Pakistan’s love affair with cricket is one of the most remarkable stories of our times. Few could have predicted that the game would become so dominant when the country was created as a homeland for Muslims of the subcontinent in 1947, one of two confessional states to emerge in quick succession (Israel was born a year later). Then it was a middle-class activity largely confined to the two big cities of Lahore and Karachi and, as the journalist Peter Oborne writes in Wounded Tiger, “unknown throughout much of Pakistan’s rural hinterland”.
Yet today, even in the remote, conflict-torn Swat Valley, cricket is well established. Pakistan has also produced some of the world’s great players and, in Imran Khan, one who has become a major force in politics. Adapting the game to Pakistani conditions, the nation’s ever-resourceful cricketers have also done something that few countries, England apart, can lay claim to: invent a whole new technique, called reverse swing, which revolutionised the art of fast bowling. Now, such is the game’s status that Oborne concludes: “It is played by the army and the Taliban. It is enjoyed by all of Pakistan’s sects and religions. It is part of Pakistan’s history and also its future.”
What makes all this very surprising is that the Pakistani state has fulfilled almost none of the grand expectations that attended its birth. The new country was seen as potentially a vibrant Muslim power that would combat Soviet communism; in 1955 the Americans drew it into the now forgotten Baghdad Pact, a sort of Islamic Nato. Ernest Bevin, the UK foreign secretary at the time of independence, was confident that Pakistan would help shore up British power in the region. And while Winston Churchill told his assistant private secretary John Colville that Hindus were a foul race, and that he wished Bomber Harris could send some surplus bombers to destroy them, he often praised the great fighting qualities of the Muslims.
To make matters worse, in 1971 the very idea of Pakistan – that Islam provided the glue that could keep Muslims of the subcontinent united despite vast cultural, ethnic and linguistic differences – was gravely shaken by the civil war that led the creation of Bangladesh.
This wider appreciation of society is relevant because, from the beginning, Pakistani cricket was intimately tied to the government, with the president acting as the patron of the cricket board. Oscillation between civilian and military rule resulted in much nepotism and government interference, at its worst during the military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan, who moved the headquarters of the board into the country’s military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Then, in 1969, on the principle that the masses would be diverted by a circus, he persuaded the British Foreign Office to make sure that an MCC team toured his country to shore up his collapsing regime. During that tour he interfered with the selection of the Pakistani team and ordered that Tests should be played not over five days but four, fearing that political opponents would use them as an occasion for protests.
In recent years, cricket has been put under further pressure as Pakistan has been caught up in George W Bush’s war on terror following 9/11. In 2009, as the Sri Lankan cricket team were on their way to a Test in Lahore, their team bus was attacked by militant gunmen. Since then Pakistan has played its home Tests in the Gulf. So against such a background, it seems miraculous that the game exists at all, let alone is considered by Pakistanis as their pride and joy.
Oborne has taken up the challenging task of explaining this cricketing miracle – one made greater by the fact that, while Pakistani cricket has produced much history, it has produced few native historians. He has overcome this problem through the most exhaustive research seen in a cricket book. The danger with such an approach is that the reader may be suffocated, with one fact piled on another. Oborne skilfully avoids this pitfall by making his narrative a succession of dramatic acts, blending chiselled portraits of the leading characters and their struggles with nuggets of fascinating information.
One of the most interesting concerns the legendary Indian cricketer Lala Amarnath, who was born a poor Hindu in pre-partition Punjab. Oborne’s research reveals that Amarnath’s cricket education in Lahore was sponsored by a Muslim family, who took him into their home upon discovering that the gifted young player they observed in the street was being brought up in straitened circumstances. This episode will come as a bombshell to many Indians.
Other more established families, as Oborne rightly stresses, ensured that Pakistani cricket could grow despite the system. The Burkis of Lahore have provided some 40 first-class cricketers in the subcontinent including three Pakistan captains, Imran Khan, Javed Burki and Majid Khan. And, notes Oborne, “the Mohammads [of Karachi] were represented in 100 out of Pakistan’s first 101 Tests, spread across twenty-seven years”.
Oborne makes no secret that he believes writing on Pakistan cricket “has sometimes fallen into the wrong hands . . . carried out by people who do not like Pakistan”. His barb is particularly directed at fellow English writers whom he feels have portrayed Pakistani cricketers as caricatures. However, despite his declared mission to rescue Pakistan cricket from such charlatans, he deals at length with the various corruption scandals that have so besmirched the game. This reached a nadir during the tour of England in 2010, when a sting by the now defunct News of the World exposed three cricketers, including captain Salman Butt, as match-fixers. The ensuing trial at Southwark Crown Court in London resulted in all three being sent to jail and revealed the murky world of corruption afflicting the game in Pakistan.
Despite such horrors, Oborne remains convinced that “Nothing else expresses half so well the singularity, the genius, the occasional madness of the people of Pakistan and their contribution to the world sporting community.” Even if the reader of Wounded Tiger does not fall in love with Pakistan, nobody seeking to understand that amazing country can ignore Oborne’s compelling book.
Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan, by Peter Oborne, Simon & Schuster RRP£25, 624 pages
Mihir Bose is author of ‘The Spirit of the Game’ (Constable)
Photograph: Corbis Images