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Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

If cricket is seen as a gentleman’s game, then Omar Kureishi must be one of its most famous and gentlemanly commentators. During his long and eventful career as a journalist for the Pakistan Standard and Times of Karachi, as public relations manager for PIA and as a successful author and columnist, cricket has remained Kureishi’s all-consuming passion and commentating his best trademark.

He brought the game alive on radio and television, captivating generations of admirers. But Omar Kureishi is also known for his principled stand against government intervention in PIA’s affairs, namely, the implementation of Martial Law Regulation 52, which embroiled him in quite a controversy in the 1960s …

Kureishi’s witty, incisive journalese style has earned him accolades for his three books, Black Moods, Out to Lunch and You Can’t Beat the System. His columns, The Past is Another Country, was widely read and his current column, All over The Place, is no less popular.

In this exclusive interview with the Herald, Omar Kureishi discusses his PIA days, the state of journalism then and now, his close association with some of Pakistan’s illustrious personalities, his books, and of course, cricket — its controversies, evolution and the art of commentary that he has perfected over the years …

Zaffar Abbas. Being a journalist yourself, you have been watching Pakistani politics, as well as journalism, from a certain vintage point. How do you think they have developed over the years?

Omar Kureishi. That’s a very difficult question … When I was a working journalist, which I am not now – I am freelancing and a columnist – we didn’t have as many newspapers as there are now. There has been a great gain in the quantity of what is coming out as the written word, but there has to be certain deterioration in the quality as well. And there are a number of reasons for this.

One is, I think, that we overlook the fact that since partition, the subject of education has been most seriously neglected. Perhaps, in matters like science and technology, there may have been some advances.

But in general, in what we call the liberal arts and social sciences, the standard has progressively declined. That will reflect in your press, as well in terms of the quality of people who are now journalists.

You do have some very fine journalists, and in the last few years, the standard has improved of what I call ‘opinion journalism.’ A number of columnists have emerged, investigative reporters have come out, and I think they are doing an outstanding job.

There is much more to read, there is much greater analysis of events now, than there used to be. But in terms of reporting, there has been certain irresponsibility. I am a great advocate – I have always been, I have never waivered – of the freedom of the press.

But I think there is a difference between freedom and licence. And as a former editor, I myself may have made many mistakes, but one of the things which to me is vital for a newspaperman, is to double check. What we are doing at present, is that we are not double-checking our stories.

The press has been very loud in talking about the credibility of politicians. It has been very, very critical, and rightly so, in my opinion, about the credibility of the electronic media, which has been so heavily one-sided.

Ever since we had television, there has not been a single regime for which you can say that they were even-handed.

Consequently their credibility, particularly their news coverage, has suffered. Very, very few people believe what they say. The press has been very quick to point that out, and has been very critical, but without understanding that the press itself has lost some credibility.

The reason why this has happened is because they are very partisan — which is fair, if you belong to a political party.

The main problem with public relations is that it has got a very bad image.

But as far as the independents are concerned, they are losing credibility because they have been partisan without being committed to any particular political party. And to that extent, I think there has been a slight abuse of press freedom.

We must be very careful because freedom of the press is not a licence, and a certain measure of responsibility is required. I think the press will have to create this responsibility for itself. You must not wait for the government to come down on you.

Abbas. You have often said that you are basically a journalist. Was it your thwarted ambition and frustration as a journalist, then, that prompted you to join the fledgling and dubious profession of public relations in Pakistan?

Kureishi. Fledgling, certainly. I won’t call it dubious. When the first martial law was brought in, the general impression I got – and I was partly right – was, that to function as an honest journalist would become increasingly difficult. And one also understood the dangers involved. So I had to look for an alternative.

But I got into PIA quite by accident. I was told that Air Marshal Nur Khan (he was an air commodore at that time) wanted to meet me. We had never met, so, I went to see him. He said to me that he wanted somebody to set up the public relations department of PIA, and that my name had been given to him.

I mentioned to him that I had other commitments – mainly my cricket – and to accept a full-time job would be difficult for me. He said, “No, no, I really want you for just one year. You just set it up for us, and then you can go ahead and carry on with your commitments.”

It seemed like a very good idea at the time. But then I got so involved, that it became increasingly difficult to keep up with my other interests. Possibly I started to do a good job — I decided to stay on. And I rather enjoyed it.

The main problem with public relations is that it has got a very bad image. I tell anyone who gets into public relations, that before you try to change someone else’s image, which is your job, change your own image. I don’t think I am ashamed of the way I handled PIA’s public relations.

