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Pakistani cricket fans in England have often been accused to have diluted allegiance to the Kingdom. -Photo by AFP
Pakistani cricket fans in England have often been accused to have diluted allegiance to the Kingdom. -Photo by AFP

When wealthy aristocrats and merchants of London formed the East India Company, their initial aim was the same as almost any other commercial venture; profit maximisation. Cotton, silk, salt and opium had brought the English to the sub-continent, seeking its untapped wealth.

The greed of fortune hunters would soon have them build their private armies, wanting to control the country with more than just economic muscle. The land once ruled by the Mughal’s, gradually unfolded into becoming a dominion of the British Raj.

After over 65 years of the end of foreign occupation, the long term cultural, social and economic implications seem to be more lucid. Today, over a million Pakistanis are British citizens, half of whom are born in the Kingdom.

A lot of British-born ethnic Pakistanis have very little affiliation with Pakistan, if any. They are second or third generation children of immigrant parents and have never lived and in some cases even visited the country of their ancestral heritage. They celebrate the Queen’s birthday, hoist the British flag and fanatically follow their local football derby; they are as Brit as they come, or at least believe themselves to be.

However, when it comes to playing cricket against Pakistan there is a sudden surge of ethnic affinity that rushes through their veins searching for a certain sense of lost identity.

Pakistani cricket fans often storm the grounds of England, even if the game is against the Poms. Apart from the obvious bond of kinship, there are reasons for the support the Pakistani cricket team gets in the Island. They have historically achieved great success in England through some mesmerising performances on the field of play, even when they have had a few hiccups off it.

It all started with the enchanting flamboyance of Fazal Mahmood at the Oval in 1954 when Pakistan made the unrivalled record of becoming the only country to beat England on their first tour to the country. The English press reported the English team being “Fazalled” by the 12-wicket haul of the Pakistani fast bowling sensation. Pakistan drew the four-Test series at one a piece and immediately became a force to reckon with.

Genteel sport

To the Englishmen, cricket was always more than just a sport. A game played by the lords served as a form of social control, moralising the acceptance of status quo both at home and in the colonies. The English national and almost all county teams were captained by Gentlemen up until the 1960s, regarded as a position of utmost honour.

The first professional captain of England took charge 1962 and the doors to county cricket opened to foreign cricketers in 1968, by the mid-seventies Pakistan had five county captains.

The likes of Zaheer Abbas, Asif Iqbal, Mushtaq Mohammad, Majid Khan and Intikhab Alam became house old names in England and were looked upon as sport celebrities. They were amongst the many other Pakistani cricket stars who fed the relatively under nourished ego and esteem of the large Pakistani community settled in different parts of the Kingdom.

The Pakistan and England cricket rivalry escaladed during the 80s with the infamous Mike Gatting – Shakoor Rana incident and plenty of unpleasant banter that was exchanged between the two teams. Umpiring also hit a new low during the decade in which Pakistan won three out of the four Test series played between them. The “Pakis” in England now had a slur or two they could throw back at their adopted countrymen, they had traditionally always been on the receiving end.

Setting the tone

Then came the World Cup of 1992 and England faced off against Pakistan in the final. The premier cricketing trophy had narrowly eluded England’s grasp in two previous final appearances while it was Pakistan’s first. Pakistan’s win in Melbourne added another feather to their cap but the sweets distributed in the streets of Manchester and Bradford after England’s defeat, left a sour taste in the mouth of the natives in the neighbourhood. They would soon backlash with fury in West Yorkshire, some twenty miles from mini Pakistan in Bradford.

Pakistan’s tour to England that summer was marred by allegations of ball tampering, racial abuse and the stiff disciplinary penalties. The English tabloids had a field day and the crowds turned violent. At Headingley in Leeds, a bleeding pig’s head was tossed up by unruly English fans on the terrace occupied by Pakistani supporters. Pakistan won the series 2-1 but it was going to be the last time Pakistan played a five-match Test series, home or away.

In 1996, Pakistan again toured England to beat them and make it five consecutive Test series victories against their arch rivals. The divide between the British and the British-born Pakistani cricket fans only widened over time. On the tour in 2001, pitch invasions by Pakistani supporters became fiercer, especially at ODIs of Edgbaston and Headingley. Pakistan won both those games, though the latter had to be abandoned before the tourists hit the winning runs. It was as if the county borough of Leeds had been invaded by their neighbours from Bradford.

Future games featuring Pakistan often required guard dogs along the fence in order to confine their fans to the stands.

Controversy continued to be the focal point of Pakistan’s next visit in 2006. Though, with most of their talent of the previous decade gone, they succumbed to a 3-0 drubbing, including the forfeited match at the Oval. The ODIs that followed provided some respite with a 2-2 draw.

The 2010 spot-fixing fiasco arguably became the lowest point in Pakistan’s English cricket history and the showdown took place at the home of cricket in London. This became a major dent in the popularity of the boys in green after the streets of London were flooded with green and white flags following just a year earlier when Pakistan lifted the 2009 World T20 title at Lord’s. The fame of the Pakistani team has also diminished over the years due to the lack of stars that once took centre stage.

Pakistani cricket fans in England have often been accused to have diluted allegiance to the Kingdom. In a country where their identity has never been monolithic, there is an assimilation of pride that stems from the successes of the team of their ethnic belonging. It is further amplified when it comes on the soil of their birthplace and against the country they have made their own.

To add to the joy and misery of British-born Pakistani fans, one can only hope that Pakistan and England don’t find themselves playing against each other in the coming fortnight. On the other hand, every cricket follower wishes that they do.

In the last edition of the Champions Trophy, Pakistan will go in as one of the favourites. They will have a big contingent of support and if they perform to their potential, many streets of England will soon start resembling those of Lahore and Karachi. If there is one place Pakistan has felt at home away from home, it has always been England.

The British crown might have taken away the Koh-i-Noor but British imperialism has left the sub-continent with something far more precious. The beautiful game of cricket gives a shot at retribution, to a nation that now has inseparable roots with their former colonial rulers.

The East India Company shut down in 1874 but Lahori Charga Restaurant on High St and Karachi Karhai Restaurant on Barking Road will remain open for a little longer than the aristocrats of London might have initially anticipated.