Unquiet Minds by Osman Samiuddin is a compelling narrative of Pakistan, and their cricket. © Wisden India

The Unquiet Ones by Osman Samiuddin is a compelling narrative of Pakistan, and their cricket. © Wisden India

Karachi, early December 1959. It was the third and final Test between Pakistan and Australia; Australia had won the first two. It was a drab game, with the days recording 157/4, 166/8, 221/8, 104/5 and 173/7. On the fourth day, Dwight Eisenhower, in Pakistan on a state visit, became the first US president to watch a full day’s Test cricket – he watched 104/5.

Eisenhower, having duly done his research, asked Ayub Khan, then Pakistan president, why the game was played on a mat instead of on grass (turf). Ayub declared later at a reception in his guest’s honour: “You’ll be interested to know, Mr President, that this is the last time a Test will be played on the mat in my country.” Of course, it wasn’t just a stray comment from a visiting dignitary that expedited the change. Complaints and accusations of deceit from visiting teams had been pushing Pakistan towards turf anyway.

This is the sort of trivia Osman Samiuddin’s The Unquiet Ones is replete with. Yet, the 500-odd page tribute to Pakistan cricket is more than the sum of its research material – it’s no mere quizzer-goldmine. This is an ode to Pakistan cricket, an exploration of what makes it so unique, even bizarre.

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In cricket, few stories attract as much fascination and ridicule – sometimes all at once – as those that come out of Pakistan. Political interference, infighting within the Pakistan Cricket Board and within the team, match and spot-fixing, ball tampering, ball biting, five or more former captains in a single playing XI … and the tougher matters – security concerns, exacerbated by that attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009, the death of Bob Woolmer in such mysterious circumstances during the 2007 World Cup, and more. Pakistan cricket inspires passion, as much love as hate, but never indifference.

At the time of writing this, the World Cup is on. Before their first game, there was news that eight Pakistani cricketers had been fined for breach of a team curfew; before the second game, there were reports of a big fight between Grant Luden, the fielding coach, and senior players; and after that game, Moin Khan, the chief selector, was called back home for being at a casino. Brad Hogg, the Australian Chinaman bowler, told Wisden India in reaction to the Luden incident the other day: “The problem is, they get these coaches in, but they don’t want to listen.” Baffling, yes, but that’s just how it is.

For so long, a definitive book on the country’s cricket was due, and now we have two in quick succession. First came Peter Oborne’s Wounded Tiger, a warm-hearted, near-exhaustive detailing of the 65-odd years of Pakistan cricket. And now comes The Unquiet Ones from Samiuddin, former Pakistan editor of Cricinfo and, for the past few years, sports writer with The National in Abu Dhabi – widely, and fairly, acknowledged as one of the finest writers on the game.

It is hard not to compare the two tomes. Despite oneself, parallels are drawn, gaps in one or the other noted. If Oborne brought a certain distance and perspective – albeit affectionate – to his book, Samiuddin has insider access and love. Samiuddin’s effort is stellar, none the lesser for hitting the bookstores second. The tale draws you in completely – such is the story, the history, of Pakistan cricket, and such is the telling of it.

About the mat to turf change, for instance, Samiuddin writes with the sort of clarity of analysis and depth of reportage that has characterised his writing these many years. The move was not without its heartburn. Legendary bowlers like Fazal Mahmood, so effective on mats, went out of the picture. Cricket in Pakistan moved from amateur to professional. “The transition, while benign for batsmen, was difficult for matting-specialist bowlers such as Fazal and Munir Malik,” Javed Burki, the 1960s Test batsman, is quoted as saying.

The author has a passion for cricket, for Pakistan and for cricket in Pakistan – all of which are evident in The Unquiet Ones (truly, the book deserved a bigger title to match its scale). Yet it is a love that lends his vision clarity, and renders his voice surer when he writes critically. Passion – or jazba, a word he uses frequently – aside, he reaches the sort of back alleys that most others can’t; he has friends that are willing to share information and documents.

Imran Khan (L) galvanised a young Pakistan side that included Inzamam-ul-Haq and Wasim Akram to the 1992 World Cup title. © AFP

Imran Khan (L) galvanised a young Pakistan side that included Inzamam-ul-Haq and Wasim Akram to the 1992 World Cup title. © AFP

The depth of his access must have occasionally hindered Samiuddin’s telling of the tale. Woolmer’s death was one time I wondered about that. “Rumours swirled about the nature of his death” doesn’t quite cut it. The circumstances around the death, the round of investigations in Kingston, the allegations, and then the closure – the noise around all of it was deafening. Samiuddin is mostly silent on the story, except for the brief “Woolmer passing away […] was apocalyptically tragic. Suspicions emerged that he had been murdered and for a brief while, they fell on members of the Pakistan team. Much later, it emerged that theories of murder didn’t hold any water, but the toll it took on Pakistan was severe.”

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Samiuddin uses a lead actor every step of the way, yet manages to keep the focus firmly on the story. These colourful characters do not detract from the big picture.

The most engrossing bits are the parallels between the Abdul Hafeez Kardar era and that of Imran Khan, their almost feudal, but not unaltruistic ways, and the men they kept down to No. 2, deliberately and otherwise – Mahmood and Javed Miandad, for whom, it must be said, Samiuddin has a soft corner.

Other cricketers and administrators come into focus when they add another stitch or knot to the tapestry – as in in the case of Kardar, or Fazal Mahmood in the early days. Protagonists are only the obvious links in what is a long and meandering story.

Not all of it is about cricket, of course. It can’t be. The creation of Pakistan was drenched in blood, the blood of politics and the politics of blood. Samiuddin traces that history through cricket, and the impact it had on shaping the game of a nation. The chunk on ‘Operation One Unit’, enforced in 1955 to bring all the provinces of West Pakistan together, is a great example of this. In one fell swoop, it took the game beyond the confines of the larger centres in the eight-year-old country and, over the years, contributed to the emergence of a sequence of small-town stalwarts, the development of the first-class game in the country and the transition into the professional era. The big matter of East Pakistan and Balochistan being ignored socially and politically, and cricket-ally, by West Pakistan in the years immediately after the partition of India in 1947 is examined too, and brilliantly so.

The Unquiet Ones is a story that is as much a comment on Pakistan as it is a retelling of the story of the country’s cricket. One that is told both passionately and even-handedly, which is where Samiuddin scores big. This labour of love, and jazba, is worth every paisa of the Rs 799 it is priced at – as much for the cricket fan and the historian as it is for the casual reader.

The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket by Osman Samiuddin
Harper Sport
510 p, Rs 799