As in many countries, the game of cricket is fundamentally bound up with national identity. In the context of Pakistan, celebrated author and leading political columnist Peter Oborne charts the genesis of cricket in the Subcontinent to the development of the game in modern day Pakistan in his masterpiece, Wounded Tiger.
With unerring detail, he explains how a country with deeply complex and antagonistic feelings towards Empire wholeheartedly embraced the imperial game. “Mainly because cricket is a really good game, it was also a way for the people to engage with the occupiers,” explains Peter. “It was so important for the game of cricket that it went to the Subcontinent, because it was reinvented in so many different ways both in India and Pakistan.”
Interestingly, Wounded Tiger is not only a story about cricket, it is a story about imperialism, identity and recognition. “The first former colony to develop as a great cricketing nation was the West Indies. It became an amazing assertion of West Indian identity and then with India as well and with Pakistan,” explains Oborne.
He traces how cricket spread across the Subcontinent through centres of progressive thought like Aligarh University. “It was taught in Aligarh by a series of rather brilliant English school masters. Aligarh became the beginning of the Muslim League and was very closely associated with ideas of Muslim political identity…that’s how it organically came to what is now Pakistan, “he says. “The other way it came is through the military. The military was not very important because it was only intended to be played by British troops with each other mainly.”
Wounded Tiger provided detailed portraits of the charismatic personalities who played a decisive role in establishing the fledgling game in Pakistan. “AH Kardar is really interesting because he was a politician as well as a cricketer. It’s very interesting that Kardar, like Leery Constantine of the West Indies, was never given any recognition in Britain because he challenged the imperial structure of the global game of cricket. He was a very fierce fighter against apartheid. He expressed a political sensibility; he didn’t get a knighthood or peerage, which is what you might have expected for someone who went to Oxford University, who was very British in many ways. He challenged the white supremacy in the game in the way in which his Indian contemporaries didn’t,” explains Oborne.
All too often, conflict on the field often is a reflection of the international political climate, hierarchy and class struggle. This is starkly captured in the Mirza Idris Baig fiasco in which English cricket players in Peshawar kidnapped and mistreated Pakistan umpire Mirza Idris Baig. Through his exhaustive research, Oborne sheds important new light on this incident, the details of which had been suppressed for decades. “It was amazing to find these documents at the MCC. The MCC have now allowed embarrassing records to come into the public domain.
The records tell the story of this MCC tour of the mid 1950s when they clearly came with an arrogant attitude. There was a lot of edge anyway between Abdul Hafeez Kardar and the MCC – a lot of hostility. The MCC team represented a kind of insular Britain.
There had been a lot of tension and it came to a head in Peshawar, of all places, where the English players actually kidnapped a Pakistani umpire, Idris Baig, who they felt had been biased against them. I didn’t find any evidence of bias through his decisions.”
Oborne praises the maturity and diplomatic savvy of General Alexander and Iskander Mirza who defused tensions in what was fast becoming a grave international incident. “Alexander and Mirza had close personal ties. Alexander realised also that it was very serious. He was a very experienced and wise man and reacted very fast.”
Injustice and discrimination are subjects more deeply explored by Oborne in his heart-rending biography on the cricketing legend Basil D’Oliveira who on account of his racial heritage was forbidden from playing for his native South African team. The great freedom fighter Nelson Mandela once powerfully asserted, “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is far more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.” Nowhere is this more articulately captured than in Oborne’s book on Basil D’Oliveira cricketing career where he faced a game against South Africa as a member of the England team. “It sent a huge message to the world that apartheid was evil,” says Oborne.
On corruption within the game and the corrosive match fixing scandals which severely damaged the Pakistan team’s reputation, Oborne says, “It is so disgraceful and such a betrayal of their fans – their heroes who are much better paid than the vast majority of Pakistanis anyway should then be cynically taking money to lie, to fix part of the game. It is a terrible thing and could destroy faith in the game altogether.”
He praises the role of former Pakistan Captain Misbah ul Haq in restoring the honour of the team, “He inherited the captaincy in the wake of the terrorism and corruption horror. He built this wonderful team and it’s a great achievement…I think Misbah is one the all time great cricketers of Pakistan.
He ranks up there with Imran Khan and Kardar. He is a man of such enormous integrity that it goes beyond cricket, he is one of the greatest cricketers of all time as is Imran – he has transcended cricket in a way. There are few cricketers in the history of cricket, Sir Frank Worrell, Donald Bradman, Imran Khan, Misbah ul Haq. He has helped hold Pakistan as a nation.”
On the development of women’s cricket in Pakistan he notes the support given by Arif Abbasi who he describes as a “great figure in cricket administration.” In spite of the challenges, Oborne is hopeful about Pakistani women’s cricket, “The standard is very high. It won’t be too long before Pakistan women’s cricket team starts winning major international trophies.”
When Oborne brought a cricket team from England to play in Pakistan, he was touched by the warmth and generosity of spirit of Abdul Qadir: “I asked Abdul Qadir if he would coach us and he did for three or four matches. It was wonderful to play in the same team as my great cricketing hero”.
An indispensable book on cricket and the history of the Subcontinent, Peter Oborne’s Wounded Tiger is invaluable to understanding this beautiful game.
Reviewed by Mashaal Gauhar