Omar Shahid Hamid’s fourth novel, The Fix, is about cricket, a women’s cricket team on the verge of its biggest international success, its captain Sanam and vice-captain Fatima, and the match-fixing syndicates that threaten to derail their dreams.
Eos presents an extract from the recently published book.
They say it never rains in Lahore in May. Even if it does, it’s certainly never like this. The rain pelts down on the car with the force of a sledgehammer, the harsh thud of the drops hitting the bonnet and roof making a deafening sound. The driver slows to a crawl due to the total lack of visibility. It seems to Sanam that the only way he can continue driving in this storm is by activating some intuitive mental sonar.
She rolls down her window just an inch to get a sense of where they have reached. She barely catches a glimpse of the brown waters of Lahore’s famous Nehr almost spilling over on to the road, before her green national team blazer is drenched. So great is the flooding that even the canal’s regular urchins, who never miss an opportunity to bathe in the dirty water, have decided to give their usual sport a miss in this storm. Sanam worries about getting late for the soyem and asks the driver how much longer it will take, but the man simply shrugs his shoulders, nods toward the unsighted windscreen and gets back to his navigation.
To be late for the final rites of Tariq Zaman would be a tragedy. Pakistan has had many captains, but only one Skipper. He is the man credited with changing the nature of the country’s cricket. The fearless leader who forged a team out of a talented rabble, who got rid of the nepotism, lack of professionalism and inconsistent performances that had constantly plagued the cricket team for decades, and who pioneered the aggressive, positive tactics that did away with the previous dour, defensive approach, and came to define the Pakistan team of his era.
Skipper was always a man who believed in record-breaking performances. The country’s most successful captain ever, with more wins under his leadership than under anyone else; first cricketer from anywhere in the world to take 300 test wickets while also scoring more than 5000, runs; the man with the greatest number of match-winning innings in tests or one-day matches; the man with the bestselling poster in the history of the Pakistani publishing industry. Chances are if you came of age in Pakistan between 1977, which is when Skipper made his debut, and 1995, when he finally hung up his boots, you too bought that poster. If you were a boy, you probably attempted (unsuccessfully, nine times out of 10) to copy that strange Afro-like hairstyle that Skipper managed to look cool in, despite it having fallen out of fashion in the ’70s. At the very least, you turned your collar up and walked around your bedroom as if you had a stick stuck up your ass. Equally, if you were a female born in this period, you have gazed upon that poster at least once, stared into those blue eyes, and willed the glossy image to come to life and propose to you.
Skipper’s life resembled the perfect feel-good movie, where everything happens just as it should, the nice guy gets the girl, and good always triumphs over evil. Right up until the last act — that accursed World Cup. The one where Pakistan were overwhelming favourites, and Skipper was expected to lead them on a lap of honour to formalise what had already been recognised as their outstanding performances against all comers in the year leading up to the tournament. Of course, that’s not what ended up happening, and from there on, the trajectory of Skipper’s life had taken a downward turn. Just as everything he had done before the World Cup had effortlessly succeeded, everything after it failed miserably. Like a boxer who takes that one fatal punch that ends an otherwise brilliant career, Skipper never quite recovered from that defeat.
‘Oye, what the f*** was that ********* yesterday?’ Fatima has been quiet since Sanam picked her up in the vehicle that the board has given to them to go for the condolence.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Why did Babar sir hold you back after the meeting. Did he push you to meet with that kanjar Saleem Euro?’
Sanam’s eyes widen, and she nods towards the driver, embarrassed that he would have overheard Fatima’s coarse language. Fatima shrugs nonchalantly and chuckles. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not the first time chacha has heard these kinds of words. He’s not as sheltered as you.’ Even the old driver looks up from his navigation and smiles at that one.
Sanam purses her lips as if to respond, but lets the comment pass. ‘No, Babar sir didn’t push me to meet Saleem Euro. He wanted me to give a letter from him to Tariq Zaman sahib’s sister because he said he couldn’t come to the soyem himself.’
‘I bet he can’t. Skipper’s sister hates him.’
‘Are you joking? You don’t know? Everyone knows. She holds Babar sir and that whole clique of players — Faisal Qureshi, Azhar Abbas, Ovais Tawheed, and Shoaib Abdullah — responsible for destroying Skipper’s life.’
