Of Empires and Umpires: Cricket and Politics in Pakistan
Friday, 14 June 2024 06:13

Of Empires and Umpires: Cricket and Politics in Pakistan

Published in Sport

Sean Ledwith writes about how colonialism and racism has conditioned the history of Test cricket between Pakistan and England

This summer’s Test series between England and Pakistan was marked by high quality cricket from both sides, with the emergence of a new generation of fast bowlers being the factor that will have especially encouraged fans of the latter. However the biosecurity measures we are now becoming accustomed to ensured the series lacked the high-octane atmosphere and passion frequently associated with contests between the two sides in the modern era. For Pakistan supporters living in the UK, these matches have become an essential opportunity not just to watch their heroes in action but also to express a sense of collective pride in establishing a social and cultural tradition in the face of persistent racism and Islamophobia from sections of British society.

Test series involving Pakistan and the other cricket-playing nations have frequently become a prism for the playing out of the ongoing legacy of colonialism and partition, ever since the creation of the state in 1947. For the Pakistani state, cricket in the postwar era became a key outlet for nationalist sentiment, in a similar way to how the sport enabled the fragmented islands of the Caribbean to construct a shared identity. In the post 9/11 era, Pakistan’s troubled position on one of the fault lines of the US state’s War on Terror entangled the country in the destructive consequences of another empire’s agenda, and tragically led to the suspension of Test cricket in the country - a hiatus which thankfully ended last year.

Two recent studies have enhanced our understanding of the dialectical interplay between cricket and politics in Pakistan. Surprisingly one is by the Tory Party-supporting columnist Peter Oborne. Despite his right-wing credentials, Oborne is an independently minded type of conservative who has spoken out impressively, for example, against Boris Johnson’s suitability for the premiership and the West’s demonisation of Iran. In Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan, published in 2014, he brilliantly recounts how Tests between England and Pakistan, in particular, have become a forum for the lingering arrogance of the colonising power and the nationalist aspirations of the colonised. Although politically Oborne is a million miles away from CLR James who famously chronicled how cricket helped configure West Indian nationalism, he shares an understanding with the great Trinidadian Trotskyist of how sport, in certain circumstances, can provide an indispensable channel for the oppressed:

Cricket came to fill the same role in Pakistan society as football does in Brazil. It represented, in an untrammelled way, the national personality. A new generation emerged in the 1970s which played the game with a compelling and instinctive genius. Many of these new players came from poor backgrounds, and some from remote areas….they imposed their own personalities, with the result that cricket went through a period of inventiveness and brilliance comparable to the so-called Golden Age before World War One.

Coincidentally published in the same year as Oborne’s study, Osman Samiuddin’s The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket similarly displays an insightful appreciation of the overlap between the game and the social and political context that exists beyond the boundary. As a native Pakistani, Samiuddin brings more of an insider’s appreciation of the regional and class dynamics that operate within the sub-continental society but, like Oborne, powerfully argues how its approach to cricket has been crassly caricatured by many British commentators, as irrevocably alien. Samiuddin notes:

What makes it what it is? Pakistan and England ostensibly provide cricket's affirmation of Samuel Huntington's thesis of the clash of civilisations. Huntington's treatise of the same name, which examines potential ideological and cultural conflict post-Communism, serves to explain, superficially at least, the incendiary nature of this rivalry.

In some ways, the cricket relationship between the two can be interpreted as a manifestation of the misconceptions and prejudices that Edward Said famously identified in his 1947 study of Orientalism. Players and officials from Pakistan have often being stereotyped by English commentators as conniving cheats, fearless warriors or exotic wizards. In the modern era, Javed Miandad, Imran Khan and Abdul Qadir respectively have been framed as iterations of these caricatures. Samiuddin observes:

Pakistan's heroes are portrayed as geniuses - sometimes mystical as in the case of Abdul Qadir, and sometimes warrior-like, as in that of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram. Imran, aware of this flimsy characterisation, prompted Qadir to grow his hair and a goatee to further heighten his numinous aura. Pakistan's villains have been devious, conspiratorial and antagonistic, as Javed was deemed.

