Just as most South American footballers usually grow-up playing the game on beaches and cramped thoroughfares, Pakistani kids get their first taste of competitive cricket on the streets.
‘Street cricket’ is an almost entirely South Asian phenomenon, popular in countries like Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and now even Afghanistan and/or in countries lacking adequate grounds and playing fields, forcing kids to use roads and streets to play their cricket on.
But if we further narrow down the frequency and popularity of this phenomenon, Pakistan should top the list of countries were street cricket is a regular event. Almost every major cricketing star from the 1970s onwards who has represented and risen in this cricket-loving nation began his cricket on the streets before moving on to play the game at proper cricket grounds.
But is street cricket a recent phenomenon or was it always part of Pakistan’s cricketing culture?
1970s — The early years
As a kid in the 1970s I remember playing the game on the road just outside my house (with a tennis ball). Even in the 1980s when I was representing my college side in Karachi’s intercollegiate tournaments at proper cricket grounds, many of us were still taking part in tournaments played on roads and streets.
According to former Pakistan swing bowler, Sikandar Bakht (who played for the Pakistan cricket team from 1977 till 1988), street cricket originated in Karachi in the early 1970s.
In his autobiography, Javed Miandad, perhaps the greatest batsman produced by Pakistan, mentions that he first started to play cricket as a kid on the streets of Karachi. Javed made his Test debut in 1976 at the age of 18 but was already playing first-class cricket in 1973. This means, street cricket was being played in Karachi even before the 1970s.
|A photograph that appeared in the 1970 edition of America’s LIFE magazine of kids playing cricket on the streets of Kolkata (India). LIFE described it as ‘Road Cricket.’
A photograph that appeared in the 1970 edition of America’s LIFE magazine of kids playing cricket on the streets of Kolkata (India). LIFE described it as ‘Road Cricket.’
Dawar Farooq, a former club cricketer and coach who went on to train various first-class sides in the 1980s and 1990s, suggests that when he was a kid (in the early 1960s), people used to frown upon children who played cricket, or hockey or football on the streets:
"Kids from ‘decent’ families were not expected to play on the streets in those days," he said.
But he hastily added: "Most schools at the time had huge fields where all kinds of sports were played. We never really had to go out on the streets to play cricket. We either played at our school (with a proper cricket ball), or played in our garage or even on the roofs of our houses!"
Ironically, Dawar, who is 67 years old today, also claims to be one of the first people in Karachi to help turn street cricket into a more competitive phenomenon:
"School and college cricket circuit was very strong till the 1970s. But later in the decade as cricket began to become more popular than hockey in Pakistan, I noticed that more and more kids starting to play the game on the streets."
Dawar says he used to admonish kids he found playing on the streets: "I told them they could never become proper cricketers if they kept playing with a tennis ball. But whereas Lahore used to have a lot of parks where kids could play with a proper cricket ball, Karachi just had the National Stadium (where only first-class and international matches were allowed), and the two cricket stadiums at the Bakhtiari Youth Centre (in Karachi’s Nazimabad area), where most of the city’s club games were played."
|Boys playing cricket on an empty plot in Lahore in 1973.
I agree, because I played most of the games for my college and then club at the Bakhtiari Youth Centre in the early and mid-1980s. But club games were also held at the cricket ground at Karachi’s Gymkhana Club and the stadium at KPI (Karachi Parsi Institute).
According to Dawar, it was from 1978 onwards that street cricket in Karachi became a more ordered affair. He began to notice a more serious streak of competitiveness creeping in and he began to organize tournaments in the area where he lived at the time (Akhtar Colony).
"We would create six to seven 5-member squads made-up of teenagers and kids of the area and play 10-over-a-side games at weekends and have trophies made at a shop in Saddar. Soon, after realizing that the same was happening in adjourning areas, we expanded the parameters of the tournaments and teams from other areas also began to take part in joint tournaments. Soon large crowds were gathering to watch the games, completely blocking the roads," he laughed.
Today it is quite common to see everyone from young men to kids playing street cricket in the evenings, using a series of hastily lined up fluorescent bulbs and tube lights rented from nearby electric shops.
I remember the first such night game that I played was way back in 1979 on the wide, open-air parking lot of what used to be known as the ‘Old Clifton’ area. I was 12 at the time and young Pakistani cricket fans had been fascinated by the whole concept of ‘night cricket’ first introduced by Australian media tycoon, Kerry Packer, in 1977 (in Australia).
Pakistanis had their first glimpse of night cricket in early 1979 when the state-owned PTV began showing highlights of night matches played in Australia between international cricket stars signed-up by Packer.
We saw stars like Imran Khan, Ian Chappelle, Dennis Lillee, Michael Holding, Vivian Richards, Barry Richards and many more playing under powerful lights with a white ball, black sightscreens and in coloured clothing. It was a fascinating sight.
We too had a street cricket side ‘Bath Island Cricket Stars’ at the time. It was made up of middle-class kids of the (then serene and quiet) Bath Island area in Southern Karachi, and of kids from ‘Rati Lines’ — a Pakhtun-dominated low-income and working-class area just behind Bath Island.
|Video grab of one of the first night-cricket matches (in Australia) that were shown on PTV in 1979. These inspired the beginnings of night games in the realm of Pakistan’s street cricket.