‘Why? I thought they were all Skipper’s boys. Babar sir always said that it was Skipper who discovered every one of them and brought them into the team. He said Skipper fought with the selectors to get him in the side, when they preferred Babar sir’s elder brother as the keeper. So why would Skipper’s sister hate them all?’
‘That was all before the World Cup final. Everything changed afterward. Skipper was bitter because this group, his ‘boys’, threw the match. The World Cup victory was supposed to be his great triumph. Remember that hospital he wanted to build in honour of his mother?’
‘Yes I do remember. I collected money for the hospital when I was in class 7. But it never got built, right?’
‘It never got built, because Skipper had banked on the fact that a successful World Cup would generate the donations needed to fund it. And after these players threw the World Cup final, no one wanted to contribute a single paisa to his hospital. Skipper had to retire immediately afterward in disgrace.’
Sanam is quiet for a moment. In a different way, that same World Cup was a seminal moment in her life as well. For it was while watching the brilliance of Skipper’s team during that tournament, that she first fell in love with the game. The names that Fatima mentions were the first cricketing gods that Sanam ever worshipped. Of course, none of what Fatima is saying is new to her. She vaguely remembers the match-fixing controversy from that time. She was just 11, too young to comprehend what had happened. She does remember that a lot of people were angry, her father included. He didn’t come out of his room for two days, and when he finally resurfaced, he kept muttering, for days, about how ‘they’ could have done such a thing. But these things did not matter to Sanam at the time. As a new convert to cricket, she was enamoured with the beauty of the game, and not yet invested emotionally in a Pakistani victory. That early innocence protected her from the soul-crushing disappointment that the rest of the country had felt, of having lost a World Cup final, of having come so close yet remaining so far.
‘Do you really think they threw that final Fatima? I know that all those players have been dogged with these rumours for 20 years, but I always figured that was something disgruntled fans alleged every time Pakistan lost an important match. Nothing’s ever been proved, right?’
‘Yaar, to be honest, I don’t know. I’d like to think it isn’t true because all of them were such great players, and it was such a big occasion. But I’ve heard the stories so many times from people on the club cricket circuit here, from so many people who would be in a position to know, that there must be some truth to them. I know a lot of current and retired national team players who have fixed matches at club level, just for a little jaib kharch. So why wouldn’t they do it at the international level, when the money on offer from bookies would be a lot more than what a couple of juwaaris would offer for a stupid club match? Besides, apart from that final, people talk about so many other dirty matches in those years, especially after Skipper retired. Even that Australian mentioned the test match where Babar sahib dropped all those catches. I saw that match on TV. And I remember thinking, as a fellow wicketkeeper, it was just not possible to drop so many catches, unless you were literally having a stroke on the field.’
‘No, I don’t believe that at all. Babar sir would never do anything like that deliberately. I’ve known him since I first came into the team, 10 years ago. He was my first coach. I’ve never met a more honourable man. I saw that match too. It was the Sydney pitch. It had extra bounce in it, and he played that match without any practice or acclimatisation. It’s never easy to immediately transition from our slow, low pitches to the bouncy Australian ones.’
‘Really? How many catches did I drop on our Australian tour?’
‘Well … none.’
‘So I guess I acclimatised ok, from our slow, low pitches, huh? And I’ve played a lot less cricket than Babar sir. If he’s so honourable, why does he want us to meet Saleem Euro in London?’
‘Why do you keep going on about this Saleem Euro? Why does he matter so much?’
‘Yaar, you know, sometimes I wish you would get out of this sheltered princess world of yours and get some awareness of the real world! Babar sir lied. Saleem Euro isn’t some small-time businessman in London. He is a major bookie. He was rumoured to be one of the bookies who was in with FQ and Babar sir in their heyday.’
‘What does that have to do with us? If he is a bookie, he would have asked Babar sir to introduce him to the men’s team. Why us?’
‘Because we’ve become big business. The same reason that Australian gave for the commercial interest in us. We’re serious contenders to win the World Cup. One of the players at my father’s club told me that the bookies in Lahore will bet more money on our matches during the World Cup, than on the men’s. Bookies like to bet on the horse that’s likely to go far. If you know that the men’s team is going to lose in the first round, there’s no excitement in the betting.’
