To Balance the Scales of Gratitude to a Hero

To Balance the Scales of Gratitude to a Hero

Its sad when you die with a whimper. Sadder still when you die with a whimper, when you have once been famous. Napoleon comes to mind. Out in the middle of the Atlantic, the man who ruled Europe and filled everyone with fear was dead and the world did not know. What an awful culmination to such a huge existence.

Today I had the same feeling, when I read a tribute to Haseeb Ahsan. Then, much to my chagrin, I found in a subsequent report that in fact he had died yesterday. Yes, I can see so many saying ‘who was Haseeb Ahsan?’ That is exactly my point.

Yet, I remember him being on the front pages of newspapers not only here in Pakistan, but England, Australia and I am sure in India also.

So who was Haseeb Ahsan? In a bygone era he used to spin his off spinners more than Muralitharan did. Not many will remember that. Unlike Murli, he got banned from cricket for doing that. They said his action was not correct and in the days when the ICC was really the Imperial Cricket Council, it was not so accommodating as now. So his career finished after 12 tests for Pakistan in 1962, when he was sent back from our England tour.  It was a defect due to an unnatural bent of arm and he had nothing to do with it… Like Murli! but fate played a role and he went out.

However his best days were yet to come. His headlines were still 20 years away, in the 1980s. And for once you can say a Pakistani hero returned more to the country than he took away. Did more than his actual ability warranted. And in doing this, he took on all and sundry simply for Pakistan.

Haseeb finished with cricket and had a great career as an executive with PIA and then American Express. He rose to head the organisation. Being an acknowledged expert in management it was not surprising that he was so senior. But in later years, his association led him to play a role in BCCP (PCB today). He eventually rose to be Chief Selector – role presently held by Iqbal Qasim. Those were the days when Pakistan was led by Imran Khan and the BCCP chief was the great Nur Khan- giant of a personality.

Haseebs understanding of humans led him to blood many youngsters. His star pick was Wasim Akram. I still remember Haseeb putting Wasim in  the tour match versus New Zealand in Rawalpindi. A strapping youngster, all hair and legs and did it pay off! Eventually Wasim ended up taking wickets in New Zealand a few months later and of course the rest is history.

As Chief Selector Haseeb’s hour came in an earlier confrontation, where he must have graduated to be the ‘Most hated man in Pakistan’. Yet he held to his principles and months later was proved right. Pakistan were on their way to Australia in 1983-84 under Imran’s captaincy. However, Imran was suffering from pain in his shins and there were some doubts on his fitness. It seemed Nur Khan and all of Pakistan had aligned itself into sending Imran, except one Haseeb Ahsan. No budging the man, his mantra “prove your fitness and you can go”. The confrontation made the front pages, everyone abused Haseeb and yet the man was adamant. Eventually Imran went, based on a Nur Khan decree. Result, Imran could not play any of the 5 test matches and the balance of the team was upset.  We lost 2-0, where we had begun the tour as equal favourites. It took a lot of guts to take that stand and  in later years Imran was very appreciative of it.

Cut to the 1987 tour of England. Haseeb is now Manager of the team – in pre coach days, a very important role. Haseeb and Imran knew that Pakistan had a good chance against a strong England team. They also knew that like in all previous tours, a controversy will be thrown at the team to unsettle it. So the plan! Haseeb will take on the English press and let Imran get on with the job of winning the test series. Haseeb put in a request to delete a couple of English umpires from the panel -Messrs Constant and Palmer. In the 1982 tour these gentleman had been the source of many controversial decisions against Pakistan. All hell broke loose and the whole 3 month tour was consumed by a three way battle. English papers, cricket authorities and Haseeb. All done forthrightly , but with a nice smile. An English speaking wiley oriental gentleman (WOG) took on the mantle of controversy. The result, nary a single major controversy related to the players, the team worked as a unit and it became the first series win by a Pakistan team in England. The plan was acknowledged by Imran. Haseeb went smilingly about it, drawing the fire on the person for the sake of Pakistan.

In later years age and changing personalities meant that Haseeb disappeared from cricket. It has then come to this, that a man who had substantial part to play in building the team which won the World Cup 92, has died a quiet death. This article has been written to thank this man posthumously and to try and balance the scales of gratitude just a little bit, on behalf of the Pakistani nation.

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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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