi, was abandoned following a crowd riot. The England team fled Pakistan immediately. General Ayub resigned, and his designated successor, General Yahya Khan, imposed martial law. Cricket had failed in its forlorn hope of keeping the peace. It is a recurring theme of this book, but it is not dominant.

Wounded Tiger is political and social history of Pakistan told through the medium of cricket. Oborne begins with the development of cricket during the Raj and ends with Pakistan’s present sporting isolation — a legacy of the turmoil that has engulfed the country post-9/11. (The Americans emerge from this account as self-interested apologists for Pakistan’s military dictators. Oborne has included some choice anecdotes to bear this out, although he might have added the occasion when George W. Bush joined General Musharraf in a photo opportunity with the Pakistan cricket team, some of whom at that stage were gripped by overt religiosity, complete with beards and incantations to Allah. Dubya didn’t know where to look.)

Partition and sectarianism are a louring presence throughout. Indeed, the story might have been different had it not been for the bravery of the Indian cricket legend C.K. Nayudu, who, in scenes reminiscent of the closing pages of The Jewel in the Crown, defended his travelling companion, the future Pakistan opening bowler Fazal Mahmood, from Hindu fanatics roaming abroad in search of Muslims to slaughter. Nayudu beat them away with his cricket bat. The symbolism of this event passes description.

Oborne argues that cricket ‘can be understood as a sporting manifestation of Jinnah’s Pakistan movement’ — vibrant, confident and open. Most readers will be aware of the greats of Pakistan cricket and their contribution to the country. Oborne presents Imran Khan, Fazal Mahmood and A.H. Kardar as ‘nation builders’, and devotes a lot of space to their efforts and reminiscences. Fewer readers will have heard about women’s cricket in Pakistan, or cricket in tribal areas. Even (some of) the Taleban play the game; Oborne has heard of how these warlords bowl and bat while wearing their billowing shalwar kameez.

Pakistan cricket is, as Oborne says, a ‘magical and marvellous’ thing to behold. While the country falls through successive catastrophes, cricket gives hope for the future.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20. Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments