Peter Oborne's Long-awaited Opus Has Finally Arrived

Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan. By Peter Oborne. Simon & Schuster; 624 pages; £25. Buy from Amazon.com , Amazon.co.uk

“WHAT do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” The literary challenge posed by C.L.R. James, a Trinidadian Marxist author, has borne much fruit in recent years, especially in India. Led by Ramachandra Guha, cricket writers have produced illuminating studies of the Indian game’s socio-political context in which not only cricket, but also India, is the subject.

Pakistani cricket is every bit as wonderful to enthusiasts of the world’s second most popular game and as important to an emerging Asian country’s fragile self-identity. But, compared with India, it has been relatively neglected. So Peter Oborne’s ambitious history of Pakistani cricket, “Wounded Tiger”, has been eagerly awaited. It does not disappoint.

The title refers to a team talk given by the then Pakistani cricket captain, Imran Khan, halfway through the 1992 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The Pakistanis were playing abysmally and on the verge of elimination. To survive, they must fight like cornered Tigers, urged Mr Khan. What followed was spectacular: a run of flamboyant victories, including in the tournament’s final, against England. Humiliation and triumph—all sportsmen face them. Pakistan’s mercurial cricketers often seem to do so on a weekly basis.

It is, as Mr Oborne shows, their successes that are most remarkable. At birth, in 1947, Pakistan inherited little of British India’s cricket infrastructure or tradition. The game was hardly played outside Lahore and Karachi, which had lost much of its population to India. Pakistan had few clubs, only a handful of turf wickets and no cricket administration, first-class tournament, international recognition or significant patron. Yet it had a handful of brilliant players, including Fazal Mahmood, a fast bowler with film-star looks, and A.H. Kardar, an Oxford-educated former Test player, most of whom had grown up within walking distance of each other in the old walled city of Lahore. Amazing everyone but themselves, they soon pulled off shock victories against all cricket’s established powers, including an almost miraculous defeat of England in 1954; it would be almost two decades before India’s cricketers managed that.

Despite having the world’s most chaotic and politicized cricket administration, the Pakistanis were, by the 1970s and into the 1980s, one of the world’s best teams. They were known for the fiery brilliance of their fast bowlers, including Sarfraz Nawaz and Mr Khan, for the exuberance of batsmen such as Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad, and an uncanny ability to produce moments of unexpected genius—including dashing tail-end partnerships. In at least two important ways, Pakistani players changed cricket: by reinventing wrist-spin and inventing, in reverse swing, a new fast-bowling art.

None of these achievements, as Mr Oborne, a British journalist and author, argues convincingly, have been fully appreciated. Perceived as an awkward, sometimes aggressive, threat to cricket’s erstwhile-white custodians, Pakistani cricketers were often viewed with suspicion or disdain. Too often, it must be said, they invited this; corruption, including bent umpiring, ball-tampering and, more recently, the blight of match-fixing, has been increasingly evident in Pakistani cricket, as in Pakistan. Indeed, the fortunes of the country and its cricket—as Mr Oborne’s title also suggests—have never been more tragically aligned; since a Jihadist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team in 2009, Pakistan has been a cricketing pariah, with hardly any foreign team willing to visit it. These are bitter blights. Yet they are not all unique to Pakistan; nor should they obscure its gifts to cricket.

“Wounded Tiger” celebrates the triumphs and castigates the offences fairly. Inevitably, for a work of such scope, there are weaknesses: too many cursory match reports; perhaps too little exploration of the all-important cricketing relationship with India; a rattlebag feel to the closing chapters on finance and women’s cricket. Yet this is a monumental telling of one of sport’s great stories, based on thorough, sometimes groundbreaking research. It deserves a place in every cricket library and beyond. - The Economist

 

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