Down But Not Out

Peter Oborne recounts cricket's progress in Pakistan with the meticulousness and dedication such a rich and unlikely story deserves

Oliver Wiseman

“As far back as I can trace my consciousness, the original found itself and came to maturity within a system that was the result of centuries of development in another land, was transplanted as a hot-house flower, is transported and bore some strange fruit,” wrote C.L.R. James, a Trinidadian Marxist, in Beyond a Boundary, arguably the finest book ever written about cricket.

James’s strange fruit was West Indian cricket yet his words are just as apt a description of the sport’s incarnation in Pakistan. In Wounded Tiger Peter Oborne recounts the game’s progress in that country from colonisers’ pastime to national obsession with the meticulousness and dedication such a rich and unlikely story deserves. Like any good cricket writer, he keeps in mind James’s best-known line, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” As with Oborne’s excellent biography of Basil D’Oliveira — ;the South African all-rounder who played for England after the apartheid regime banned him from first-class cricket — Wounded Tiger puts the sport in its proper social and historical context. 

Immediately after the partition of India, Pakistan’s cricketing infrastructure was as flimsy as its national identity but over the years cricket and nationhood would grow symbiotically. The country had very few domestic teams and the sport wasn’t particularly popular beyond the middle-class neighbourhoods of Lahore and Karachi. When the fledgling Test team played at Amritsar, just 35 miles from Lahore, during Pakistan’s first tour of India in 1952, the players found themselves under police guard in a city where four of them had grown up. There were no longer any Muslims in the city and the stadium they had known as Alexandra Park was now the Gandhi Grounds. 

It wasn’t long before the Pakistanis established themseves on the international scene, quickly notching up wins against England and India. One thing these early successes had in common with later triumphs was that they were achieved in spite of chaos behind the scenes.

Oborne credits Abdul Hafeez Kardar and Imran Khan — two autocratic, Stakhanovite, Oxford-educated and Savile-Row-suited captains-with overcoming this administrative incompetence. Indeed, he divides Pakistani cricket until 1992 into two eras, the “Age of Kardar”, 1947-75, and the “Age of Khan”, 1976-1992.

The national team reached its zenith with World Cup triumph in 1992 when Imran Khan led them to victory against England in the final. In his telling of the team’s journey from inception to this triumph Oborne is perhaps a little too assiduous, providing detailed reports of matches of little consequence. It is when he puts down his Wisden and picks up his reporter’s notebook that he is at his best. He has interviewed almost every significant living figure in Pakistani cricket and it is their stories that grip the reader. 

After 1992 the historian of Pakistani cricket, Oborne says, begins to feel like Edward Gibbon. Depressingly, establishing 1992 as the high point is far easier than identifying the exact moment things hit rock bottom. Was it when Pakistan were thrashed by Australia in the 1999 World Cup final at Lord’s and their fans, with tears in their eyes, accused their heroes of fixing the match? Was it when, in the aftermath of 9/11, the team first experienced the shame of not being able to play home matches in their own country? Was it in 2009, when terrorist gunmen ambushed the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore, murdering eight Pakistanis? Was it 2010, when Mohammad Amir, a brilliant but naive 18-year-old, bowled a no-ball so flagrant that it soon led to his exposure and imprisonment for match-fixing? 

Whenever the exact nadir was, the challenges faced by Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s present captain, make him the unsung hero of world cricket. Brought back into the team in 2010 after then-captain Salman Butt was jailed along with Amir, the 40-year-old has had to lead a team in exile, root out corruption and confront a chaotic administration, making a bad day for England’s Alastair Cook look easy. 

Oborne is a little too ready to absolve Pakistan’s cricketers of responsibility for the messes they have found themselves in. Practically every controversy in the book is the fault of a hostile — even racist — British press, and while Oborne may be right that Pakistan have been an underappreciated force in world cricket, their cricketers have not always helped themselves. But Wounded Tiger is a labour of love — trips to every corner of Pakistan, meticulous footnotes, and acknowledgments given to librarians in far-flung institutions like the Lahore Gymkhana — so we can forgive Oborne his rose-tinted spectacles.  

Even at the worst of times, it is difficult to tear yourself away from Pakistan’s mercurial team. The country has produced some of the most exciting and innovative players cricket has seen and Wounded Tiger is at its most enjoyable when Oborne is explaining how reverse swing transformed fast bowling and crediting the underrated Abdul Qadir with reinventing spin in the 1980s, turning the sedate into the terrifying. 

Wounded Tiger makes it clear that Ian Botham was being too narrow-minded in his tongue-in-cheek tribute: “Pakistan is the sort of place every man should send his mother-in-law to, for a month, all expenses paid.”

For all the challenges Pakistan faces today, there exists an admirable national pride, of which the nation’s embattled cricket team is a healthy and unifying expression.

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