Once 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 kidding).
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 radiates.
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 rest.
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 contest?
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 only’.
Pakistan meanwhile hammers the Brits in their first county match at Worcester where Alimuddin scores a century.
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 victory.
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.

Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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