Sanam doesn’t respond, but opens her window again. The cool rain feels good on her face. Their driver has managed to successfully navigate his way to Cantt, and Sanam can see the shops surrounding Fortress Stadium, as they slow down at the military checkpoint. They take a right and turn into St John’s Park. This is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Cantt, and it still hasn’t lost its old-world charm. Ancient trees planted on either side of the road provide almost a complete canopy over their heads. The leaves, looking greener for having been washed, drip ceaselessly with rain water. The houses here are all old-fashioned, mostly bungalows with sprawling lawns. Even the newest ones on the street date back to at least the ’70s. There is none of the post-modern construction you see in the city’s newer, posher areas, like Defence or Gulberg. The residents of St John’s Park have lived here for generations.
There is a line of parked cars in front of one of the oldest houses on the street. A soaked shamiana, pitched in the spacious front lawn, sags dangerously in the wind and rain, and cascades water over the low boundary wall, on to the street. The girls step out of their car hoping the soaked tent won’t keel over on top of them and, in their haste, step right into a fast-flowing stream snaking its way downhill. They cover their heads with their dupattas, more for protection against the rain than for reasons of modesty. As they enter the front gate, a tall man, walking a couple of paces in front of them, pauses at the front porch of the house, as if unsure where to go. He seems to be looking at an old woman with snow-white hair, who is sitting on the floor of the porch, surrounded by a small group of mourners, pouring over copies of the Quran. Sanam assumes that the old woman must be Rumessa Apa, Skipper’s sister.
One of the other mourners points out the tall man to the old woman. When she raises her head to look at the man, her eyes betray absolute hate. With a start, she raises herself, in the process dislodging the dupatta from her head.
‘You! How dare you come here? Have you no shame? You namak haram! He gave you everything. Everything! And in return, what did you do? Destroyed his life! Get out! And tell the others that they better dare not come to my house again!’
The tall man stands shell-shocked and motionless for a moment. Then, very slowly and deliberately, he turns around and starts walking toward the gate without a word. In the process, he nearly rams into Fatima and Sanam, and it is then that Sanam recognises him. He looks older than when she last saw him on TV. There are grey streaks in his signature shoulder-length mane, and the familiar pockmarked face has a wizened look to it. A pair of stylish Ray-Bans hide his eyes, but otherwise, it is unmistakeably Faisal Qureshi, legendary fast bowler, former test captain, one-time protégé of Skipper, and the man who has been Sanam’s inspiration for playing cricket.
As he walks past them without acknowledging them, Rumessa Apa’s wild eyes turn to their green blazers with the cricket board logo emblazoned on them. ‘And what are you bloody board officials doing here? You can just get out as well! You didn’t do anything for him when he was alive, now what have you come here for?’
Sanam and Fatima are stunned and look at each other, silently debating whether they should clarify who they are, but both think better of it and turn around and start walking toward the gate. As they stand in the pouring rain, hoping to find where Chacha has parked, a woman from the house comes running after them and taps Sanam on her shoulder.
‘Wait, you’re Sanam Khan right? I’m so sorry, my aunt didn’t recognise you, she thought you were some Board flunkies who had come with Faisal Qureshi. Please, come inside, she is asking you to come back.’
Rumessa Apa is no longer on the porch, and the few remaining mourners also disperse as the intensity of the storm increases. Despite it being late afternoon, the clouds are so dark that the lights have been turned on inside the house. Rumessa Apa’s niece leads them to a sitting room where the furniture looks as if it hasn’t been changed in 50 years. The carpet on the floor is old and musty, and the upholstery on the sofas has become threadbare. Along the walls and shelves, gathering dust, are random bits of cricketing memorabilia. An old stump, a souvenir from some famous test victory, lies on one shelf. A signed, black-and-white picture of Skipper and the West Indian great Gary Sobers is on another shelf. A larger, framed photo of Skipper, dressed formally in a sherwani, receiving an award from the dictator General Zia ul Haq, hangs from the wall.
The room is large, with high ceilings, built in the colonial style, to allow for coolness in the long summers. But the storm outside has made the room draughty, and Sanam and Fatima, already drenched from standing in the rain, shiver as they walk in. An ancient gas heater sits where a fireplace used to be, a couple of its bars having been lit to stave off the chill. On one side of the heater sits Rumessa Apa in an ornately carved wooden chair, looking every inch like a Shakespearean crone with a grim expression on her face and her long, snow white hair, no longer restrained by a dupatta, descending well below her shoulders and cascading in all directions. She points to the second chair of the pair, on the other side of the heater, and gestures for Sanam to sit there, while her niece seats Fatima on one of the old sofas.
