Anyone for gulli-danda?

Tariq Ali

The cricket matches I grew up with in the Indian subcontinent during the Forties and Fifties lasted five days. The players were dressed in immaculate white or off-white flannels, the ball was dark red and the spectators were well-dressed and sedate. It was no different in the West Indies: English cricket was everywhere the model. Our heroes were the great English batsmen and bowlers of the time. There were great Australians, too, but, we joked, they were only Englishmen twice removed – once from prison and once from England.

I always envied the apparently carefree life of the street children who played cricket the whole day long during the idyllic winter months from November till March. One year, when my parents were abroad, I bunked off school for a week to play with the street teams. It was bliss, even though I wasn’t very good and knew the only reason I had been allowed to play was that I had a new cricket ball – then, as now, a rare luxury.

When the street kids weren’t playing cricket, they played a game known as gulli-danda, using branches hacked off roadside trees or stray pieces of wood discarded by the shopkeepers. The gulli is a small wooden stake with pointed ends. When you lay it flat, the pointed ends rise slightly above the ground. The danda is a medium-sized stick with which you hit one end of the stake so that it jumps up in the air. As it comes down to about shoulder-level, you strike it really hard with the stick to make it go as far as possible. This isn’t as easy as it sounds: timing and eye-hand co-ordination are critical and you need a lot of practice to become an expert player. As they approached their teens, the more gifted gulli-danda players graduated effortlessly to cricket.

They shone in the matches between rival street-teams, usually played on dusty patches of earth and to a fixed over limit, though the teams were always bowled out before the overs were up. A number of these street cricketers could have gone far, but in the newly independent subcontinent the colonial mode persisted as much in cricket as in the officers’ mess and the gymkhana clubs, where civil servants gathered every evening for scotch and political gossip, just as the British had done.

In the first decades after Independence, cricket became more popular, but without any change in its character. Old habits were not easily displaced and at the top level the game remained polite, dominated by the middle and upper classes who still deferred to English ways. Ordinary people were confined to playing in the streets and shouting bawdy comments from the stands during a Test Match. In the lunch interval of the first Tests in Pakistan, there was a display by military bands. The sight of young, hairy-legged Punjabis and Pathans dressed in kilts and playing bagpipes greatly amused English journalists, though we took them for granted. Even now the sound of bagpipes reminds me of the first cricket matches I watched from the Victorian pavilion in the lush green field of the Lawrence Gardens (now the Jinnah Gardens), where Majid Khan’s father (and Imran Khan’s uncle), the stern-faced Dr Jehangir Khan, used to open the innings, and where, in a crucial Test Match between India and Pakistan in the Fifties, our most exciting batsman, Maqsood, was dismissed one run short of his century. I also remember the nostalgia when the Indian team arrived in Lahore. For my parents’ generation, it was a small, temporary, reversal of the ethnic cleansing that had accompanied Partition. In those days the Indian team was greeted warmly by the crowd.

Until fairly recently, Test umpires belonged to the country hosting the match and their role in deciding the outcome of a game was often critical. On one occasion in Peshawar in the Fifties, when a partisan Pakistani umpire, Idris Beg, raised his finger every time the captain, A.H. Kardar, appealed for lbw, the visiting English team, who’d been drinking after the match, decided on a public-school style punishment: Idris Beg was captured, debagged and dunked in a swimming pool. British umpires used to be accused of bias tinged with racism by visiting teams from the West Indies and the subcontinent. I once tried to explain the rules of cricket to a young Chinese Communist, a former Red Guard who had become disillusioned and fled to Hong Kong, where, to his amazement, he discovered that some of the local Chinese, including a supporter of the fledgling Democracy Movement, played the game. He listened intently, asked questions, and then fell silent. I assumed he was bored but I was wrong. ‘Could you explain something to me?’ he asked with a frown. ‘Who selects the umpires?’ He had grasped at once that a partial umpire could turn the game. It was thanks to Imran Khan, and despite fierce objections from the English, that the principle of neutral umpires in Test Matches was eventually accepted by the authorities.

The history of cricket is the history of the former colonies overtaking their imperial masters. Cricket, C.L.R. James said, is a metaphor for the Empire: one way of undermining the colonists was to beat them at their favourite game. It was this that fuelled the rise of Australian, West Indian and subcontinental cricket, and, later, mass participation in the game. In the Thirties, English sensibilities were offended by the Australians, Don Bradman especially. By the Sixties, it was the turn of the West Indies’ fast bowlers. They were too fast, too hostile and bowled too many bouncers. Could it be, the fogies whispered to each other in the Long Room at Lord’s, that the blacks had a special gene which enabled them to bowl so fast? Something had to be done and the white knights of cricket imposed a rule which made it illegal to bowl more than two bouncers an over. They would never get away with that now.

