Smokers’ Corner: The man who lived out of his skin

Updated Jul 10 2016


—Illustration by Abro
—Illustration by Abro

I used to open the batting for the cricket team of the college I studied in, in Karachi between the mid and late 1980s. One of my regular opening partners was a guy called Naveed.

Naveed was an excellent batsman and a lot more talented than me. He had a solid defensive technique. Bowlers always found it tough to beat his bat. I adopted the same technique from him but had to work harder to sustain it on tricky tracks. But I still managed to get more games than he.

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The problem was that Naveed, who was always at his best when playing within himself, would often abruptly lose his bearings, lash out and get out in the most dreadful manner.

Our captain would always cup his face with his hands and continue to remind Naveed that his strength lay in batting defensively and keeping one end intact.

You can take a man out of Pakistan but you can’t take Pakistan out of him

Naveed would just nod, and start off this way, giving the impression that he was there to stay, only to suddenly come out of his crease and try to launch the bowler over long-on or long-off for a six, or smash him over point for a four. He would often get caught in the deep, get bowled, or stumped.

Once when he was dropped from the side consecutively during a high-profile inter-collegiate tournament, he began to sulk. The captain and I took him out for some haleem at Karachi’s Burnes Road area.

This is what the skipper told him: “Naveed, you are a Geoff Boycott [England’s legendary opening batsman known for his solid defensive technique]. You are not Viv Richards [former West Indian batsman, famous for tearing apart bowling attacks] …”

Naveed would hate hearing this. He loved Richards and could not stand Boycott. ‘I like to bat aggressively and out of my skin,’ he once told me.

I was quick to respond: ‘But you are at your best when you are playing within your limitations and expressing your true talents, which lie well within your skin.’

But Naveed would have none of that. Once he constructed a brilliant century in a 40-overs game, staying at the crease for 32 overs. However, in the next two games, he got himself out trying to do a Richards. He just wasn’t good at it and was dropped from the side again. He quit the team in a huff.

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I met him again three years later in 1990 at Karachi’s National Stadium. I saw him receiving a dressing-down by Pakistan’s Test opener Shoaib Mohammad.

Shoaib was telling Naveed that his technique was extremely solid and if he stuck to play to his strengths and understand his limitations, he had the ability to one day make his way to the Pakistan Test side.

Naveed was at the stadium to impress the selectors for the PIA team. He was never selected because he just refused to stay in and got out playing awkwardly aggressive shots.

In 2014, I met Naveed again. This time in Islamabad. With him was a teammate of ours, Arif. By then all of us were in our forties. Whereas I had joined journalism in the early 1990s, Naveed had managed to migrate to Canada. In Canada, he tried to get a place in the Canadian cricket team.

He qualified to be selected for Canada in 2000 and was hoping to represent that country during the 2003 cricket World Cup in South Africa. He couldn’t make the team.

Arif told me: “Wahaan bhi Boycott Sahib, Richards’s baney kay chakaron mein thay … [Even over there, Mr Boycott was trying to be Mr Richards]”.

Apparently, the Canadian coach loved his technique, but just couldn’t understand his sudden bursts of recklessness. Arif [who was also there with him in Canada] told me: “He [the coach] would tear out his hair, screaming, ‘you are such a naturally solid bat, why are you trying to be what you are not? You are not Richards! Know your limitations. These limitations are your real strengths.’

Naveed, who had given up cricket in 2002 and returned to Pakistan to work as a creative executive at an advertising agency, just chuckled: ‘What did the coach know? My real style was never allowed to grow.’ Now I wanted to tear out my hair.

True to form, Naveed, who had completed his MBA from Montreal, Canada, and was considered to be a ‘natural marketing guy’, quit a lucrative job at a Canadian chain of hotels because he believed that marketing was not his forte, but creativity was.

Unable to impress a number of advertising agencies with his ‘creativity’, he flew back to Pakistan and managed to bag a job as an assistant creative director at an agency in Islamabad.

His wife and children were still in Montreal. But this is not why when I met him he was planning to fly back to Canada. Arif told me that the agency had asked him to join its client servicing department, because he was just not good enough as a creative. His bosses were able to see that his talents lay in marketing.

But Naveed refused to make the move. He would construct some brilliant marketing strategies but then insist on turning them into creative campaigns himself. He was terrible at it.

So why am I writing about the not-so-remarkable eccentricities of an old friend?

Well, a year after Naveed returned to Canada, I bumped into Arif again, this time on a flight to Lahore. We almost immediately began to talk about Naveed.

During the conversation, Arif added a very interesting bit: “Yaar, Naveed is like Pakistan. He never liked his strengths and in fact is embarrassed by them …”

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I encouraged him to continue. And he did: “Naveed was not conscious of his limitations. In fact, like our country, he chose not to be conscious of them. These limitations made him seem what he didn’t like.

He wanted to be what he could not be because that is not where his strengths lay.

He wanted to be what he idealised and was willing to sacrifice his strengths to become that.

He wanted to be a belligerent batsman, when his forte was solid defence.

He wanted to be a creative advertising guru, when his strength lay in drawing out brilliant marketing plans.

Like Pakistan, Naveed too was never comfortable in his own skin. So he kept striking out to become what he was not, only to lose what he was really good at.”

I managed to get Naveed’s email and described him exactly the way Arif had.

His response: “Haha. How can I be like Pakistan when I am an American citizen?”

He is not an American citizen. He is still Canadian. This time I really did tear out my hair.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 10th, 2016