Dominance and futility are cyclical in international cricket. Nearly every major test-playing nation has tasted the high of unified excellence and the low of splitting incompetence. Yet Pakistan, a country rarely lacking cricketing talent, remains the one test nation that continues to frustrate and confound us with their on-field capitulations and off-field theatrics. Drawing inspiration from Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, there is nothing constant in this world but Pakistan’s inconsistency.
How do we understand Pakistan cricket when we have underwhelming exposure to its culture, personalities and political climate? There’s no cap on the often clichéd and ill-informed opinions circulating about Pakistan and its national cricket team. Yet, the Pakistan Cricket Board’s former Chairman, Shaharyar Khan, provides us with an informed overview of cricket in his new book, Cricket Cauldron: The Turbulent Politics of Sport in Pakistan. His publication evaluates the Pakistani cricket team’s history and cultural significance and he also provides an opinionated breakdown of the PCB.
Khan’s three year reign as the PCB’s Chairman (2003-6) oversaw most of Bob Woolmer’s coaching tenure and endured stirring controversies, like the Oval Test drama of 2006. Despite the fact that no Chairman’s reign over the PCB can be devoid of scandal or player tantrums, Khan did strengthen cricketing relations with India. This is demonstrated by India’s drought-breaking 2004 tour of Pakistan, and for a period under Woolmer’s leadership, improved training standards and on-field performance.
Khan’s experience as a foreign secretary is evident in his book as his summations of key figures in Pakistan and world cricket are measured and often diplomatic. He particularly praised former ICC Chief Executive, Malcolm Speed, who he described as “direct in style in the Australian manner” but “widely respected for his integrity and frankness”. However, he does provide some forthright judgments on other key cricket personalities, even if they are directed at everyone’s favourite battering target- the umpires! In light of the Oval Test ball-tampering debacle, Khan names match referee Mike Procter as “passive and weak” and Pakistan’s public enemy number one, Australian umpire Darrell Hair, as a “time bomb”.
Pakistani cricket has some of the more intriguing and polarising characters in the world game. From Imran Khan to Inzamam-ul-Haq, they can endear and detach fans in the one session of play. However, for Shoaib Akhtar, who attracts the beaming spotlight for both his bowling deeds and off-field extracurricular activities, he still remains somewhat of a complicated puzzle. Khan provides one of the more insightful and sensitive opinions on the express fast-bowler. During the infamous Oval Test, Khan attempted to reason with the captain Inzamam and his team to end the protest regarding umpire Hair’s ball tampering accusation by returning to the field. The team followed Inzamam’s stubborn refusal, except for Akhtar, who was the sole player to respond to Khan’s desperate plea. Khan uses this moment to illustrate that while Akhtar is “wayward”, he is also “worldly wise” and “nobody’s poodle”. We realise that Akhtar is more than just a party boy and scandalous athlete.
Khan also explores some debilitating factors that have plagued Pakistan cricket’s national and domestic games during and after his PCB involvement. For better or for worse, “excessive religiosity” underpinned Pakistan’s cricket culture during Inzamam’s captaincy, which was blatantly evident in Khan’s detailed account of The Oval Test Match debacle. He also adds that the lack of strong role models has been one of the most significant factors for corruption – like spot fixing – to thrive in Pakistan.
Khan emerges as a warm, worldly and considered administrator and diplomat who is detached from the corruption and pettiness in Pakistan cricket. He notes in his book that he strongly urged the PCB to undertake significant structural change from a “dictatorial one-man show” to a more traditional cooperate structure.
Yet, Khan doesn’t proclaim to be the central and most influential figure in Pakistan cricket during his tenure as Chairman. He appears appreciative of Woolmer’s decisive influence as Pakistan’s coach. He argues that Woolmer “[p]roved that with a sensitive approach, a foreign coach could overcome the cultural and language gap”. To a certain extent, Woolmer is the book’s central and favorable figure.
However, Khan’s Cricket Cauldron sometimes falls into generalised summaries of cricket matches and disappointingly brief glances at provocative moments, like the Sydney Test Match in 2010. Also, the book doesn’t escape factual blunders, such as incorrectly stating that Pakistan won the World Cup in 1996.
Ultimately, Cricket Cauldron: The turbulent politics of sport in Pakistan, poses one thought provoking question: what do we learn from Pakistan’s attitudes and responses to cricket?