Both authors identify Pakistan’s first tour of England in 1954 as a seminal moment in relations between the two cricket powers. Just a few years after its blood-soaked creation at the hands of the former colonial power, the country was largely dismissed by the hierarchy of the hosts as irrelevant and unstable compared to India, its bigger and apparently more strategically valuable neighbour. Pakistan’s players were regarded by many influential commentators in the home camp as unworthy of Test status. Neville Cardus, the doyen of English cricket reporters at the time observed that a mistake was made by those authorities who decided the time was now ripe for Test matches between England and Pakistan. The satisfaction among the tourists must have been substantial therefore when, at the Oval in the Fourth Test, Pakistan became the first international team to win a match on its debut tour of England at the Oval. Not for the last time, it was searing fast bowling that won the day for the South Asian side, with Fazal Mahmood achieving match figures of 12 wickets for 99.

Fazal’s captain on the tour was Abdul Kardar. The latter was a crucial figure in the early history of Pakistan cricket whose membership of the nationalist People’s Party, firstly as an anti-colonial activist against the British and then as leading figure in post-independence cricket, fertilised the conscious use of the game as a means to generate the sense of a viable nation-state. The Kardar-Fazal partnership also foreshadowed an ongoing trope of Pakistani Test cricket as the Lahore-based captain and the Karachi-based bowler personified a synthesis of the upper-class elite and the poorer, immigrant communities that the founding fathers of the state hoped would be the bedrock of the new state. In a later era, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad would supply a similar duopoly of backgrounds.

Hubris and high-handedness

The hubris and high-handedess that has often characterised English attitudes to Pakistan were most shamefully apparent in the return series on the sub-continent in 1955-56. Touring captain, Donald Carr, bizarrely decided it would be amusing to kidnap Idris Baig, one of the Pakistani umpires for the series. With six of his teammates, Carr broke into Baig’s hotel in Peshawar, forcibly carried the stunned umpire down a back staircase, threw him into a horse-drawn carriage and took him back to their hotel where they forced the devout Muslim to take alcohol.

Baig understandably failed to see the funny side of this dim-witted stunt and was only persuaded against prosecuting the MCC by a deal between two senior figures from the respective management teams who happened to have served together in the colonial army. Only a well-timed downpour in Lahore prevented the British High Commission there being burned to the ground by an irate crowd of home supporters. This barely-believable episode encapsulates the appalling ignorance and insensitivity that characterised the mentality of influential members of the MCC towards their new opponent in the Test arena. Although virtually erased from the cricket memory of the English cricket establishment, this incident set the scene for later and better-known umpire-related controversies, such as those involving David Constant and Shakoor Rana. Describing the episode, Peter Oborne rightly notes:

Carr’s team, like many England sides to follow, was locked into too narrow a set of social and moral parameters to be able to fully respond to Pakistan.

Contests between the sides were relatively incident -ree through the next decade but from the 1970s onwards there were played out against a rising backdrop of Islamophobic racism .South Asians in the UK increasingly became the target of ‘Paki bashing’ as the forces of the far right, particularly the National Front, emerged to exploit the end of the boom years of postwar Western capitalism. Thatcher’s elevation to Number 10 in 1979 provided further cover for the racist right, and cricket between the two countries became the stage for multiple unpleasant incidents of casual racism and hate crime. In this era, one of the most hated politicians of the Thatcherite cabal devised an eponymous challenge known as The Tebbit Test, implicitly attacking second-generation Pakistanis for not supporting England.

Institutional racism in the cricket establishment

Around the same time, Ian Botham managed to be both sexist and racist in a single sentence with his notorious remark that Pakistan is the kind of place to send your mother-in-law for a month, all expenses paid  (perhaps this is the real reason Boris Johnson has recently elevated Botham to the House of Lords?). In the 1982 series, the tourists objected to what they perceived as home bias by the English umpire, David Constant, but their protestations were brushed aside by most pundits as sour grapes. Astonishingly, however, when India made precisely the same complaint later in the same summer, Constant was removed from the roster of umpires! To further rub salt in the wound, when Pakistan returned five years later, their request that he should not officiate was turned down.