World cricket has changed. The resurgent power is the subcontinent. Cricket is an obsession in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Under Indira Gandhi there was a growth of self-confidence on the part of the underclass in the big towns, and the change of mood had its effect on cricket, which discarded its colonial wardrobe, became more democratic and began to wear the colours of nationalism. In Sri Lanka in the Eighties cricket was a release for both the Tamils and the Sinhalese engaged in a debilitating civil war, and it wasn’t long before Sri Lanka’s incredible batsmen exploded onto the world scene.

The social composition of the Pakistan cricket team began to change after the military dictatorship was toppled in 1969. This process was accelerated when Imran Khan took charge and used his prestige to cut through bureaucracy and cronyism. He encouraged talented young players who had no connections with wealth or with the functionaries in control of the game, and the emergence of players such as Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Inzamam-ul-Haq was a direct result. Today, a young boy in a dusty street can see boys slightly older than himself transformed into superstars. The gulli-danda days are over. The kids now play cricket with a tape-ball – an old tennis ball encircled with red insulating tape. The bounce of the tape-ball is unpredictable. Its tendency to deviate as it hits the ground helps to develop batting reflexes and encourages unorthodox styles. The tape-ball forces bowlers to work harder on their wrist technique since a tennis ball has no seam to make it swing naturally. Ijaz Ahmed, Shahid Afridi, Wasim Akram, Saleem Malik and Yousuf Yohanna all grew up playing tape-ball cricket.

These former street players led Pakistan to victory in the 1992 World Cup. Modelled on its football equivalent, this tournament has become the most important event in cricket, easily eclipsing the annual ritual slaughter of the English by the Australians. It also marks the dominance of one-day cricket over the five-day game. The beauty of five-day cricket is that an accomplished team can be beaten by mediocre opponents lucky enough to have a captain with the strategic skills of a chess player. Victory is rarely certain and a drawn match used to be taken as a satisfactory and honourable outcome. When they began, one-day cricket matches with limited overs were regarded as a frivolous side-show, a disruption that had to be tolerated because it drew bigger crowds and more sponsorship money. This was not my mother’s view. Monumental impatience had always prevented her from enjoying a five-day match. One-day cricket consumes less time and generates more excitement. Purists were inclined to disagree, but they, too, have been won over by the sheer energy of the fifty-overs game.

Robert Winder’s Hell for Leather is an account of a trip to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1996, when these countries were staging the World Cup.[*] Winder found a subcontinent in love with cricket. The contrast with England could not have been more pronounced. His prose, mellifluous when describing South Asian cricket, turns caustic when he writes about his own team. The English manager, Ray Illingworth, is typically graceless and petty, always finding an excuse for the team’s churlish behaviour on or off the field. He is slow to appreciate the brilliance of the Sri Lankans. Why, the despairing Winder asked, does England produce so many ‘bad-tempered cheese-and-pickle types who played too much, ate too much, drank too much, travelled too much and complained too much. Goodness knows, we had plenty of money, plenty of grounds, plenty of players, plenty of everything. But all these other countries just seemed to have more zip. It didn’t seem fair. Boo-hoo.’

England did not do well in the World Cup they hosted last month. The West Indies, too, failed to reach the semi-finals. Theirs was an old team, far too dependent on the triumvirate of Ambrose, Walsh and Lara. How would C.L.R. James have explained this failure? Is West Indian cricket in permanent decline now that the young have lost interest in Britain? It seems they feel the pull of the United States and aspire to be baseball and basketball stars.

In the late Eighties, Darcus Howe had the idea of filming a meeting between the star West Indian batsman, Viv Richards, and C.L.R. James. The old man greatly admired Richards and was delighted to see him. The cameras were switched on and he began to ply the young cricketer with questions. Richards was thrilled to meet the legend, but in front of the cameras he lost his nerve; and smiling all the while, replied in monosyllables. This suited James, who liked to talk. A classic exchange ensued.

James: What is it about these tiny little islands in the Caribbean where cricketers seem to grow on trees? They drop like ripe fruit and give us such pleasure. We produce the most amazing batsmen and bowlers with very little effort. I have often thought about this. What is your explanation for this, Vivian?

Richards (smiling): Er, well, yes. I mean. You’re right.

I watched this year’s World Cup hoping for a repeat of Pakistan’s 1992 triumph. The star of the tournament was a Pakistani boy from the streets, Shoaib Akhtar, who bowls at 96 mph. He was discovered by a group of casual onlookers, who alerted Ramiz Raja, a batsman who has played in the national team (and a member, like Imran Khan, of the old Aitchison College cricket élite). Raja went to face Shoaib in the nets. He was scared and impressed and recommended him to Majid Khan and the selectors. Shoaib was given his chance.

The Pakistan team was young, although captained by a veteran, Wasim Akram. It was inexperienced, erratic, petulant, but also very exciting to watch. At the Oval, where they played Zimbabwe, the fans were ebullient, alternately cheerful and critical. Why did Ijaz Ahmed get himself run out so stupidly? Some juicy Punjabi abuse was hurled at the departing batsman’s head. Several theories sprang to life around me, each involving a conspiracy of one sort or another. When I suggested that Ijaz might simply have made a mistake, I was told by my good-humoured neighbours that I was naive and didn’t know anything about Pakistani cricket. But Pakistan defeated Zimbabwe, which meant that India was out of the World Cup. ‘India’s going home,’ the fans chanted joyously.