Within weeks after PTV showed the highlights, we were invited to participate in what was perhaps Karachi’s first ever night-cricket tournament. I do not remember who arranged it, but it was held on the Old Clifton parking lot in October 1979.
Some eleven teams (all from Clifton) participated and the parking lot was illuminated with fluorescent ‘hanger lights’ and tube lights dangling from wires some ten feet above the ground.
Though the white tennis balls used in the game would often get muddy and brownish and hard to sight and some lofted shots would continue to hit and knock out the lights, the matches became a spectacle. Soon, dozens of men, women and children who used to often go to Old Clifton area for a walk or a plate or two of chaat or gol gappas, began to gather to watch the game.
To us it was Pakistan’s first ever game of night-cricket but some friends who resided in areas like Nazimabad claim that night games were first held in their area at about the same time (1979).
1980s — The formative years
By the early 1980s, street cricket had become extremely popular across Karachi and it also became highly competitive when money got involved. Tournaments now offered ‘winners money’ (instead of just trophies). Shahzad Ghauri who played for (the now defunct) PIA Colts in the mid-1980s, says that street cricket teams were playing for prizes that included cash, Vodka/Whiskey bottles and cartons of cigarettes, as early as 1980.
|You’ve come a long way, baby: A night-cricket game in Karachi (2014). Night games have become norm on the streets of the city ever since the late 1980s.
"I used to live in the commercial part of the Soldier Bazaar area," he said. "I remember our team participating in various street cricket tournaments in Nazimabad, Lalukhet (now Liaquatabad), Azizabad and Saddar, where the prizes (for winners) included not only cash, but also bottles of Vodka and Lions Whiskey and cartons of Gold Leaf and Red & White cigarettes!"
He’s right. Though I was regularly playing for my college side in the early and mid-1980s, I was also a member of a street cricket team that was made up of young men from the Kehkashan area (in Clifton), Bath Island, Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and some guys residing at the Hussain Da Silva Apartments situated in ‘New Clifton’ area adjacent to Karachi’s famous shrine of Sufi saint, Abdullah Shah Ghazi near the Clifton beach.
We usually played among ourselves in the huge compound of the Hussain Da Silva apartments. They were built in 1960s but were torn down in 1993. They stood exactly where Pakistani business tycoon, Malik Riaz, is now building a multi-storey building.
We would often take part in tournaments and I remember by 1984 the tournaments were offering cash to the winners.
This is how it worked: Competing teams were asked to pay a certain amount of money to participate in the tournament. The cash collected from all the participating teams was eventually handed over as prize money to the side that would go on to win the finals.
Cash prizes ranged from Rs 1500 to Rs 3000. But I also remember playing at least three tournaments (in 1985) in the Gizri area where the prize was Rs 1000 cash, a bottle of Murree's Vodka and a carton of Gold Leaf cigarettes! We won two such prizes and had a ball of a time.
As the stakes grew so did the status of street cricket and the level of competitiveness in it. This triggered brand new innovations suited entirely to the technical dynamics of this genre of the game.
For example, though the tennis ball would swing a lot in the air, it would hardly do anything off the wicket (rather off the street/road). One also struggled to generate any worthy pace with it, unless one was playing in a compound or a street surrounded by houses or buildings blocking the breeze that would slow down the light weight tennis ball.
The mysterious 'finger ball'
So the bowlers would regularly go for fours and sixes until one fine day someone in either Karachi or Lahore in the early 1980s came up with ‘finger ball.’
‘Finger bowling’ was when the bowler would bowl from a short run-up, swing the ball one way but suddenly break it off the wicket the other way, totally bamboozling the batsmen in the process. In Karachi, Nazimabad began to churn out the best ‘finger bowlers’ and the teams with a finger or two began to dominate.
Our team could never get the hang of it and even when we finally discovered the mysterious ways the fingers guys were gripping the tennis ball, none of our bowlers could bowl it the way it was supposed to.
|The mysterious ‘finger ball’.
The finger guys became all the rage. I remember our captain (and a great friend of mine), Aamir Sial (who unfortunately died young), began to play little mind games with our opponents.
One of our quick bowlers was a hefty guy called Hafeez. Just before our games during the rise of the ‘fingers,’ Aamir used to send a few street kids to members of the opposition and asked them to say things like: "Ustaad, suna hai, yeh Hafeez iss ilakay ka best finger hai (Boss, we have heard that this guy Hafeez is the best finger bowler of the area)."
He would actually succeed in psyching out the opponents. I’m not sure how much this helped our cause but it was great fun. Whenever Hafeez would be asked to bowl and he would go to the top of his bowling mark, the opposition would sit up and watch ‘Clifton’s best finger.’
He would bowl the whole over with his straight forward quick stuff that the batsmen would normally smash, but believing that Hafeez was holding back his deadly finger ball (so he could slip it in as a surprise delivery), the batsmen would treat him with respect.