Off the field, on the rancorous 1987 tour, a Pakistani fan had his throat slashed at Trent Bridge and at Headingley a pig’s head was thrown into the main section of Asian supporters. That was also the year, of course, of the notorious Shakoor Rana affair, when England captain Mike Gatting exchanged expletives and aggressive gestures with one of the home umpires in the return series on the sub-continent. The hysterical coverage that ensued frequently failed to point out Shakoor was right to stop play, as Gatting was surreptiously moving a fielder as the bowler approached the wicket. The British press, both tabloid and broadsheet, covered the incident in ways that would be unacceptable today. The Sun superimposed a dartboard over the face of Shakoor as a supplement for its readers. The Daily Telegraph’s Simon Heffer claimed no team has more merited the opprobrium of the international cricket community.

The coverage was predictably one-sided and glossed over the fact that in the previous match, England batsman Chris Broad had disgracefully refused to leave the crease when given out, thereby breaking one of the most fundamental conventions of the game. Needless to say, nor was  the British press interested in explaining to  readers how the episodes involving Idris Baig and David Constant shaped  Pakistani frustration with the hypocrisy of the English management team. On their return from the sub-continent, rather than be reprimanded for inappropriate conduct, the England players were awarded a hardship bonus by the MCC, a tacit gesture of approval for their refusal to adhere to standards of behaviour.

The escalating tension in the contests could also be explained by Pakistan’s changing role on the global stage. Initially overshadowed by its giant neighbour, the country became strategically more important to the US as Washington became nervous over New Delhi’s positioning as a non-aligned power in the Cold War stand-off. Over time, Pakistan increasingly became the focus of American political and military backing, as US Presidents sought to reinforce the state as reliable ally in case India should flip right over into a pro-Moscow orbit. The country’s rising profile in international diplomacy seeped through to the ambition of the players on the pitch and gave them the confidence to take on and beat their former colonial master. One of the greatest Pakistani players, Javed Miandad, has explicitly commented on how his game was affected by this political context:

For years, Pakistani teams on foreign tours found it difficult to shake a sense of inferiority. Perhaps we were embarrassed to be from a Third World country that not too long ago had been ruled by white colonialists.

In The Unquiet Ones Osman Samiuddin recounts a seminal moment in a 1986 white-ball game between India and Pakistan when a last-ball six from Miandad to secure victory encapsulated the country’s arrival on the global stage as a nuclear-weapon possessing power: that one shot was like a mince grinder in reverse. Into that burst went every strand of the transformation Pakistan had undergone over the preceding decade and half… and on the other side came out one solid lump of a golden age, the most golden age, in fact, Pakistan has ever had.

The downside of this elevation to the high table of global politics has been that Pakistan now finds itself in the cockpit of a massively destabilised world order following America’s calamitous invasion of Iraq in 2003. Regional conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, intersecting with the wider reverberations of the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS,culminated with a terrorist attack on the touring Sri Lankans in Lahore and the consequent loss of a decade of home Tests. Cricket’s importance in the country can be clearly gauged by the fact that Imran Khan, as undoubtedly Pakistan’s greatest ever player, now finds himself as the Prime Minister, grappling with the challenges facing the country in the 21st century. Tariq Ali, the renowned Pakistani leftist and friend of the current Prime Minister, is sceptical of Imran’s ability to repeat his epic achievements on the pitch in the political arena:

He goes into the filthy waters of Pakistani politics, and all these little monsters and worms who lurk below the surface rise, seeing that this could be the new thing, and join the party. There's no ideology at all, except initially a vague liberalism, then liberalism coupled with so-called progressive Islamism. So if you operate like that, you prolong the old system, do nothing to alter it, not even in the minimal way

Cricket has obviously played a major role in expressing resistance to racism and imperialism among Pakistani people at home and among the country’s diaspora. These two plagues of the global system are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon so, despite the perhaps inevitable failure of Imran’s reformist agenda, the political dimension of the game will undoubtedly continue to inspire future generations on the sub-continent.