Sporting chaos: the history – and future – of cricket in Pakistan

Wounded Tiger: a History of Cricket in Pakistan and The Unquiet Ones: a History of Pakistan Cricket trace the challenges and triumphs of the sport.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Cricket writing about Pakistan has sometimes fallen into the wrong hands. It has been carried out by people who do not like Pakistan, are suspicious of Pakistanis, and have their own preconceptions.” So begins Peter Oborne’s Wounded Tiger, published in paperback this year – a book that seeks to do more than merely tell the rich story of Pakistan cricket. It also masquerades as a history of “British condescension”, as Oborne puts it, towards Pakistan and its most successful sporting team.

Ian Botham once described Pakistan as “the kind of place to send your mother-in-law for a month, all expenses paid”. Oborne detects similar sentiments among English cricketers as far back as the MCC tour of Pakistan in 1956. Blaming the bias of an umpire, Idrees Baig, for their impending defeat, the English players forcibly took him to a player’s room and poured buckets of water over him. No more dignified was the England captain Mike Gatting gesticulating in the face of another umpire, Shakoor Rana, during a row in Faisalabad in 1987.

The book is above all contemptuous of the British press and devotes a section to “media stereotypes of Pakistan”. The Sun reacted to the Shakoor Rana affair by producing a “Sun Fun Dartboard” with the umpire’s face. When Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis wrecked England’s chances with reverse swing in the 1992 Test series, one Daily Mirror journalist wrote, referring back to Botham’s comment: “I thought they’d laugh their curly slippers off . . . Laugh, not them, they’re too prickly and nationalistic . . . Pakistanis being even hotter on apologies than they are on vindaloos.”

Oborne sees the spread of such images as a manifestation of how Pakistan’s cricketers had been reduced to “caricatures”. The country’s two leading stars of the 1980s are a case in point. While the pugnacious Javed Miandad was depicted as “a hooligan”, the Oxford-educated Imran Khan was seen as a “princely scion”.

But Wounded Tiger is about much more than the West’s mistrust of Pakistan and its cricketers. It is an account of how the sport came to represent, “in an untrammelled way, the national personality”. This extends even to women’s cricket, which belatedly gained an association and a national team in 1996 thanks to the Khan sisters Shaiza and Sharmeen (no relation of Imran), daughters of a carpet manufacturer who sent them to study in England. Those trying to develop the women’s team encountered staunch resistance from conservative Islamists and even death threats, but the side today regularly takes part in the Women’s World Cup.

Osman Samiuddin’s The Unquiet Ones shares the ambition of Oborne’s work. Both are magnificent as stand-alone histories of Pakistan cricket; happily, the subject matter is so rich that there is little overlap between the two. Where Oborne’s value lies most in his account of how the game took hold in Pakistan, Samiuddin, widely regarded as the finest writer on Pakistan cricket today, uses the sport as a window on the country. Along the way, we learn about the neglect of Balochistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) as well as the identity of the only US president to sit through an entire day’s Test cricket (Dwight Eisenhower).

Neither author is oblivious to the faults of cricket in Pakistan. Samiuddin gives a sharp account of the report into match-fixing by the Qayyum commission in 2000, which almost tore the team apart. Whispers of corruption have remained ever since, especially after three cricketers were imprisoned for spot fixing after a News of the World sting in 2010, colluding to bowl no-balls to order during a Lord’s Test against England.

The saddest tale was that of Mohammad Amir, who had emerged from a remote village in the Punjab to bowl pulsating left-arm pace, and became the youngest bowler in history to take 50 Test wickets. He was 18 when he was banned for five years from international cricket; his suspension ended on 2 September, and he intends to return to the Pakistan team. “On the one hand is the gift, Amir prolonging a legacy that has somehow sustained Pakistan even in its most fallow days,” Samiuddin writes. “On the other is the curse that has stained the game over the past 20 years. Fast bowling and corruption: the richness of Pakistan in one, its poverty in the other, two strands that have kept Pakistan alive and taken the life out of it.”

Meticulously as Samiuddin dissects the cancer of corruption (we learn of Imran Khan betting all of Pakistan’s winnings in a tournament on victory in the final against Australia after being told that four players were in the pay of bookmakers; Pakistan won the match easily), he is even better at teasing out the side’s intoxicating quality. “For all that professionalism has enhanced sport, it is sometimes heartening to acknowledge that a team like Pakistan still exists, a strong jerk in the straitjacket, a little blip of chaos to the straight lines of order.”

In many ways we are living in the age of Pakistan cricket’s greatest challenge. Since the horrific attack on a bus carrying the Sri Lankan team to a game at Lahore in 2009, all foreign teams, save Zimbabwe for three one-day and two T20 international matches this year, have refused to tour Pakistan. This “Age of Isolation”, as Oborne calls it, has cost Pakistan about $100m. It has also deprived them of a base; instead, to play “home” internationals, they have resorted to England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and, most frequently, the United Arab Emirates, where Pakistan are playing England now.

Yet none of this has undermined the role of cricket in Pakistan. Samiuddin contends it “has never felt more central to life” and that “death would it be for Pakistan to go quiet”. For all the turmoil of the nation’s cricket, there is no danger of that. That opinion is shared by Oborne, who salutes a sport “enjoyed by all of Pakistan’s sects and religions”, part of the country’s “history and also its future”. Long may it remain so.

Wounded Tiger: a History of Cricket in Pakistan by Peter Oborne is published by Simon & Schuster (£12.99, 624pp)

The Unquiet Ones: a History of Pakistan Cricket by Osman Samiuddin is published by HaperCollins India (£31.99, 510pp)

Tim Wigmore is the co-author (with Peter Miller) of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts (Pitch Publishing)

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister