More with Feeling
By Anjum Niaz
Six feet under, he went. Mourning
his loss, thousands throng to say goodbye. Lahore
loved him and he loved Lahore even more. The way
we were in all our glory is but now a passing dream.
A heart yearning to hold on to remembrance of cricket
past, holding tight that certain smile; that grace
and beauty of youth and victory now lost.
Fazal Mahmood was a feast for the eyes. The Queen
of England dropped her imperious shield to gaze
unabashedly at the Oval hero invited to the Buckingham
Palace, and asked, “Where have you got your
blue eyes from?”
Once again the seven-year-old in me has taken hold,
pushing aside the fifty something. It has commandeered
my travel itinerary and landed me on board the S.S
Batory, run and operated by P&O Lines. My travel
companions — guess who? — are the cricketers
bound for England to play the English on their turf.
Sailing the same boat that carried the Pakistan
team on a day in April, half a century in-between,
is a voyage unfazed in memory. They say, travel
affords one to peer into the psyche of fellow travelers.
The 20-day odyssey on the high seas presented this
precocious kid of seven, the ring seat, to view
the match before it began.
As a memoirist, I revisit the summer of 1954, a
story that otherwise lurks in my shadowy holding,
waiting for me to lend it life at the prompting
of a heart refusing to let go all those yesteryear.
Karachi harbor rings with prayers for victory from
cricket fans come to wish us luck. The band rolls
out a martial tune signaling the streamers dancing
in the wind to wild abandon; it’s a hedonistic
send-off for the green-blazer “babes of cricket”
as the British media has baptized the Pakistan team.
“A white man’s game,” says CLR
James, the West Indian thinker who put color to
cricket in his brilliant exposes on British colonialism
and the race card. The “rabbits”, a
name tagged to our team, are in shipshape to pick
up the bat and ball and practice their shots on
the deck above, away from prying passengers before
facing the fast and the furious “white men”,
Frank Tyson and Dennis Compton.
The manager too bowls or bats daily with the team
and watching him are his three kids — my two
older brothers and me.
Why are we not flying instead? Because prime minister
Nazimuddin’s government can’t afford
to air-lift its cricket team — minus the manager’s
family paying for itself — to land at Heathrow.
Fazal, 27, is the centerpiece of the drama on the
sea. Lanky, muscular with his lady-killer looks,
he frolics with the ball at the nets the morning
hours, keeping in check his swingers that the gaping
waters below will swallow in a second.
He likes his teammates. They joke and swear in the
foulest of Punjabi. We kids stuff our ears (just
Evening time is the happy hour spent at the bar
of the luxury liner. It alternates between a tombola
night and a dance night. Surrounded always by admirers,
mostly women, Fazal dangles a cigarette in one hand
and a glass of cold drink in the other, lounging
the night away.
Crouched in a corner with our mother, demurely and
on our best behavior, we kids, watch with wide-eyed
wonder, the million volts Fazal’s persona
He saunters across to our sofa to say hello. His
bilori eyes (can’t find an apt translation)
and the kiss curl carelessly crowning his forehead,
the six-foot hulk, sporting always an open collar
and shirt sleeves artlessly rolled up to show muscle
and grit, gets asked a question from my mother.
“My son here wonders why you are the most
popular man in the room”? Adding, “
er ... with women”.
A naughty look crosses his face. Putting his glass
down and stubbing out his cigarette, he smiles indulgently
and tousles my brother’s hair, whose face
goes beetroot red with embarrassment. Once Fazal
is out of earshot, my brother has his fury fit,
he feels his privacy violated since the question
is meant for my mother and certainly not Fazal.
As we near the shores of England, our last night
on board is a fancy dress gala affair. Fazal dolls
up as a bride, with two oranges as his props that
of course slip out unceremoniously, sending peals
of laughter all around.
Joining in the fun is Punjab’s feudal lord
Khizar Hayat Tiwana. And guess what? He’s
traveling with a horde of servants, serving this
great politico, hand and foot (no pun intended).
What about the rest of the team? Framed in my memory
chambers are sepia snapshots of Imtiaz, the wicket-keeper,
keeping good cheer and clean company along with
MZ Ghazali, Khan Mohammad and Shuja. Handsome Waqar
Hassan and Khalid Hassan are too young to make any
impression. Hanif and Wazir, the two unsmiling brothers,
are piety-bound and not members of the merry club.
Wazir, the older, is often bent in sajda under an
open sky and billowy waves below.
Lithe Mahmud Hussain’s sexy gait and gyrating
hips earns him a nickname: “Marilyn Monroe.”
He never minds. His sense of humor is profound.
Maqsood Ahmed, smart and suave, has a back-slapping
folksiness exhibited amply in his batting style.
It wins him the title “Merry Max” —
a name he lives up to during the series. But he
prefers the captain’s company. Unlike the
Kardar is fractious; his fuse is short on those
who don’t measure up to his towering standards.
They get the rough end of the bat. The manager is
called to mediate when things get testy.
But then, when did a captain ever win the popularity
It’s raining when we anchor at Southampton.
England has arrived. We head for London and check
in at Berner’s Hotel on Oxford Street. Oh,
such snooty air with snarled-lipped waiters in black
tails one dare not ask for a second helping of corn-flakes
at the breakfast table.
The World War II ended nine years back, but we get
to taste the food rationing. London is out of eggs
— one per head. No more.
The highpoint of our stay at Berner’s Hotel?
Two of our team members decide to tie the knot.
‘Skipper’ Kardar and ‘Merry Max’.
A small wedding reception follows for ‘friends
Pakistan meanwhile hammers the Brits in their first
county match at Worcester where Alimuddin scores
Finally Oval — Kardar is against Wazir Mohammad
playing, but the only batsman unfazed by Tyson is
this squat silent chap. Overruling the “skipper”,
the manager and other members of the tour selection
committee include Wazir in the XI who bats best
— 42 runs while Fazal Mahmood bowls us to
On September 10, with tears of happiness, we sail
for the green, green grass of home, on the same
boat that brought us to England six months ago.
And our same old Polish waiter is standing there
to welcome us on board.
Often we deride writers who quote themselves. I
will not name them, and some of them are my co-hacks,
but I too am guilty of recycling this time around.
Blame it on the photo of Fazal Mahmood, standing
on the Oval balcony, a child in his arms and looking
like a Greek god, that a newspaper carries on the
news of his death. It stirs my soul and I must write
about the summer of 1954 once more with feeling.
Epilogue: Instead of plush sofas adorning the VIP
boxes and special enclosures, Fazal, as he aged,
always liked to watch his cricket on a chair placed
next to the sightscreen in Lahore.
A perfect place for a perfectionist to observe cricket,
capturing the heart and soul of the sport, just
as he captured ours at Oval in 1954.