We played it very straight. I don’t want to go into great details. I resisted a great deal of pressure, fully supported by my chief executives. In this I will mention two names, particularly Air Marshal Nur Khan and Air Marshal Asghar Khan.

That was the time when a great deal of pressure came on us — particularly during the times of the elections, when Miss (Fatima) Jinnah was there, and the East Pakistan press was anti-Ayub. We got instructions to withdraw advertising from them.

And I refused to accept that. I mentioned it to Air Marshal Nur Khan, to say that we ought not to get involved, because PIA is a commercial organisation, and we advertise for commercial reasons, and we should not be a party to what is happening in politics. The air marshal fully understood that. We went to see Field Marshal Ayub Khan, and he was convinced that the decision was right.

The same thing happened again in Marshal Asghar Khan’s time, and I again came under pressure, which were mainly of the negative kind. In General Zia’s time of course we used to get a lot of pressure to, say, support this paper, or give them advertising, or buy copies and so on.

But in these two particular cases it was negative pressure — to stop advertising, to put some sort of economic squeeze on. I flatly refused to accept that. And in both cases, the two air marshals fully understood the case, and I got full backing.

PIA at that time was a very fine airline, was a very great airline, and the employees had a great deal of pride in themselves. So my job was much easier, simply because I was projecting something which was very good, and the public was on our side.

Abbas. You mentioned pressures, to use advertisements as a lever, when you were in PIA. But this practice is apparently still continuing, and subsequent governments have always used the advertisement lever to influence the press.

Kureishi. I think it is totally wrong. I think the two have to be divided. The editorial side should be totally separate from the advertising side of the newspaper. And governments are quite wrong, in my opinion, to use advertising for political purposes or pressures.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

It doesn’t work. And it is very temporary, as we have seen. Every time a regime changes, the same newspaper’s policy changes — if it has been influenced by advertising. But I think the reality is that today the government is the largest advertiser in Pakistan. It controls the strings, and is bound to have some influence on newspapers. Which is wrong.

Abbas. You had the prized job of PIA public relations in its heyday. After a long, high-flying sting you left, and were heard to say that you wouldn’t touch PIA with a barge pole. Any particular reason?

Kureishi. Yes. One was that when I got back to journalism, I felt that I had a much greater potential as a writer than I had for anything else. I was also able to learn certain things, that I would not have learnt as a journalist, such as management experience.

Had I stuck it out in journalism, I might have been a much better writer than I am now. That was a purely personal decision. But as far as not touching PIA with a barge pole is concerned, that is true in the sense that when I left PIA, the martial law regulation 52 was on the anvil, and I knew it was coming. And I knew I would resign the day it was announced.

But what happened was that the decision was taken away from me, and I was forced to resign. I think they knew very well that I was not going to put up with this. As a result of regulation 52, thousands of PIA employees were sacked, unions were banned, and drastic changes were made in the management and administration. And after that, in my opinion, PIA has never really recovered.

The uncertainty, the lack of confidence within the employees themselves, the lack of decisions, ad hoc appointments that have gone on, the infighting, the general environment in PIA — it is a very unhealthy environment, particularly if you have worked in PIA in a very healthy environment, with some very, very good people. And some of the chief executives I have worked with were really men of high calibre.

So, the impact of regulation 52 was to destroy morale. But most of all, it destroyed pride. And PIA was one organisation in Pakistan in which people had pride.

‘Great people to fly with’ was a very important factor in getting people to work. It sounds pompous, but it wasn’t at all. It was an inward looking slogan – to say that this is the claim we are making for you, so go ahead and respond to it – and we did succeed.

But now the same slogan is often used against PIA. If anything goes wrong ‘great people to fly with’ is used in a humorous or sarcastic way.

Abbas. But you still seem to have a lot of fascination for PIA …

Kureishi. No, I don’t have any real fascination for PIA. I have some love — one would have, for an organisation where you have spent some of your best years. I gave my best years to PIA. That is why I always discuss it with some regret. And then, to see this happen to the airline, you do feel some regret. You feel that it shouldn’t have happened, and that it should have gone on to become one of the greatest airlines in the world.

I hope they get their act together. I am very interested in what goes on in PIA — after all, I spent a lot of time there. As for fascination, at the moment very little fascinates me.

Abbas. You were a personal friend of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and you have been quite close to a number of other politicians and statesmen. Yet, somehow you have never taken any active part in politics. Why?

Kureishi. That’s a question I have been asked very often. I make a very clear distinction between what is personal and what is public. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and I grew up together, back in 1940.

We were in school together, we were at a university together. He was a personal friend of mine. I never allowed that personal friendship to come in the way of what I imagined to be his politics. That had nothing to do with me.

