As the dust settles on Umar Akmal’s quarrel with the Pakistan Cricket Board or perhaps threatens to grow into a sandstorm, people are saying that modern day Pakistan cricketer has become too big for his boots, and that it can only happen in Pakistan. Hockey and squash are also cited as the Pakistani sports where it’s one man against the institution (dare I call it that).
However, the history of international sports is a vast ocean of sportsmen’s singular or group conflict with the authorities. These are different from the on-field spats with referees and other officials, the absolute master of which was perhaps John McEnroe, winner of seven tennis grand slams and an absolute genius with the racquet.
Americans had for long been seen as the wild and the riled when it came to a disagreement, but McEnroe made it an art form. Pity the umpire if John didn’t think the ball was in despite the linesman’s silence.
I remember that one time in the 1980s when McEnroe blew it after a ball from the other player was declared in, although there were chalk particles exploding where the ball had landed. He walked over, stood with hands on hips and plainly asked him if he was blind.
It was not just limited to tantrums on the courts. After winning Wimbledon he was not accorded honorary membership of the All England Club, customary for a player at the time of winning his first Wimbledon. It was considered typical British punishment for the indiscipline at the earlier stages as McEnroe had been close to being thrown out of the championship after telling a referee after a decision, “You must be the pits of the world.”
This was no naughty but scared boy that a British school master was expelling from the school sports party. McEnroe’s response was not turning up for the traditional champions’ dinner that evening and telling the media later, “I wanted to spend the evening with my family and friends, not a bunch of 70 to 80-year-old stiffs telling you that you’re acting like a jerk.”
We have had our share of McEnroes, perhaps even preempted him. Back in the 1950s, when the game was far, far bigger than the player, it was a brave man from the management who took on Marry Max (Maqsood Ahmed) if he broke the rules, especially on tour.
In the 1960s, there was more calm though the seeds of one of the first standoffs of modern times between player and management emerged then, when England’s Geoff Boycott began his tirade against the MCC which managed English cricket in those days.
He was true Yorkshire blood, who took no nonsense from the establishment. When he was denied the captaincy after 1971 and saw it go to Mike Denness in 1973, a less experienced and less capable batsman, he went into self imposed exile for three years, making himself unavailable to the England selectors.
Playing for money
The 1970s was when the transition from gentlemen to players, which began in the 1950s with cricketers like Len Hutton, reached critical mass. The gentlemen were cricketers who did not take money for playing for their country while players were those who wanted compensation. Eventually, the gentlemen died an expected death and by the 1970s, it was full on playing for money. The off shoot of this new-found identity was that they also wanted to be respected.
The private tours to the ostracised South Africa and Rhodesia began after the International Cricket Council (ICC) embargo on playing cricket there. These tours included a few non-white cricketers like Pakistan’s Younis Ahmed, who wiggled their nose at the Pakistan government’s policy of not recognising the country due to its brutal apartheid policy. Younis was banned from playing for Pakistan after he went there in 1973, but gave two hoots as he had settled in England by then.
Mohammad Ilyas was a fine attacking batsman but he lost his way after a reported tiff with Abdul Hafeez Kardar, chairman of the cricket board, and with the team management on the 1972-73 tour of Australia. He is said to have walked out on the team though some claim that he was sent home before the New Zealand leg of the trip. However, he was reported to have stayed back to apply for immigration. Either way, he didn’t cow down and to heck with his career.
Sarfraz Nawaz was another character, who lived in his own planet with his own sense of gravity. For him everyone who orbited inside the rules was not worth his company, and that no one in the board had a clue to administering cricket, including former cricketers.
There was this one time when he disappeared during the middle of a home series against England in 1977-78, when he was vice captain to Wasim Bari. It is said he was eventually traced in London, enjoying Christmas and New Year perhaps. As always the stand was that he had informed this to someone. He was taken right back in though when he returned after missing the second Test.
Perhaps the most polarising confrontation in Pakistan cricket till that time took place a year earlier and Sarfraz was again a part of it, though it was not an individual act, just a situation he lived on.
The Pakistani players had been demanding an increase in match fee (there was no contract system then) for some time and had been promised a discussion. The board chairman then, the late Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Pakistan’s first Test captain, was an aloof man, not used to being talked back to, or given ultimatums. He decided that the demand of something like a 10 per cent raise was not worth discussing, even though the match fees at the time were ridiculously low.
At this the Pakistan players led by captain Mushtaq Mohammad and including Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan, Sadiq Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas, Sarfraz Nawaz, Salim Altaf, Imran Khan, Wasim Bari among the big names of the time, threatened not to play the second Test at Hyderabad.