1971, the flavours changed

imageThis was the year when I stopped hunting for jungle jalaybees. When the large garden we played in became too small, as the ball reached the window panes. When I gave away my Biggles books. This was the year when the magical taste of life changed into the spicy, reality taste, which exhilarates and then in a flash can burn also.

Somewhere in this life, early or late most of us come to some sort of awakening. It can be one large moment or a series of smaller awakenings leading to a flash of the light bulb moment.

I had spent a childhood thinking in terms of hours and days. Life was a series of random events revolving around myself and those immediately around me. In this serene environment, 1971 came as a crescendo. A series of small seminal events taught me that life is real, has a larger context and it is not just designed to fulfil my story.

1971 was the year when Pakistan cricket almost touched gold and then lost its grasp on it. This was in the month of July; at Leeds we lost. For a young sports fanatic kid, it was open and shut that we would get 231 in the fourth innings against England. I now cry for the confidence of a boy, who did not know better. That we ended up losing 6 wickets in quick order and missing the target marginally, was cataclysmic. It was the second sledge hammer blow in a couple of months. Earlier a young Liverpool team lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup final, when leading in extra time. It all hurt that the world did not follow in natural order, my desires and perceptions.

February of 1971 saw a major worldwide hit song by George Harrison “My Sweet Lord”. GH was singing solo; it dawned on me that the Beatles had disappeared and something permanent had gone from life. It brought a reality to the fore. Nothing is forever, no matter how good, and the transient nature of this life was grounded in my mind.

1971 was also the year when I figured out that school and freedom will not last forever. Life had existed on a daily basis and the maximum length of plans were while wondering how not to get bored in the summer holidays – there were very few international or local vacations in those days. So as I saw the previous years prefects and seniors disappear out of school, it finally drove home how things are supposed to be.

That summer saw the Summer of 42 being a big world wide hit and I could relate to teenage Hermie. A picture of love and tragedy formed and filters created in one evening in the Palace cinema, have formed an idyllic image of life’s tragic romance.

In October, I also realised that in this Allah’s world, optimism and hope are the final barrier to despondency and defeat. An ageing and bedraggled Pakistan hockey team, somehow miraculously struggled past India to win the inaugural Hockey World Cup. It created some fervour at a very crucial moment in our history, as you shall see next.

Simmering in the background since March was a political crisis, which vaguely created uneasiness in many of us. Stories coming out of the Eastern half of the country were not good and it seemed blood had flowed. Those were the days of no internet and a tight media code. So basically all accounts were anecdotal. As the year subsided, it was clear we were going to war with India. Only we did not know when. For a kid, it was very black and white. We were right and we will win the war. There was no second argument here.

My personal descent into adulthood started on Dec 11th, eight days into the war. Dennis Lillee produced a crazy spell for Australia at Perth of 8 for 29. The local papers celebrated that on the back page. I was enthused and pointed out the performance to my father. Only his reaction was very unusual. Teary eyed, his sharp reply was “Stop! Where are you? This country is being destroyed and you are talking of cricket”. In that moment, that whole year of self realisation fell into place. I withdrew into my corner and went into a deep dive within. The next ten days, I can tell you were the worse days of my life. Tears, prayers, self-reproach were the order of the day. It was not very different for many in this country, who in those few days came out of a stupor which had lasted a long time. I too came into my own. My personal graduation into adulthood, had commenced. I had been lucky till then, but my magic kingdom had disappeared in a flash. Life was never the same again. All the flavours had changed.

*picture is from dreamstime.com

When cricket was white and pure

From 1977 to 2012, the game has changed face and, to many, has become more entertaining. PHOTO: AFP

Lord’s, 1982. When Imran Khan threw the ball to Mudassir Nazar, a collective groan went up. England were nine without loss as I watched sitting on the rickety benches positioned on the cover boundary. Sarfaraz Nawaz had gone off from a suspected side strain.

Nazar, as he ran into bowl, looked like Shoaib Akhtar from where I was. I saw him bowl, saw the batsman leave and Wasim Bari dive behind the stumps but I didn’t see the ball. Suddenly, England were nine for three – Randall, Alan Lamb and David Gower all back in the hut. Pakistan went onto win that match by 10 wickets.

Earlier, in January 1977, the team had to make 32 runs as the whole of Pakistan tuned into proceedings from the Sydney match. There was Majid Khan facing Dennis Lillee. I couldn’t see the ball as Majid was beaten. Sadiq Mohammad and Zaheer Abbas were already dismissed and Lillee had hit Majid on the head. I remember shaking – was it the cold or was it the tension, I didn’t know. Another bouncer, but this time Majid deposited it into the stands. Pakistan won by eight wickets.

Things have changed now. Some changes are visible – the advent of Twenty20. But the neutral umpires (you have to watch an Indian umpire in Bangalore 1987 to appreciate that), the helmets and the pitch covers too; the uncultured slash from Virendar Sehwag over third-man or a Shahid Afridi miss-hit for six.

When I was in school, I was expelled from the second-XI for lofting the ball twice in an over. I’d spend hours in front of a small radio, tuning into Test Match Special. There were no talks of money, no fixing issues but just pure love for a game of nobility. No endless analysis and, above all, no Facebook or Twitter ‘experts’ sharing their views.

