Last Sunday, June 16, I looked forward to being seated with friends in an arc around the TV set, ready to exult at the outcome of the Indo-Pak ODI at the Old Trafford in Manchester. But two friends who have surprised me with their adoption of saffron, would not just rejoice but clench their fists and grind their teeth in an expression which is a little more visceral. Theirs would not be the slow hand clap. In victory I am with them, sometimes ahead of them, it is when I see triumphalism that I feel weak in the pit of my stomach.
Much water has flown down the Irwell, Manchester and the Gomti, Lucknow where, as an eager schoolboy, armed with an autograph book, I found myself in the player’s pavilion, thanks to a cousin who introduced me to Habul Mukherjee, the famous hockey coach, who supervised the construction of the cricket stadium. I was rewarded with “access” to the players’ pavilion for having accomplished the most challenging of tasks. I had to produce a wooden plank, painted white, with a legend in thick black: “Ladies Urinal”. Really, to what lengths an autograph hungry schoolboy will not go?
Difficult to believe, in today’s atmosphere, but the Pakistan team were a bigger draw, among Hindus and Muslims alike, largely because of a 16-year-old batting prodigy, Hanif Mohammad. Students from Islamia College, not far from the Royal Hotel where the team stayed, invaded the hotel’s lobby. They found to their horror that the Pakistanis they saw, were very different from the ones they expected. There, on the bar stool, was “Maxi” abbreviation for Maqsood Ahmad, holding a mug frothing over with beer.
On the cricket ground, I shall never forget the two bearded Maulanas, wearing caps of the same cloth as their respective sherwanis, monitoring every ball through their antiquated army binoculars. Polly Umrigar missed a ball from Fazal Mahmood and wicket keeper Imtiaz Ahmad snapped it. The slip cordon appealed. “No” said the umpire emphatically. One agitated Maulana, turned to the other looking distinctly unhappy.
“Kilick to hua tha” (I heard the click), he said to his friend. Safdar, one of the wits who were part of Lucknow’s elegant decadence, leaned over, touched the Maulana’s binoculars and asked loudly enough to send all those in the vicinity into peals of laughter.
“Maulana, ismein sunayii bhi deta hai?” (Maulana you can also hear through that binocular?)
Beer drinking Pakistanis registered with Islamia College students as something of a disappointment. The college catered to the lower end of the Muslim middle class. It dawned on me much later that defining the Muslim middle class in the twilight of the feudal order was not easy: elegant speech and manners went hand in hand with abject penury. With penury came religiosity.
As centres of culture, most people use a faulty balance to compare Lucknow and Lahore. Lucknow had begun to die as early as 1857 for their affront to the British. The great centre of culture paid a heavy price. The state’s High Court was set up in Allahabad as was UP’s premier university. Industry was dispatched to what the British called Cawnpore. Lucknow was left with Taluqdars who had made peace with the British. The population was gifted with the art of conversation which seemed quaint and out of place, given their impecunious living. The declining aristocracy held their libraries to their bosom but refrained from polo, tennis or cricket, almost in cultural defiance of the Raj.
Lahore derived its vigour up to 1947 from its “Punjabiat” (though a great centre of Urdu) and its high comfort level with the British. There was even a sartorial difference between the Sherwani clad Urdu poets of Awadh (Lucknow) and those of Lahore. Faiz Ahmad Faiz was the only prominent Urdu poet on the subcontinent who wore a jacket and tie. Unlike Lucknow, where poets and scribes drank furtively in the cubicles of China Bar and Restaurant, Lahore was more open with its bars which cricketers like “Maxi” frequented. That is why “Maxi” and one or two of his team mates were comfortable walking around Lucknow’s Royal hotel bar lounge with their beer mugs full to the brim.
Saffron spread in India very slowly; Islamisation of Pakistan was more rapid. By the time the team with Imran Khan turned up in the 80s, the players were drinking whiskey with their glasses draped in white napkins to avoid detection. These days, of course, they would probably be treated as alleged beef eaters are in the Indian cow belt.
Maqsood’s cameo knock in Lucknow, in October 1952 was one of three great ones etched on my mind, all played between Lucknow and Kanpur, circumscribed itinerary for a cricket crazy schoolboy in the 50s. Two batsmen were out when Maqsood walked to the middle and stroked the very first ball for four, bisecting point and cover, next between cover and extra cover. In his cameo of 40 odd runs he made a precise arc, bisecting fielders from point to square leg. The next knock was Rohan Kanhai’s in Kanpur in 1958. India and the West Indies had scored 222 each in the first inning. In the second innings, Polly Umrigar, in his unlikely avatar as opening bowler, caused an eerie silence to descend on Green Park. He removed Hunte and Holt for a duck. This is when Kanhai strode in: first ball driven for four, second cut past gully. In about 30 minutes he scored a pretty 44 and left, bringing Gary Sobers in, who proceeded to score 198. But it is Kanhai’s knock that I have kept as a gem.
The last brief knock on my nostalgia for cricket was a masterly 51 because of the circumstances. Off spinner Jasu Patel had taken 9 wickets on a pitch which Australian captain Richie Benaud described as a “mud heap” much to the annoyance of “vizzy”, Maharaj Kumar of Vizianagram, commentator and patron of cricket. The great left handed batsman, Neil Harvey, provided an object lesson on how to jump out and hit at half volley before the ball turns.
Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television
commentator and interviewer.