Tango and Catch

In his review of The Unquiet Ones, Tariq Bashir looks at the heart-lifting, heart-breaking story of Pakistani cricket

Tango and Catch
The recently held Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) was abuzz with talk of two excellent books being launched, both on the history of cricket in Pakistan: one by Peter Oborne and the other by our own Osman Samiuddin. When the elegant host, Kamila Shamsie, who was chairing the session, asked, why a book on Pakistani cricket, Oborne’s answer was very straightforward – albeit disguised as a glowing tribute to Samiuddin: “If I had known Osman was writing a book, I wouldn’t have written one myself.”
Samiuddin captures the spirit, the discipline (or lack thereof), and the magnificent and delicious inadequacies of Pakistani cricket

In The Unquiet Ones, Samiuddin brilliantly captures the spirit, the discipline (or lack thereof), and the magnificent and delicious inadequacies of Pakistani cricket in the shape of a page-turner. The mystique and tenuous balance of Pakistani society and its cricket no less are so inextricably enmeshed in one another that it is impossible to tell which influences which and in what measure. Samiuddin, however, overcomes all such hurdles beautifully and unravels the mystery behind the whole saga thread by thread in the most riveting way possible. He stamps his line of reasoning adroitly and convincingly, arguing that, in societies where brilliance abounds but lifestyles are frugal, it is essential to analyse personalities rather than the system – as opposed to how it might be done in a “normal” society. Pakistan’s cricketing talent attracts attention due more to its exciting style, idiosyncrasies, and glaring shortcomings rather than the strength of its system. As a consequence, there is never a dull moment.

Samiuddin’s analysis of prominent personalities and how their influence has shaped the sport as we know it today is top-class indeed. The inflexible, autocratic disciplinarian in A H Kardar and his complex and curious personality traits – built on his old Lahore background and Oxford days – is a portrait that never fails to thrill. There are parallels to be found in such Sub-continental men who became what they were when exposed to “Oxbridge” values, having originally come from a pre-industrial, agrarian society. Kardar, Bhutto, Nehru, Jinnah and Fazal Mahmood are perfect case studies of this.


Such men could not resist the urge to apply their Western belief system to the cast-in-stone value system of the East, at times with remarkable results. Despite his traditional upbringing, Kardar was pulled into marrying his Oxford love, albeit secretly. Fazal Mahmood, on the other hand, dancing his nights away on board a cruise liner en route to England in 1954, is another paradox that Samiuddin invites his readers to enjoy even as they remain surprised. Despite such carousing being an accepted social norm at the time, such dalliances were not adjudged kosher for Fazal’s only son when the latter’s time came to sow his wild oats.

Javed Miandad’s morally correct insistence on playing for “izzat” and, behind the façade, using the power of grievance and victimhood effectively and profitably, is an example of the tough standards of survival in MQM-dominated Karachi. A keen follower of the mohajir/Karachi ethos, Miandad believed in hitting out first and pretending to be the victim, mostly getting away with it. Unsurprisingly, his approach to cricket closely resembles the daily antics of Karachi’s biggest political party, the MQM, who Samiuddin calls a strangely seductive and repulsive mix of the thuggish and uber-efficient, the cultish and the secular.

The book portrays Imran as the belligerent warrior-captain who broke away from the faux Englishness of the 1960s and early 1970s – an act the Pakistani side was ordered to put on by BCCP officials, especially when on tour – which had produced notoriously defensive and painfully boring cricket. Using standard Punjabi expletives to rouse his raw young recruits while advising them on how to bowl at the new batsman was the rule rather than the exception. “Maro bouncer b*****d ko!” as Imran once startled the teenage Aqib Javed with, when Sir Vivian Richards had just arrived at the crease during a match.

All in a huddle: the men behind the mystique that is Pakistani cricket
All in a huddle: the men behind the mystique that is Pakistani cricket

Samiuddin’s candid style makes ordinary episodes look so interesting, one wishes he had written more extensively rather than opting for “brevity”. He does not attempt to hide the fact that the reverse swing was made possible by ball tampering and that its dynamics were known only to the precocious Pakistani “engineers” who kept it a closely guarded secret for years. One such engineer, Waqar Younis, describes how the adrenalin rush left his eyes bulging forth after the match, having clinched victory from the jaws of defeat on many occasions in the 1990s. The reverse swing was the main catalyst (or culprit) on all these occasions.

In a fascinating chapter on tape/tennis-ball cricket, Samiuddin eulogizes the unsung heroes of Karachi such as Javed Gringo, Arshad Chidda, Salim Darbari, and Bashir Cowdrey. It beggars belief to think how the skills learned on the hard asphalt surface of Karachi’s roads were utilized when some of the players graduated to the larger version. Any other country would have found its cricket in ruins due to the ill effects of tape-ball use, but not Pakistan. In a unique sense, the lack of school cricket was compensated for by the proliferation of tape-ball cricket across the country. This unexplained and complex fact – and its end-product, Pakistani cricket – never fails to amaze outsiders, much like a crowded Sub-continental bazaar despite its imperfections and odours: some bearable, some not.

One cannot help but shed a veritable tear or two when Samiuddin describes how Muhammad Amer, one day at breakfast and oblivious to the spot-fixing storm brewing around him, naively revealed his future plans to play club cricket. Unfortunately, his innocence and gullibility (feigned, it transpired later) were not enough to wish away what was to follow in his life.

At the LLF, Osman Samiuddin chose Saleem Malik as his all-time great Pakistan XI on account of the player’s sheer class, despite an unforgiving charge sheet on his role in the match-fixing episode. This evoked a wince of disagreement from Peter Oborne whose vote went instead to “Inzi”. “Saleem Malik is dropped,” he growled, followed by a thunderous roar of approval from the crowd.

Tariq Bashir is a Lahore-based lawyer. Follow him @Tariq_Bashir

Tariq Bashir is a Lahore based lawyer. Follow him on twitter @Tariq_Bashir