The same applies to any other politician in this country. In the present caretaker government, there are some very, very close and personal friends of mine, and the friendship goes back thirty, forty years.

Let me put it this way: I have never been in the corridors of power. I have been close to those who have been in the corridors of power.

I count the present caretaker prime minister as a personal friend of mine. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with his politics, but I again make that distinction — that my friendship has nothing to do with his politics. I have no political ambitions of any sort.

A lot of people think that if you are friendly with Bhutto, then you must be unfriendly with so and so. I have never been like that. I have friends in the government, I have friends in the opposition. And I hope I continue to have them. It must be causing the intelligence agencies a great deal of confusion, but that’s the way I am.

Abbas. Pardon me for putting it so bluntly, but if someone has friends in all regimes, and is not prepared to disagree with them openly, the impression one gets is that he is being an opportunist.

Kureishi. This can be true for those who gain by changing sides. He gains by material things, he may pick up contracts, he may pick up jobs. But if you don’t want anything from anybody, where is the requirement to change sides?

I hope if I meet the present prime minister, he will meet me as cordially and as affectionately as he has always done in the past. The same applies to the people in the PPP, I hope they will continue to meet me as affectionately, because I really want nothing from them.

Whether a person is in power or not doesn’t affect my relationship. On the contrary, as soon as the person gets out of power he becomes more accessible, and it means that then you can renew your friendship.

Let me put it this way: I have never been in the corridors of power. I have been close to those who have been in the corridors of power. But I am a non-combatant.

While talking about my friends you can’t really zero in on politicians alone. A lot of bureaucrats are my friends. A lot of businessmen are my friends. I have a very odd circle of friends, and a lot of them have been made, I think, because of cricket, because cricket is a great leveller.

So, I got a high profile in cricket as a commentator, and as a result I got to meet a cross-section of people, and they became my friends. So, I have friends all over. I very strongly disagree with what some of my friends are doing, but I never allow that to interfere with my personal friendship. I think you have to draw that line somewhere.

Abbas. You mentioned cricket as having a strong influence in forming your circle of friends. You, along with Jamsheed Marker, are regarded as the pioneers of cricket commentary in Pakistan. How do you look at your role as a commentator? And has commentary progressed along with the game?

Kureishi. Yes, it has. I think the first point is that television has made a great deal of difference. At the time that Jamsheed Marker and I were doing the commentary, there are two things to remember. One is, that the commentary was entirely in English, and to this day I have not understood why we were able to get such great audiences.

I would assume that a good 80 percent of the people had no idea what we were saying, and were primarily interested in what the score was. I think Jamsheed Marker and I can be proud of the fact that we created the awareness of cricket in this country.

The second thing you must remember is that at that time there were no transistor radios. Now everybody has got a transistor radio, so he can walk around and listen to the commentary. In those days people had to make a greater effort to go and listen to the cricket commentary. And they did so.

In the ‘50s when I started, there was a great deal of pride in the Pakistan cricket team. There still is, but at that time, as a new nation, beating England, beating India, beating the West Indies, meant a great deal to us. So one got carried away in the flood of pride in the country.

And we were a part of that, since we were the people who brought in the good news. So we got established, and we did a good job, considering that we were speaking in English. Even now, I get tremendous amounts of feedback from people who remember those days.

Then, of course, came television. Television was quite different. Television brought the game to the home. There has also been a tremendous development in sports journalism.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

There was very restricted sports journalism at that time. But now you even have specialist magazines. Now cricketers are household names, now they are recognized wherever they go, because of television.

I think television has made a lot of difference, and I myself had great difficulty in adjusting to television commentary. My own viewers used to say to me, you don’t talk at all, whereas on radio you used to speak non-stop. Somebody, in fact, wrote an article which said maybe he was bluffing us on radio. But there is a very simple answer to that — on TV you are seeing it.

And the less you talk on television, the better it is, otherwise you are a pain in the neck for the viewer. The rule in television is that if you can’t improve on the picture, don’t talk. A great many people have now come into commentary. Some are good, some are bad. I can’t say that the standard has gone down, if anything, it may have gone up.

But there are a lot of people who aspire to be commentators, without understanding that you require certain things to be a commentator: one is, you have to be a broadcaster; second, of course, is that you have to have a very in-depth knowledge of the game.

Abbas. But the fact that even after 30 years, you are still regarded as one of our leading cricket commentators, shows that we have failed to find a better replacement …

Kureishi. No, I wouldn’t say we failed to find a replacement. It is just that I, in some respects, got better as commentator. I have improved with the years.

There has been no deterioration in me. I have far more confidence in myself now, and I have a much greater knowledge of cricket because of my experience of thirty-odd years. When I give it up, then it will be the right time to judge whether or not they were able to find a replacement.