But when India beat Pakistan at Old Trafford, angry Pakistan fans had surrounded the team coach and waved tenners at the team to suggest that they had deliberately thrown the match. I was not convinced, but I did begin to wonder when they lost to Bangladesh. The fans had no doubts. It was all about money, filthy money from the betting syndicates in Bombay, Karachi and Dubai. Bangladesh’s victory, I was told, had been bought by Bangladeshi businessmen, desperate to give their fledgling team a boost. The celebrations in Dhaka were phenomenal. History, politics and sport had merged and a large banner proclaimed: ‘Pakistan’s second defeat: 1971 & 1999’.

It is rare for a whole team to be bought: usually, a single player is sent detailed instructions. He must bowl three no-balls in his third over, for example, or make sure he is out after scoring 16 runs, or some other agreed variant. Buying a few players is known as ‘spread-betting’. The effect is to demoralise the entire team. Some players have families who can barely afford one meal a day. What do they do if a syndicate makes them an offer of 30 lakh rupees (nearly half a million pounds) for bowling several bad overs in a given match? And if the offer has come through a senior player who might victimise them if they refuse, the choice is simple.

In the Lahore High Court, a one-man tribunal consisting of Justice Malik Mohammed Qayyum is considering whether some members of the national team are corrupt. The tribunal was established last year at the request of the Pakistan Cricket Board and its chief, Majid Khan. The tribunal made extensive inquiries and took sworn evidence from players such as Rashid Latif, a former wicket-keeper in the Pakistan team. Disgusted by the scale of the corruption, Latif had secretly taped conversations between leading players. A decision was delayed, probably under government pressure. In public Justice Malik said that he did not wish to damage the team until the World Cup was over. There were strong indications that all would be forgiven if Pakistan won the Cup.

But they did not win. The final against Australia was a sad, one-sided match. Having unwisely decided to bat, Pakistan collapsed. Its top-order batsmen could not resist the Australian attack. The middle-order crumbled. Shane Warne may have looked unplayable, but Pakistan’s batsmen didn’t try very hard. The demoralised bowlers, feeling the game was in any case lost, failed to retrieve the situation. Wasim Akram said that they were outplayed and there was nothing more to it. I think, on this occasion, he was telling the truth, but very few people in Pakistan agree with me. The news of the defeat brought angry crowds onto the streets of the major cities (the recent clashes with India over Kashmir have failed to produce comparable shows of feeling). Unable to accept that this Pakistan team could lose to anyone, the crowds assumed the worst. For them the real victors were not Australia, but the betting syndicates.

When Wasim Akram became successful in the mid-Nineties, his brother decided to become a bookie. A mid-life decision to change professions was greeted with cynicism by the Pakistani public. After the World Cup, Wasim’s house in Lahore was stoned. There were demands for him to be tried by a military tribunal. ‘We’ll hang you when you return, you fat motherfucker,’ the fans chanted outside Inzamam’s bungalow in Multan as they smashed all its windows. The team delayed its departure from London for a few days in the hope that their security could be guaranteed. When they finally landed at Karachi airport, a thousand armed policemen were waiting to protect them from the wrath of several thousand fans chanting ‘Hang Wasim!’ Inzamam’s brother was allowed into the VIP lounge to collect him. They emerged to find that their brand-new car had been set on fire. Wasim’s mother issued a statement accepting that some punishment might be necessary if her son were found guilty of any misdemeanours, but pleading for him not to be hanged. When Pakistan was beaten by India in Bangalore in 1996, it was said that Wasim Akram had failed to play in the match, not because he was ill, but on the instructions of a betting syndicate. Fans kidnapped his father and held him hostage for a few days. Perhaps that is why this time his mother decided to launch a pre-emptive strike.

The tribunal is now active again and the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif – no slouch himself when it comes to making a bit on the side – has said that his tame Accountability Commission (a body formally set up to deal with corruption, which in reality settles accounts with political enemies and intimidates Pakistan’s press barons) will also investigate the allegations against the team, though it is unlikely that Wasim Akram will be found guilty and sent to prison. Pakistani intelligence agents, deputed to keep an eye on the team during the World Cup, have reported visits to casinos and bars in the evenings. Had the team beaten Australia, they could have fornicated, gambled, drunk whisky and taken all the drugs they wanted. They would have been revered by the Pakistani people, who feel that cricket players, unlike politicians, are of their own kind. And their sins would have been washed clean by the obligatory stopover at Mecca on their way home.

[*] Hell for Leather by Robert Winder (Indigo, 256 pp., £7.99, 15 May, 0 575 40092 7).