‘I apologise for shouting at you earlier girls. I didn’t recognise you, I thought you had walked in with that scoundrel. My God, you two are soaked! Mohammed Hussain, bring towels for the girls, they’ll catch a chill otherwise. And bring some hot tea.’
A servant hands towels to Sanam and Fatima and they gratefully wipe their hair. ‘It’s fine Ma’am. No need to apologise. How could you have known who we were? We’re sorry for your loss.’
For the first time, a hint of a smile creeps across Rumessa Apa’s face as she looks at Sanam intently. ‘You know, that used to be Tariq’s chair, that one. He would sit there every day, for hours. He’d come in after his morning walk and have his tea and read the newspaper while sitting there. He always still read the sports pages, and the cricket news. God knows why, after all the pain that sport caused him. I wouldn’t do it, in fact I haven’t followed cricket for 20 years, because I couldn’t bear to read about those rascals. Oh, he would lie and pretend he had no interest, and didn’t know what was going on with the team. He wouldn’t watch any of the matches on TV. But I knew. He would still read all the stories, all the match reports, no matter how badly the team had played. Then, a few months ago, he started telling me about you girls. He had read about your exploits in Australia and he was so excited. I hadn’t heard him talk like that about cricket in years. He was so proud of you. He said your captaincy reminded him of himself. And you, Fatima, he said he wished he had a batsman like you playing in that World Cup. You know, in his last days, he was very weak, barely able to hold down his food. The only thing he asked for was a TV, on the day of your Asia Cup final against India. He was so happy that Pakistan won. He was on a ventilator, but I could still see the smile on his face under the oxygen mask. I should be thanking you girls, you gave him back his first love.’
The hearts of both girls swell with pride. After all the struggles, it is the ultimate acknowledgement to hear that the great Skipper rated them so highly.
The servant returns with a tray laden with cups of steaming Kashmiri chai, laced with thick blobs of malai, and khatais. Rumessa Apa serves both girls herself, her cronishness slowly turning into the kindliness of a favourite aunt. Fatima, being a true Lahori, loves dunking the almond-filled biscuits in her tea, and is about to do so, but restrains herself when she remembers her surroundings. It would be unbecoming of the Pakistan ladies’ team vice-captain to be dunking khatais in Kashmiri chai while condoling the death of the country’s most famous captain. Instead, she stares at the wall opposite her, idly glancing at the memorabilia. One of the items on the shelf is a cricket ball, encased in a glass case, with the words ‘Sharjah ’92’ scribbled on a piece of plaster stuck on the case. Fatima’s eyes widen in awe as she realises where the ball is from. Rumessa Apa watches her and smiles.
‘Go on. You can pick it up if you like.’
‘Ma’am is that … really … the same ball?’
‘Yes, the one he hit for the last ball six.’
‘Oh my God. Sanam, it’s the ball from the India match. The India match. Ma’am, I was 10 years old back then, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. After I made my debut, I bought a DVD recording of the match. I’ve watched it so many times, I’ve memorised every ball.’ Fatima starts mimicking the commentary. ‘Rajan to Zaman. Rajan comes in, pitches it short, Zaman hooks and that’s a six!!! Pakistan win! Skipper has sunk India again!’ In her excitement, Fatima almost spills her tea.
‘Tariq was always so careless about his cricket trophies, but that one his ex-wife forced him to put in a case. Even she realised that one was special. Now I wish I had saved more of them.’
‘What happened to them ma’am?’
‘That silly French trollop took most of the expensive mementos in the divorce settlement. Tariq had a bunch of them, you know, things like gold goblets and silver cups and what not, in his old London flat. Bloody gold digger! She didn’t know what cricket was before she met my brother, but she certainly had an eye for the finest trophies. The other things, you know, like stumps and balls and old pieces of kit from his matches, lay around for years in his house. After the World Cup,’ Rumessa Apa pauses, trying to compose herself, ‘when he, uh, figured out that he wouldn’t be able to raise the money for Amma’s hospital, he sold most of the things to raise whatever funds he could for the hospital construction. But that was never going to be enough. That’s when he decided to move in here. He vacated his own house so it could be converted into a hospital. It obviously wasn’t going to be on the scale he had initially envisioned, but he was very clear about the fact that he had given his word to build a hospital, and so many hundreds of people had contributed money for it, that he had to see it through, even if it meant that he would leave no legacy for his own children.’
‘Ma’am, where are they? His children?’