In many respects, today I am a much better commentator than I was in the ‘50s or ‘60s.

Abbas. Your passion for the game has taken you to many countries, and at one stage you were also manager of the Pakistan cricket team. How has the game progressed in all these years?

Kureishi. I think you’ll find what has happened to the game is that a great deal of money has come into it. The game has been commercialised, and with it have come disadvantages of commercialisation. Our top stars have become like pop stars — or like film stars.

There is a very thin line now, between stardom in sports and stardom in, for instance, the film industry. Our cricketers are glamour figures. They have become far richer than than they were in the ‘50s. And that has brought a certain deterioration in the morality of cricket.

I am very old fashioned in my views on cricket, I resist change in cricket. The one field, really, where you can call me a reactionary, if you like, I don’t mind. I am certainly very orthodox, very conservative and put in political terms, an extreme right-winger as far as cricket is concerned. Because cricket to me was, and is, a way of life.

It has a very high moral imperative that goes with the game of cricket. And I have seen that deteriorate. And increasingly, this talk of cheating, indiscipline, bad behaviour on the field, off the field, is at times very distressing. And it will carry on.

I am not very happy with the way cricket is going, and I don’t see the way in which it will come back to the old values of the game.

Abbas. Lately, the debate has arisen over the virtues and disadvantages of having neutral umpires. If this formula is accepted, won’t it damage the image of cricket as a gentleman’s game?

Kureishi. Oh totally, it has destroyed it. You see, the whole idea of neutral umpires is negative in my opinion, if you are talking about the values of cricket.

The moment you accept the fact that you need a neutral umpire, or an umpire from a third country, you are destroying the mystique of cricket.

To give you an example, during the Shakoor Rana-Gatting incident, one MP accused Mrs Thatcher of behaving like a Pakistani umpire.

You see the whole game of cricket is based on the fact that nothing else matters except trust. Look at the rules of cricket. There are two people who are umpires. They are vested with so much power that it is unbelievable, because there is no appeal for their decision.

The powers given to the umpires were unlimited, and the reason for that was that people trusted the umpires. Now that trust has been shaken.

It has been shaken for a variety of reasons, one of them being the increasing amount of nationalism that has come in. And the whole concept of neutral umpires is not so much a reflection on the umpires, as it is of the power of the media. It is almost media-created.

Take Pakistan’s example. We are so sick and tired. No matter which teams come, no matter who they are, they come here and shamefacedly tell you that Pakistanis are cheats. It’s not that Pakistani umpires are cheats. They are calling you cheats as a nation.

To give you an example, during the Shakoor Rana-Gatting incident, one MP accused Mrs Thatcher of behaving like a Pakistani umpire. We got sick and tired of that. We have got a very good team, and we said “if this is the way you want to play, let’s have neutral umpires, so that at least the label, that Pakistan is a cheat, is removed.”

So that’s what the neutral umpires will do. You’ll continue to have controversies, you’ll continue to have bad decisions, but at least your country won’t be blamed.

Abbas. Your books Black Moods and Out to Lunch expressed a deep-down dissatisfaction with the ‘system’ and the ‘establishment’ and the ethos Pakistani people.

You wrote like an objective outsider, with a dry sense of humour. But in your later writings like The Past is Another Country you seem to have assimilated yourself into a purely Pakistani scene, and you seem to be nostalgic about the days of Black Moods. Did you finally come home?

Kureishi. Yes, I think so. I think the nostalgic part comes with age as well, and you have to allow for that factor. When one is young, especially with my background — we came, we looked upon independence of the subcontinent, we thought this is an end in itself.

The day we get our freedom, we thought we would wake up in a brand new heaven of freedom, something will happen to us, beautiful people, beautiful country, all problems will be solved, all poverty will disappear.

Progressively, over the years, those of us who were brainwashed into thinking that all our problems were created by the British, had begun to realise that that was not so.

So the disillusionment has been gradual. In Black Moods there is a great deal of hope, but in Out to Lunch there is slightly more disillusionment — I was becoming a little more cynical. In my latest writings I have become quite cynical. I think age may be a factor, but I have also become more realistic.

Finally one has shed one’s idealism, and that’s a terrible thing to say. I won’t say I have reconciled to what is happening, but one is certainly very saddened to see what is happening.

I am very disillusioned, very concerned, we have no direction at all. There is no national direction. There is no definition of who we are. Forty-three years have passed, and we are still asking each other what a Pakistani is. So, there is a reason to feel disillusioned and cynical.

This article was originally published in the Herald's September 1990 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.