Cricket, wherefore art thou?

imageLong ago, they sat in a village green and sampled tea and scones. It was a lovely green meadow, with a slightly warm sun and a nice cool breeze. In the field men in white, starched whites, played a game of cricket. Ordinary bats, green wicket and a red ball. It was good balanced competition between bat and ball. It seemed like bliss. Those who watched remarked, “could anything be better than this? a thing of beauty!”

World Cups, whether they are cricket or football – and years ago it also included hockey- were stress times, coupled with a bit of happiness if Pakistan mainly, or Italy, were doing well. I can see you immediately saying whyever Italy? Well, just that through the 70’s when I learned my football, I remember Italian sides being quick, efficient, sometimes artistic and definitely tough. I can’t help it, but in my makeover, toughness counts.

Anyway, to get back to the World Cups. In this case specifically, cricket World Cup, because that is what is taking place at the moment. Anguish at our under achievement, characterised these World Cup periods over the last forty years. So for instance, 1983, 2003 and 2011 were really no problem. Those sides went as far as they could and should have. The worst cricketing day in my life, was the semi-final loss to Australia at Qaddafi, in 1987. Wholly unexpected, but more so, we broke the back of our team, which at that particular time was the best in the world. Luck did not favour us that day, when many decisions went against us, but also we were too sure of ourselves going into the game.

So to this time and this World Cup. My most engaged moment came, when I was saying my congregational prayers during the game with South Africa. As the prayer started, a huge roar went up and being aware of the situation of the match, I figured AB de Villiers had got out. Later while in sajda, another roar went up and then the firecrackers started, which meant Pakistan had won. That is the closest I have come to Pakistan in this World Cup and it is intolerably sad. A committed follower of cricket since the age of five. Sigh!

Its not our performance. One has seen good and bad days and this team has definitely performed better than ’03 and ’07. As an aside, in ’03, I was heavily involved with the team, due to my Pepsi position and somewhere there is even a photograph of myself holding the World Cup. To get back to the main theme, it is the way short form cricket has gone. The goons seem to have taken over, and the skill factor is gone. Its mostly to do with the terrible imbalance between bat and ball, coupled with the blatant change of rules, which have mercenerised this once beautiful game. The upshot is, that all the kids growing up will never desire to be bowlers anymore. Who wants to be sacrificial lambs? There is nothing inspirational about it anymore.

So while I do pray on a patriotic level that we go on to win this cup – and there are some great coincidental similarities with 1992 – but I have not been able to watch any of this stuff for a long time now. In the years ahead, I see test cricket totally declining or changing, because batsmen can only wallop the ball and cannot put their head down and bat 6-8 hours – Hanif batted 3 days plus to save a test match. Similarly, I see T20 and One day changing further, as lollypops will be served to batsmen, who will have rules bent to favour them. A 500 score is not far off, a hundred in less than 25 balls is on the cards, a 300 by an individual batsman and last a 150 runs concession by a bowler.

Oh, the gluttony of sixes and the starvation of wickets. Enjoy it, if that is what you like. Weekes famously said to a teenage Mushtaq Muhammad “Son, three fours are always better than two sixes”. I see the souls of Grace, Ranjitsinjhi, Bradman, McGilvray and Arlott weeping.

* picture taken from Yahoo images

Hanumant Singh, I will always remember you

I speak from faded memory, because to go into historical statistics is to lose the charm and mystery of what is just so natural

I remember Hanumant Singh.

Now, how many in Pakistan would say that? For that matter, how many in India can say that today? But it is true! I remember him well and owe him a debt which can never be repaid.

One hears you asking, why would an individual living in Karachi, have anything to do with an Indian prince?

I speak from faded memory, because to go into historical statistics is to lose the charm and mystery of what is just so natural.

Sometime in February 1964, aged five, I saw two of my uncles huddled together listening to a Grundig radio. Coming out of that radio was a harsh voice; I now know this voice to be of Maharaj Kumar of Vizianagram, cricket commentator and former captain of India. As if attracted by a magnet, I sat down to listen.

It seemed like an event of earth-shaking proportion was on the cards. India versus England at Firoz Shah Kotla Ground, Delhi. One Hanumant Singh was approaching his century and that, too, on his Test debut. I listened, absolutely and totally absorbed, as Hanumant eventually did reach his century. Subsequent events are a bit vague. All five Test matches were drawn during that tour of 1964. In this particular one, I think England, despite Singh’s efforts, managed a big lead. Then the late Nawab of Pataudi, making a big double century in the second innings, batted India to safety.

Of Hanumant Singh, history can tell you that he fell into the curse of all Indian century makers on Test debut, pre-Gundappa Vishwanath─I think there were seven in a 37-year period, 1932 to 1969. No one ever made a Test century again and all were condemned to mediocrity; Abbas Ali Baig being the most famous of those.

Hanumant had a great pedigree; the English greats Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji were his uncles, Indrajitsinhji his cousin, and if you look at some old photographs, he will be seen using the same trademark leg-glide which made Ranji great and famous.

Unfortunately, Singh’s career was short; 14 tests and 600+ runs. In the late 60s he was finally discarded and departed this world in 2006, leaving a very small cricketing legacy.

It is this legacy which concerns me personally. Little did I know what it meant to me that afternoon’s events, some 48 summers ago! The fascination I felt while sitting there, waiting for events to unfold (and in the subsequent days, as I heard the desperate struggle at the Kotla) became part of my life ever after, to this day. There was born an innate love for something I shall carry to my grave. Cricket became a part of my life and I lived and breathed cricket. So much so, that as I look back and do a time sheet of my activities, it comes out as work, sleep, giving time to loved ones, and then evidently cricket. Now the first three are essentials of life, but cricket is the first love and continues to be an entwined part of my existence.

Out of that fascination and love came an understanding for the game. Hours were spent stuck to a radio listening to Test matches all over the world, and then the hero worship which I developed for some great sportsmen, specifically Pakistanis. It is a montage of memories; Zaheer, as he flicked the ball past mid-wicket dozens of times on the way to his 274 in 1971; Hanif waving his bat a last time in Karachi in 1969; Raja striding out at Lords to battle the rainy conditions in 1974.

Images were engraved in my mind; Mohsin, sleeve buttoned down, waiting for rain to stop, stuck at 199 at Lords in 1982; Asif Iqbal doing his valley of death routine in 1976 versus Lillee, on pitches that were so green that you could not tell them apart from the square. And naturally, of course, I remember that last ball heave for victory by Miandad at Sharjah in 1986, which brought Pakistan domination for a decade. Above all, one man raising a Waterford Crystal trophy aloft and claiming the world for us, if only for just one moment, on that fateful day in March 1992, when Pakistan won the World Cup.

Yes, I owe Hanumant Singh a legacy and one day I would hope to tell the world about the trip which I have been on, during these 48 years, through Lords, Oval, National Stadium, Sharjah and many more, and those eons spent in front of the television or stuck to the radio, for the growing and intense love for one sport; cricket.

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

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

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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