So far so good. But when no such surprises would be delivered at all during Hafeez’s second over, the batsmen would usually understand the ploy and suddenly Mr Deadly Finger used to be dispatched out of the ground for massive sixes and searing fours!
Hafeez used to hate it. Not the beating that his bowling eventually got but the catcalls that would start (from the opposition camps) every time it became apparent that Hafeez was actually all toe and no finger.
The advent of the taped tennis ball
But the reign of the fingers was short-lived. They were suddenly knocked out of business when some kid from somewhere in Pakistan (or India) discovered how to get a tennis ball to generate good bounce and pace — by tightly wrapping an electric tape around it (‘tape tennis’).
|And then came the ‘tape-tennis ball.’
There are many accounts and theories about when ‘tape tennis’ first became popular. My personal experience suggests that taped balls first began emerging in 1985. At least that is when I faced one for the first time.
This is how Shahzad Gahuri sees it:
"Kids had tried all kinds of things to get the tennis ball to move quicker in the air and off the wicket. Back in 1980 I saw some kids constantly dipping it in buckets of water to make it skid, or wetting the batting area, but the ball would soon bloat and actually get even slower!"
In the late 1970s, some sports goods manufacturers had introduced a ‘rubber cork ball.’ It was made with rubber and had a wooden cork inside. It did bounce more and was fast, but it used to split open after being hit a few times to the boundary.
There was another way. Sometimes we would burn the upper ‘hairs’ of the tennis ball with a lighter. This would make the ball bounce more and zip faster in the air and off the wicket, but it used to get too soft after just a few overs.
When taped balls began to take over in the mid-1980s, their arrival changed some of the dynamics of street cricket as well.
For starters the finger men just could not bowl the taped balls the way they used to with the naked tennis ball. On the other hand, quicker bowlers who had suffered the most with the un-taped tennis balls finally came into their own. The quickies in our side became stars. No more catcalls.
Hitting the ball further also became easier. One of our hardest hitting batsmen was the burly Asif Parvez. He had to put in a lot of effort to swing at the tennis ball. But when taped balls came into the game, he began to hit some of the biggest sixes I have ever seen in the game of street-cricket.
Taped balls also quickened the game – and tempers. I noticed that though it was common for matches involving cash prizes to end up in brawls between teams, the fights became more common after the arrival of these new balls. I don’t know why; maybe it was just about street cricket imitating the culture of violence and intolerance that had begun to grow in the country from the mid-1980s?
I got hit twice with a bat, once in the jaw and once in the neck, during a ‘disputed game.’
By the mid and late 1980s, street cricket had become so popular that many games also began attracting first-class cricketers. Pakistan’s fast bowling legend, Wasim Akram, was bowling for his local side with a taped ball on the streets of Lahore just two years before he made his Test debut in New Zealand in 1985.
Established players like Shoaib Mohammad and Asif Mujtaba who were already part of the Pakistan Test squad in the 1980s were regularly turning up to play taped-tennis games during Karachi’s famous all-night ‘Ramazan tournaments.’
In a 1983 tournament in the vast Orangi area which our team participated in, one of the teams had former Pakistan wicket-keeper-batsman, Taslim Arif, playing for it. In another ‘tape-tennis tournament’ that we played on the cement pitch of the Bakhtiari Youth Centre, I went in as an opener in our second game only to find Pakistan’s pace man, Jalaluddin, (who had played in Tests in 1982 and 1983), running in to bowl.
His first ball was a quick bouncer that I top-edged for a four. I heard a cheer go up in the stands. Thinking that the small crowd had actually cheered my streaky shot, I soon realized Pakistan’s wicket-keeper, Salim Yusuf (who made his Test debut in 1982), had arrived with friends to watch the tournament.
From here street cricket could only grow, despite the fact that from the mid-1990s, young people had more opportunities to play cricket in the grounds owned by private cricket academies run by former cricketers.
|Bats designed specifically for ‘tape-tennis cricket’ began to appear from the late 1980s onwards.
I asked Dawar did he still think street cricket was a bad thing?
"Well, Pakistan has had a lot of natural talent," he said. "But my theory is that this talent should be nourished in schools and in proper cricket academies. But what I like about street cricket now is that kids get their first taste of competitive cricket playing on the streets. I don’t mind it anymore," he smiled.
While I was interviewing Pakistan’s cricket captain and currently the team’s most dependable batsman, Misbah-ul-Haq, in Dubai early this year, he told me that his first competitive tournament involved a taped ball, two lightweight bats, a couple of tube lights and a cash prize.
I told Dawar this and another incident which is perhaps the most exciting episode in my glorious career as a failed ‘proper cricketer’ but a pretty decent street cricketer. In 1983 our team travelled to Karachi’s Garden West area to play a few games against the local side. Our opponents had a very quick left-arm bowler who was generating pace even with a normal tennis ball. We were all very impressed by him. Three years later we saw the same bowler making his Test debut. His name was Saleem Jaffar.
|The growth of Pakistan’s women’s cricket team inspired these girls to get their own game going on a street in Karachi.