The game has moved on a lot from the days when the world was still young. My first experience of National Stadium Karachi was the same as Lord’s: No chairs, just steps and no shamiana cover either. It was tough going. You dare blink risking missing a wicket or a six. But it was spontaneous and passionate. Today we see replays but can’t appreciate the game. The serious spectator has disappeared with the space taken up by the Twenty20 enthusiasts. Even at a run-a-ball required, players and spectators still want to see a slog. The ‘we will make them in singles’ just doesn’t exist anymore.

It was a quiet and non-commercial game back in the day, before Kerry that is. With money came great things like affluence, viewership, fairer umpiring, innovation and improved fitness. Experience was made to last and the spectacular became imperative. Pitches were toned down, the game shifted towards batting. Tail-enders started hooking and pulling without fear. Fitness improved careers and ‘gods’ were created, greater than the game itself.

Cricket died and was cremated. Now we have less skilled players and, at times, it becomes excruciating to see batsmen not capable of concentrating or being squared up. So while the spectator experience has improved considerably, the quality has gone out of the game.

I lament for the game which I loved but there are very few who hear and understand.

Read more by Sarfaraz here or follow him on Twitter @Sarehman 

Sadness under a Sunhat

Sadness under a Sunhat

I was sitting at the PepsiCo office in Zaman Park in Lahore, sometime in 2001, when a note was delivered that a gentleman wished to have a word with me. It seemed a rather unusual method of contact in the times of emails and mobile phones. I nevertheless asked for the visitor to be shown in.

The man who walked in was none other than my childhood hero- the revered cricketer, Majid Khan. Most would understand that on such occasions, a feeling of unreality descends. As the hour progressed, he sat and spoke. This would probably be the best description of the encounter, as it wasn’t quite ‘a conversation’. I was propelled through a kaleidoscope of memories which completed a picture of him in my mind.

Now all you non-cricketing type, please don’t run away. This is also  a human aspect story.

My memory of Majid floats back to my being 7 years old and hearing him and Hanif pull Pakistan out of a hole in a test match. Over the next 17 years, one witnessed Majid’s lot rise and then decline, but he would be rated amongst the best, whatever the criterion. Simply put, Majid Khan was a unique batsman, prior to the ‘Viv Richard’ era. He could defy the laws of cricket and construct shots which no book teaches. This was obviously a God gifted talent;  he achieved fame as a most unique batsman of high quality, who yet managed to look elegant without following many rules.

Unfortunately that is where the script deviates from the story of climbing dizzy heights. Coming from a background of education and culture, his panache on and off the field was visible. Added to it was his stint at Cambridge University. My memory is of him scoring thousands of runs as Combined University Captain. He was an Eastern prince, a throwback to the previous era of Ranjitsinhji. The charm and quality should have led to fulfillment for himself and his nation. Unfortunately that never quite happened.

In the early 70s Majid first struggled before he established himself in the team. Some said his temperament was a bit jittery. He then climbed to the role of Pakistan captain and one thought, well, here it comes. Unfortunately, a man of such obvious charisma never was able to lead others and he dropped back to being a player only. He then produced some classic performances over the next years, as if reveling in freedom from responsibility. But, while he won some test matches for us, he failed to lead us to decisive wins in the 2 World Cups and eventually faded from the team in the early 80s.

So what exactly happened here? With Majid there was always a melancholy air of aloofness, which try as one may, never went away. Here was a man who thought deep and maybe too hard. In the game of Lords, sometimes plain instinct should have been enough for such a one. He was in his favoured place already, this was his patch. Perhaps his aloofness set him apart from the lesser mortals and was detrimental to the team making culture. His younger cousin, Imran Khan, coming from similar background and personality type, was yet able to wield his assets to the betterment of the team.  Probably with less going for him, he achieved what Majid could not.

A later stint as Head of PCB in the 90s was largely futile. Post the match fixing scams, Majid and Pakistan crickets value systems were poles apart. He probably felt the whole scenario was too sordid to work with.

In the cabinet of Dennis Lillee lies a sunhat, which is soiled and yellowed with age. It was the most famous sunhat in the seventies. It belonged to one Majid Khan. Having worn it for years, Majid bet Lillee that he would not be able to knock this hat off in the 76 tour of Australia. Lillee failed, but managed to hit Majid on the head (no helmets at the time). In deference to this, Majid still gave the hat to Lillee as a gift at the end of the tour.

Sitting there listening to Majid, one heard his sad assessment of Pakistan, its cricket, its people and culture. ‘Men of straw’ he said of the people of the subcontinent, quoting another legendary figure from a bygone era. Perhaps his thoughts were going back to his days, when the setup never quite resolved the unease of his presence. Majid himself was from a previous era, which was already dated, by the time he arrived on the scene of international cricket. “Sadness under a sunhat” his captain in Glamorgan Tony Lewis called him, when talking of Majid. Perhaps he had hit the nail on its head.

There are people who are destined to walk a melancholy road, aloof and untouched. Yet the picture is magical enough for us mere mortals to view and ponder over. A glimpse of what things might have been. Sadness under a sunhat!

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