I am writing this week’s piece, while watching a cricket match in Islamabad. Cricket is one game that generates indescribable passion amongst the people of the Subcontinent and one finds venues packed with spectators for whom winning or losing becomes almost a matter of ‘life and death’. The game is now played in concrete stadiums with a high metal fence surrounding the turf and entry points controlled by stringent security arrangements. There was however a time, when match venues were green unrestricted cricket fields surrounded by trees and no fences or body scanners. It was here that fans turned the event into a picnic and one could easily access the pavilion to get autographs of their favorite players.
Lahore’s Lawrence Garden was one such venue, hallmarked by green well-kept turf and magnificent old trees. With a traditional Raj Era pavilion at one end, it was an idyllic setting for the contest between bat and ball. Days before the match, tiered seating was erected for spectators using large wooden beams. Some of these enclosures had rows of folding wooden chairs, while others were left bare. Spectators brought their own chairs or spread rugs on the steps, where the whole family sat and enjoyed the game. It was common to see fans carrying pots of home cooked food and ‘nans’ to these enclosures, while others could buy lunch boxes marketed by restaurants like ‘The Casino’ or ‘Lorangs’.
Teams and officials were usually accommodated in Nedoe’s Hotel located at the spot where ‘The Avari’ now stands. We were fortunate that a close family friend was the Secretary of the Cricket Control Board and Fazal Mehmood, the deadly Pakistani Leg Cutter specialist, were old family friends. I frequently visited their rooms at Nedoe’s with my father often running into some great names in the game. My elder brother, who was a good cricketer himself, somehow obtained black and white photographs of cricket celebrities from visiting and home teams and had a great time getting them autographed from players sitting in the pavilion during matches.
This was the era of the five day tests and fifty and twenty over contests were nowhere on the horizon. The culture of wearing helmets, thigh and arm pads had not yet been introduced and players wore caps. I remember a game where the mighty West Indian Bowler Wesley Hall pitched a bouncer at Ijaz Butt, who was opening for Pakistan and broke his nose. Ijaz retired hurt and returned with a heavily wadded proboscis to score a century, hitting his tormentor for many boundaries in a splendid display of grit and style. It was in the same match that I found myself being reluctantly dragged to stand before a tall West Indian legend in white flannels, as his giant sized hand ruffled my hair – an unforgettable experience for a small shy little boy looking up at the awesome Wesley Hall.
I have pleasant memories of sitting wide eyed as my Dad chatted with members of the visiting MCC Team and cannot forget the thrill watching Hanif Muhammad and Imtiaz Ahmed opening for Pakistan. The latter also kept the stumps and was the uncle of one of my class mates. I therefore had the privilege of seeing his ‘off the pitch’ side, while visiting my friend. My father sometimes took me to the General Tyres office on the Mall, where I was introduced to another cricketing legend called Mehmood Hussain.
It is interesting to recollect that these heroes played cricket for the sake of the game and not money. They not only had educated often affluent backgrounds, but primary careers in business, corporate organizations, the Armed Forces and Police. Many of them had played for the well-known club called the Eaglets, whose members sometimes practiced in the nets on a ground on Warris Road, close to the historic water tank. I can recall standing across the hedge bordering this ground with my elder brother, watching the nets.
This then was a time when cricket was known as a gentleman’s game, when there was no sledging, no ball tampering or spot fixing. On the contrary, batsmen often walked off even when given not out, in the knowledge that they had indeed nicked the ball.
The writer is a historian.