In Review Books

The pace age

Published May 18, 2015 06:26pm

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| The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket | Osman Samiuddin | HarperCollins India, 2014 | Price: 1,346 rupees

Unpredictable, mercurial, inconsistent, and other synonyms for oriental inscrutability. The narrative surrounding Pakistan cricket – even in the digital age – is built around such clichés, passed on from one generation to the next, to the point that even when evidence suggests otherwise, the narrative builders return to the same easy maxims that the country’s cricket and cricketers have always been described by. The writers and commentators on Pakistan cricket who are supposed to provide a nuanced outlook on the sport have rarely been up to the task.

Until now, that is.

Within months of Peter Oborne’s Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan, we get Osman Samiuddin’s The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket. Samiuddin, who previously talked about the need for a similar book, admitted at this year’s Lahore Literary Festival that he probably would have never embarked on writing one if he had some way of knowing that Oborne was already doing just that. Tragedy averted. For even when Oborne has written about the extraordinary similarities between politics and cricket in Pakistan, Samiuddin’s book goes beyond that and covers the societal implications of the sport.

In some ways, the title of Samiuddin’s book is misleading. It is not as much a book on Pakistan cricket’s history as it is a book on the country’s history viewed through the prism of cricket. This, after all, is a book that has a five-page profile of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — longer than, say, what Waqar Younis gets.

Such broad scope is perhaps one of the problems with The Unquiet Ones. In trying to cover as much as possible, in trying to educate the reader about Pakistan’s history, the author’s focus is firmly on the early years. The 1950s and the 1970s are covered in more detail than the past quarter of a century. And then there is the disappointment a modern fan will feel over the section on the post-1992 Pakistan team which is overwhelmingly coloured by Justice Qayyum’s report into match-fixing. After four decades of beautifully covered, often romanticised, always funny, recounting of what is essentially the national game, this part reads like an afterthought. Yet, this is understandable, for corruption in cricket became rampant in these years. The players, rather than the writer, ought to be blamed for that.

The book flits between an idealised Pakistan (where the national air carrier was the pride of the nation and the nawabs patronised the sport in its early years) and the real Pakistan with all its weaknesses and failures. Samiuddin’s experience of covering the country for Cricinfo shine through his knowledge of – and contacts in – the domestic cricket circuit (as shown by the innumerable interviews cited in the book). This is also apparent in his appreciation of various cricketers and their art forms. The chapters on Fazal Mahmood and Wasim Akram, in particular, show a soft spot for fast bowling; that, again, is representative of the country at large. Never have man crushes been retold in a more cricketing or desi way than in this book.

There is enough in the book for the casual observer or even someone who does not understand Pakistan’s fascination with cricket. At the same time, it is a book that cricket nerds will enjoy more than anyone else.

Yet, the best takeaway for a reader of any type, is Samiuddin’s wit, which is a constant thread throughout the book’s nearly five hundred pages. A book on history is not supposed to be a laugh-a-page affair; yet, with the array of great characters involved in our cricket, this is the least they deserve. Pakistan cricket is an enigma inside a riddle — a much loved and much maligned sport in a much misunderstood country. The book is as competent an attempt at removing those layers of ambiguity as there has ever been.