‘They live in Paris. Their mother remarried soon after the divorce, while she was still young and attractive. Some rich chateau owner, I think. She never enjoyed living in Pakistan, and the pressure and the abuse that came after the World Cup became a convenient excuse for her to leave Tariq. The children were so young when they left, they barely remember their father. They’re totally French now. I don’t think they even speak English anymore, let alone Urdu or Punjabi. I sent them a message when Tariq died, but I got a text from that witch, saying the children were incommunicado because they were hiking in the Swiss mountains. I didn’t see the point of waiting to see if they might come, so we went ahead and buried him. Bloody Frenchies, couldn’t even come to give a shoulder to my poor brother’s coffin.’
‘Ma’am what about the hospital? Is it still running? I haven’t heard anything about it in recent years. Maybe we can help raise funds by arranging some charity matches? I am sure Babar sir will get the Board to approve them.’
‘Heh. Of course he will. Your Babar ‘sir’. He’ll do anything to get back in my good books. But I don’t want his, or the Board’s help. The Board wouldn’t return Tariq’s phone calls once he retired. Didn’t want to go near him because of the stigma of the World Cup. But the actual rascals who did the fixing, your Babar sir and FQ and Ajju and Shoaib, they kept them on in the team. Even made FQ the captain. At the time Tariq wanted their help, he wanted the team to play some charity matches to raise funds, but the Board, and the players, were ‘concerned’ that it would bring back negative memories of the World Cup for the public. It hurt him that his boys were so willing to blame the entire fiasco on him. As if he was the fixer, and not them. He never said anything, but it hurt him. Then the government started giving him trouble. Auditing the accounts of the hospital charity. Sending Tariq income tax notices. Withholding permission for a new gas connection for the hospital. Little, little things. With so many problems, the hospital could never get going, even on the modest scale that Tariq had hoped for. That’s when he finally got angry and decided to go into politics. He said if this was what the government did to someone like him, who was trying to do something good, then God knows how they treated ordinary people. He was going to change things. And the people supported him. Oh how they supported him.’
‘Ma’am, I remember my father took me and my sisters to Skipper’s rally at the Minar-e-Pakistan, because it was close to our house in Shahdara. It was massive. There were thousands of people. My father has never voted in his life, but he took us all to the rally, because Skipper had been his hero and he wanted Skipper to inspire us like he had inspired him.’
‘Yes. He inspired us all. We told him people wouldn’t come to support him because they still hadn’t gotten over the World Cup defeat, even after so many years. But he said people weren’t so stupid. They would remember all the positive things he did, and would come for him. And he was right. They came. But that’s what scared the ‘powers that be’. That Tariq would become someone they couldn’t control. So they staged that whole drama, got Ajju to come out in public and say that Tariq had been the ringleader for the fixing in the final. In 20 years of playing cricket, no one had ever made such an accusation against Tariq. Of course, if you throw enough mud on someone, the public starts believing it, no matter how improbable the claims. That’s what the powers-that-be count on. But it just shattered Tariq. He withdrew from the world after that. Didn’t want to meet anyone or do anything.’
Rumessa Apa doesn’t sob or wail when she says this. She isn’t the wailing type. But the tears flow down her cheeks uncontrollably, and her voice is hard, bitter, filled with cold anger. Sanam holds Rumessa Apa’s hand, and Fatima gets up to hug her.
‘Ma’am, please let us know if there is anything we can do for you. Treat us like your own daughters.’
The old woman blesses them and kisses their forehead. ‘Thank you for coming girls. Thank you for remembering him.’
The rain has abated but the dark clouds still remain overhead, during the drive back home. Washed and scrubbed in the storm, Lahore looks cleaner and more vibrant.
‘Sanam, promise me one thing.’
‘Whatever else happens, no matter what Babar sir or anyone else says, we will not meet this kanjar Saleem Euro. I don’t want these ******** bookies coming near our team. Look at what they did back then. They ripped apart a world-class team and destroyed a good man in the process. Promise me, you won’t let this man in.’
Sanam stops staring out of the window at the emerging rainbow, and tries to focus on Fatima, but suddenly, without warning, tears start to flow from her eyes. She feels an immense sadness. She doesn’t know why, after all, she has only just met this old woman. And Skipper was hardly a young man cut down in his prime, for the death to be particularly tragic. But the sadness comes from realising the unfolding of a real tragedy. The story of how petty-minded men brought down an icon.
Reprinted with the author's permission
Header illustration by Marium Ali
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 28th, 2019