Once Upon a Time in Nazimabad
By Muhammad Naukhez Arslan
ScoreLine Publications, Karachi
126pp.

Who hasn’t witnessed the young street cricketers of Karachi? Using stools, chairs or old fruit crates for wickets, they are always there, playing in the streets and lanes with their worn-out bats and red or white electric tape-covered tennis balls.

They play the entire day, from morning till evening. Sometimes, they hook up connections to street lights for night cricket. Shouts of “Out! Out!”, or “My turn!” or “Not fair!” ring out through the neighbourhoods. Noisy quarrels erupt and, if that doesn’t disturb you, then the clanging of your doorbell — when a massive hit smashes their treasured ball into your house — certainly will.

Of course, no bells are rung when a ball breaks a window. Then it is you, marching out with evidence in hand, to find heads hanging in shame, or a stuttered apology/ explanation.

Muhammad Naukhez Arslan, author of Once Upon a Time in Nazimabad, was once such a kid who grew up playing cricket on the streets of the city’s Nazimabad area during the 1970s. Sadly, the skills he developed in those days — such as a bowling talent he was particularly proud of — remained undiscovered, although some of the boys he used to play with did find fame.

A nostalgic journey through the streets and grounds that produced much of Pakistan’s cricketing talent and pioneered formats

Still, Arslan — with his aptitude for cricket statistics and cricket journalism — remained close to the game. His book is a collection of some very well-written and well-edited essays about cricket that zero in on the locality of Nazimabad in Karachi as the starting point for many people, and things that have to do with cricket, such as the concept of ‘player auctions’ that we now see ahead of the Twenty20 league tournaments.

Annu Bhai Park has been transformed from dustbowl to grassy lushness | Images from the book
Annu Bhai Park has been transformed from dustbowl to grassy lushness | Images from the book

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was known as “Pakarr-Dakarr.” Arslan writes that he wasn’t very fond of it, because it involved your neighbourhood team scouting for better players from other neighbourhoods and bringing them into your team in order to make it stronger.

Consequently, it meant doing away with the weaker players of one’s own side and, many a time, the author found himself replaced with another, far better batsman, bowler or fielder brought in through the Pakarr-Dakarr system.

It is also worth mentioning that the Twenty20 format — three hours of play, 20 overs per side — was an innovation brought about by street cricket. Earlier, test matches in the gentleman’s game used to be very long: six days, then five days with a day off in between, then five consecutive days. Street cricket introduced shorter versions, such as the 50-over one-day match format and the even shorter T20 format.

Most essays in the collection look back and reflect on cricket the way it was played in the ’70s and ’80s. Arslan highlights the evolution of the game and also throws light on some superstars who got their start from Nazimabad.

We also learn plenty about the origins of the place itself. Nazimabad was the first properly planned locality of Karachi, built on land bought by the government from tribal lord Masti Brohi Khan. It was named after the then head of state, Khawaja Nazimuddin, and was intended to settle the refugees coming to Pakistan after Partition. Over the years, this place has produced a number of sportspeople, journalists and intellectuals.

For 363 days a year, Eidgah Maidan is Nazimabad’s most happening cricket arena
For 363 days a year, Eidgah Maidan is Nazimabad’s most happening cricket arena

Nazimabad and its nearby suburbs soon became a hub of cricket. Landmarks Agha Juice and Cafe Al Hassan in Block I were the favourite hangouts for budding players, keen coaches and astute talent scouts.

Block II had Shahid Sports, one of the best sports goods shops in the city. It supplied everything from Gray-Nicolls bats to Pioneer tennis balls, and even rolls of electrical tape to wrap around the fuzzy, lime green orbs for tape-ball matches. The author recalls that, at the time, regular cricket balls cost a whopping Rs 55 each, whereas tennis balls could be had for a mere Rs 6. Tape-balls also meant lower chance of injury, both to humans and the neighbourhood windows.

Block III had the famous Eidgah Maidan. This large expanse of land played host to matches year-round, save the two days when it lived up to its name and was used for Eid prayers. Arslan happily reports that the ground was recently updated with a grassy outfield and floodlights. Neither of these existed when the Maidan was used for the glorious Karachi 20-over-a-side tournament — the Nazimabad Super Cup — in the late ’70s.

There is also the Bakhtiari Youth Centre (BYC), known earlier as the National Youth Centre. In the ’70s, it was District Central’s biggest and most advanced cricket field, and the Nazimabad Super Cup was moved there for its better facilities and seating. BYC had two playing fields on either side of its pavilion and was used as a first-class cricket ground for many years, until it fell on hard times.

Annu Bhai Park — aka Nazimabad Gymkhana — in Block IV was a place where many club matches took place and Arslan gives a brief list of Karachi’s hard-ball cricket clubs and their prominent stars, active from the mid-1970s to the late ’90s.

A tape ball, a bat and three rocks for stumps is all you need
A tape ball, a bat and three rocks for stumps is all you need

Nearby, in Block C of North Nazimabad, is the Asghar Ali Shah Stadium. Around it are streets named after not just cricketers, but hockey and squash players as well. This is a legacy of the good times when the late orthopaedic surgeon Dr Mohammad Ali Shah — a huge cricket enthusiast, commentator and builder of the Asghar Ali Shah Stadium — was Sindh’s sports minister.

Former wicketkeeper and batsman Rashid Latif writes in the book’s foreword that Karachi, the backbone of Pakistan, has seen a steep decline in its infrastructure and public facilities for sports and recreation over the last four to five decades. That, and the rapidly increasing population, has seen a serious disparity arise between the playing grounds and the players.

But, “Despite being dogged by problems such as street crime, water scarcity and power shortages, Karachi has proven time and again that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and resilient. It is famously known to be the financial and industrial hub of the country, but when it comes to sports, it has been the heart of cricket ever since the creation of Pakistan.

“Regardless of many local issues it faces, such as inadequate number of sports grounds, coaching centres and proper facilitation provided by the government to support local talent, Karachi has produced a stream of talented players over the years. The legacy started with Hanif Mohammad and his brothers, continued with Javed Miandad and proudly includes stars [such as] Iqbal Qasim, Moin Khan, Haroon Rashid, Sikander Bakht, Tauseef Ahmed, Sarfraz Ahmed and many more,” he writes.

Arslan’s compilation of articles, along with some good quality pictures, takes you on a nostalgic journey of when all these players were growing up and playing cricket in Karachi, especially in Nazimabad. Cricket lovers will find this book a treat as it vividly describes the Karachi cricket scene of yesteryears, while also giving interesting viewpoints on the game.

The reviewer is a member of staff. She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 10th, 2022

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