Friday, June 3, 2016

Wounded Tiger by Peter Oborne

Peter Oborne is a political journalist with a pleasing sideline in cricket books; meaty, important cricket books that fill gaps in cricket scholarship. His biography of Basil D’Oliveira was masterful. He has followed it with Wounded Tiger, a history of cricket in Pakistan.

Has a cricket book ever been based on so much hard journalism? In an era when Pakistan is regarded as a no-go zone for westerners, his pursuit of the facts took him not only to the main centres of Lahore and Karachi, but also to places such as Peshawar, an hour away from the border with Afghanistan, where western visitors are usually war reporters not cricket historians. He records his inability to go to Baluchistan and Kashmir (the most militarised place in the world, we learn) as if it amounted to professional negligence. All in the cause of cricket scholarship.

The collection of primary evidence through interviews was essential because source documentary material on the early days of Pakistan cricket does not exist. I have been reading reviews of the latest work by the pre-eminent Tudor historian John Guy, (my tutor at Bristol University a long time ago). Addressing himself to the last two decades of Elizabeth’s reign, Guy has done what he always does: he has gone back to the primary sources and rebuilt the story. He had more to work on from England four centuries ago than Oborne has on Pakistan cricket a few decades past. Of course, many of the oral accounts are incomplete and contradictory, but Oborne guides us through them skilfully.

His biography of D’Oliveira and its account of cricket under Apartheid dealt with the old canard that cricket and politics should not mix. Like non-white South Africans, Pakistani players might have wished that they had the luxury of choice. Pakistan’s cricket emerged from politics in its rawest form: the turmoil of the partition of India in 1947. Some of the most famous names of the early decades of Pakistan cricket were among the the millions of Muslims forced to flee to the new country, including the five Mohammad brothers, four of whom were to play test cricket. I saw Mushtaq and Sadiq play often enough in county cricket, but had not appreciated how perilous their early lives had been.

Politics sets the game’s parameters today more than ever. The UAE appears to be an indefinite home from home, while relations with India mean that Pakistani cricketers—only Pakistani cricketers—are forbidden to milk the golden goat that is the IPL.

As millions struggled their way north and west in 1947, one Muslim was making the journey in the opposite direction. Fazal Mahmood travelled from Punjab in the north of the emerging country to Poona, “an insanely dangerous journey for a twenty-year-old Muslim male”. He had been selected in the Indian team for the tour of Australia and he was determined to make the training camp, oblivious to the chaos and danger, but eventually had to give in to political inevitability.

Fazal Mahmood is the first of heroes of Pakistan cricket whose stories Oborne tells; Wounded Tiger begins ingeniously with Fazal in the crowd at the Oval, watching as England wins the Ashes in 1953. A year later he was back, bowling Pakistan to series-squaring victory with twelve wickets.

That the young country was playing test cricket at all was remarkable, given that its domestic cricket was sparse and somewhat chaotic. How come it was granted almost immediate test status? Oborne puts it down to a victory against an MCC touring team (missing a few big names) in 1951. India proposed Pakistan and England seconded. Perhaps the inclusion of a seventh test team to fill an empty summer in 1954 appealed to Lord’s.

The safe passage of the Mohammad brothers was as well for Pakistan’s first decades of test cricket. Hanif Mohammad usually batted as if surviving a nuclear winter, the essence of a young nation making its way against the odds. Oborne presents Mushtaq Mohammad as one of Pakistan’s most under-rated and best captains, genially presiding over one of its most successful periods in the 1970s.

By then, most of the Pakistan team were familiar to us on the county circuit. Sarfraz Nawaz bustling in with short, angry steps at Northampton; Imran Khan, filmstar pace at Worcester and Hove; Zaheer Abbas, a double and single hundred in one game at Canterbury in the golden summer of ‘76. Above all, Asif Iqbal, dancing down the pitch to lash it through the covers. (How uncomfortable that the source of Pakistani matchfixing can be traced to Sharjah while Asif was in charge there). That county experience, and Kerry Packer, turned Pakistan’s players into professionals, no longer happy to be amateurs with jobs tied to the game.

