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Age of the Playerzilla

September 01, 2013
When the skipper lost it: Javed Miandad and Dennis Lillee.
When the skipper lost it: Javed Miandad and Dennis Lillee.
Umar Akmal: Modern-day Pakistan cricketer.
Umar Akmal: Modern-day Pakistan cricketer.

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.

Miffed at the impertinence, Kardar dispatched back-up players to Hyderabad, telling former captain Intikhab Alam to lead the side. On the eve of the Test, temporary peace was arbitrated and the rebelling group agreed to play the next morning on conditions. Eventually, the then prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, intervened and though Kardar was an elected parliamentarian on the PPP ticket, he was removed and the players demands accepted.

Player power had been born and the men in white from then onwards had the first strike option against the men in tweed.

A few months later four of those rebel players signed up for Kerry Packer in his 1977 breakaway series. Although the players wanted to play against England that winter, saying they had the option to miss the Packer games if the dates were clashing, the board chairman told the Pakistan government that they were bound by ICC’s decision not to select players who had signed up. They made their comeback next winter against the touring Indians on the personal intervention of President Zia ul Haq. Clearly he didn’t give a damn about the global commitments of the cricket board when it came to beating India. Who would?

The glass ceiling had been broken. It was the cricketer now who stood taller, as the old bureaucratic kings and their courtiers were pulled down from their pedestals. From then on, the board would still be the final authority in deciding on everything from selection to compensation, but they would have to come to the table first.

A new breed

It was also the time when a new kind of cricketer was entering into the team. The one that was more focused on cricket, and street smart instead of a college grad. He had no time for protocol, and was ready to question the established thought and norms in the dressing room. These were the 20-something or below, who were coming in flocks as against the previous tradition of, say, one new youngster per tour.

They demanded more as team members, especially from the seniors; and if the heat was too much, to get out of the kitchen. The prime figure among them all was Javed Miandad, a master strategist and tactician who was quickly frustrated at lack of action or inertia at crucial moments. He was also least impressed with the “white men in whites” and had no time for history and the improbable.

Imran Khan was the other who thought on similar lines but he was nevertheless an Aitcheson and Oxbridge man, carrying all the trappings of the royal elite. He was ambitious too, but had his magnificent obsessions off the field to not worry about the opportunities missed. He would rather bide his time than push for it.

However this culture clash was soon to involuntarily draw in the cricket board into another standoff, this time with a group of players with unprecedented public display of cribbing against one or more of their own, and the board was presented a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Players’ rebellion

The tour to Australia in the winter of 1980-81 had been an acrimonious one. After the disastrous tour of India a year earlier, Asif Iqbal had thrown in the towel and the then cricket board head, Air Marshall (retd) Nur Khan, had opted to make Javed Miandad captain of Pakistan overlooking all seniors. I remember Javed leading HBL to victory against PIA (captained by Mushtaq Mohammad) a season earlier and outwitting a stronger side with some great tactical moves. Mushtaq had praised Miandad’s captaincy in a PTV programme after that match and perhaps Nur Khan felt it was time to bring in a younger man who would have a longer tenure to settle the team.

Coming back to the Australian tour, it had become clear that Majid, Zaheer, Imran and a few others were uncomfortable to play under Miandad, who they felt was too immature. The on-pitch altercation with Dennis Lillee when Miandad raised his bat to hit him after the Australian bowler had kicked Javed in the shin had not gone down well with the conservatives.

Their performances also had been poor in the first two Tests which Pakistan lost by huge margins until Pakistan won the third and final Test by an innings. On return Miandad had apparently told the press that the seniors had not cooperated with him. Taking this as their cue, around 10 senior cricketers led by Majid Khan got together and announced they would not play under his captaincy anymore. There was speculation that Majid or Zaheer wanted the captaincy, but this was never confirmed.

Nur Khan, uncompromising on principles and discipline, took offence at their attitude. He felt they should have come to him and talked privately on how to improve the relationship, rather than go to the press. The players replied that they had gone public because Javed had given a public statement against them.

A fledgling Sri Lanka were here for their first ever tour after gaining Test status a few months earlier, and the first two Tests were won easily by the debutant substitutes under Miandad, which included Salim Malik and Salim Yousuf.

Eventually a coterie of some 30 players together met Nur Khan before the third Test at the urging of neutrals to restore teamwork. Miandad offered to step down after the series, despite Nur Khan supporting him, and the seniors agreed to play the third Test under Miandad. Imran Khan was the compromise choice for captain.The seeds of coups against captains had been laid, and a similar situation happened 11 years later, this time against Wasim Akram, in this instance making Salim Malik captain was the compromise.


Despite this, possibly the most disturbing standoff was in 1998 between Aamer Sohail, the then Pakistan captain, and the selectors. On the eve of the Test Aamer stormed out of a selection meeting following a heated discussion over being unable to get the team he wanted. That was the more disciplined part of the episode. Next morning he just didn’t turn up at the ground, didn’t answer calls and with 10 minutes left, Moin Khan was sent in as Pakistan captain for the toss; another player taking Aamer’s place in the team.

I do not remember any other instance of a Test captain doing such a thing. But then that was Aamer. And those were the days when Pakistan boasted of some nine or 10 former captains in a playing eleven, which was a symptom of the malaise that was setting in between emboldened players and a regimental board.

As I said earlier, instances of indiscipline were there from the earliest days of Pakistan cricket. Every Pakistan side has been a mix of outstanding talent, individual flair and downright selfishness, with some team play conjoined here and there over the last six decades. When they make runs or take wickets, they do it in a way that the world stands up to take note. And when they are peeved its Pakistan cricket that makes headlines which the board would rather not read.

It doesn’t look like dying down, these confrontations. The players know their marketability and, worse, know the weaknesses of the board executives. They have lost respect for authority over the last few years, seeing how every chairman, with no knowledge or a CV to justify that position brings in his favourites, equally incapable.

And how millions are spent on them or squandered by their negligence, inefficiency, incompetence and hurling claims of corruption at each other after every succession. The players say that considering all the damage they have done to Pakistan cricket, and the accusations of corruption and misappropriation, they have never been held accountable and punished. So who are they to discipline, or fine, or suspend the players?

It will need a very strong willed, selfless and principled man and equally inclined management team to control the Playerzilla that Gaddafi Stadium has created over the years. Otherwise vaudeville shows from upstarts like Umar Akmal will keep taking centre stage, while our cricket plays to the gallery.

The writer has been writing on cricket since 1979, and has edited The Cricketer International (UK) Asian edition as well as authoring two books on World Cup cricket history.