Javed Miandad comes out of this account well. He has often been presented in the western press as some sort of upstart street urchin. In fact, his origins were firmly middle-class. Oborne credits him with accepting the captaincy at difficult times then gracefully stepping down for Imran Khan whenever the great man made himself available.

Oborne (who, it might be noted, has usually written for right-wing newspapers) is consistently critical of the attitudes of the English players, administrators and media towards Pakistan. He is scathing about the Idrais Baig incident on the MCC (in modern terms an England A team) tour in 1955, using MCC archives to tell a more complete version of the story than has been available before.

Baig was an umpire whose performance had displeased the MCC players. In Peshawar, Baig was taken from his hotel, bound and gagged, moved across town and then drenched with water. It was serious assault, but was laughed off by the MCC team and management as only a joke, the go-to excuse for bullies through the ages.

Oborne’s assessment of the “finger-wagging” incident at Faisalabad in 1987 is that it was incompetently handled by those in charge on both sides. But he makes a telling comment about Mike Gatting: “It is hard to come to grips with the set of values which led the England captain to take such a strong stand against allegedly poor Pakistani umpiring, yet be relaxed enough about apartheid to take a rebel squad to South Africa”.

The middle part of the book tends towards a series-by-series recitation. There is much good cricket played by many good cricketers—Abdul Qadir’s story is told with particular relish—as well as a good deal of selectorial mercuriality, players falling out, administrators with varying degrees of competence and cricketing knowledge, and a revolving door approach to the captaincy. The clues to how this came about are littered through the book and often come down to politics, cricketing, national and international.

The story of last quarter-century is related in themes and is the best part of the book. There is the glorious story of reverse swing, a new dimension to the game achieved only with immense skill; needless to say, the British press assumed it was those Pakistanis cheating again.  

The chapter on betting and match-fixing is the book’s saddest. It is clear that Pakistan cricket has been cursed (Oborne’s description) by the bookmakers for several decades. He makes an interesting comparison with prohibition in the United States in the 1920s, concluding that a legalised and regulated cricket betting market would be the best way of exercising control. He visited Mohammad Amir while the young bowler was serving his ban for the Lord’s no-balls. Oborne finds him playing tapeball cricket with the other village lads. He rightly presents the brilliant young bowler as a victim who stood little chance of being able to resist the massive pressure he came under from bookmakers and senior players. I am pleased to have seen Mohammad Amir play at the Basin Reserve earlier this year and hope that the cricket fraternity welcomes him when Pakistan’s tour of the UK begins in a couple of weeks.

I had not understood before reading the book how cricket was an urban, middle-class sport in Pakistan, and that its spread to the lower classes and the rural north and west is recent. Pakistan has achieved a broadening of interest in the game that the ECB and ICC aspire to but can’t deliver. One consequence has been the emergence of Afghanistan as a cricketing country: poppies on a battlefield.

Of course, 9/11 changed everything for Pakistan cricket. Home test matches were spasmodic thereafter, and ended indefinitely with the attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in 2009. Out of that and the spot fixing scandal emerges the final hero of the story: Misbah-ul-Haq.

Misbah took over the Test captaincy with his predecessor facing imprisonment, unusually difficult circumstances even when judged by the regicidal standards of that office. What’s more, he was a 36-year-old batsman who had never quite established himself in the test side. Oborne sums up:

The task that he faced was more difficult than any previous Test captain, including Kardar. He had to lead a cricket team in exile, deal with constant charges of corruption and match-fixing, and confront a chaotic administration.

Almost six years later, Misbah is still there having won more tests than any other captain of Pakistan with a victory percentage only fractionally below Wasim Akram’s lead mark, all without playing a single test at home.

Needless to say, some of the most famous names in Pakistan cricket are calling for him to be replaced for the tour of England. At this time, more than any, they were lucky to stumble upon him.

My most serious criticism of this fine book is the statement on page 261 that Wasim Bari was in 1976 “the world’s top wicketkeeper”. Readers would, I think, be disappointed if I did not assert the rights of the Kentish candidate to that title.

Wounded Tiger was Wisden’s Book of the Year in 2015 and deservedly so. We must hope that Peter Oborne will soon shine his torch of journalism and scholarship into another of cricket’s dusty corners.

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