Test Status on Trial
By Abdul Hafeez Kardar
Folio Books
ISBN: 978-969-7834-37-2
232pp.

Few traits are as deeply embedded in the Pakistani psyche as our passion for cricket. Far more than just a sport, it is part of our lifeblood, and our fascination borders on the spiritual. We have produced some of the finest cricketers the world has ever seen. Our players are bigger celebrities than actors. We all have vivid memories of watching matches in stadiums and on TV. We can give ball-by-ball accounts of our favourite games from decades ago.

Test Status on Trial by Abdul Hafeez Kardar recounts a formative moment in our sports history. After Partition, our cricket suffered from the exit of Hindu players and personnel and a crippling lack of resources. Some determined attempts had led to cobbling together a team, but it was widely derided as “a club-level” effort.

Then, in 1954, on their maiden tour of England, this fledgling team, captained by Kardar, confronted the formidable English side. In the face of seemingly impossible odds, they forced the Test series to a draw. The jewel in the crown was a hard fought nail-biting victory at the Oval.

Kardar describes the historic significance of the moment: “We were the first team to win a Test Match against England on our first tour.” This victory catapulted the backwater Pakistani team into the international cricket arena. Pakistan cricket was off to a rousing start.

This book, long out of print, has been revived by the joint effort of cricket and book enthusiasts and reprinted by Folio Books. This excellent new edition features copious endorsements and comments from cricketing luminaries from around the world, including a scintillating foreword by Osman Samiuddin.

A reprint of a long out-of-publication book has the great A.H. Kardar himself recounting how the Pakistan cricket team cemented its case to achieve Test status in its maiden tour of England

Kardar spells out his inspiration for the book: “Only those who were closely connected with the team know how many times we felt frustrated, at times heart-broken, but how we never gave up hope. To describe the progress of the tour for those who wish to share and to feel the pulse of events day by day, I have undertaken to write this book.”

Kardar’s actual narrative runs for about a hundred pages and is a quick, thrilling read. He starts by walking us through the Pakistan cricket ecosystem, introducing us to the key people, the administrators and the players. He delves into the logistics, the extensive pre-tour preparations, practice matches and friendly sessions. We get a peek into the thought process behind key decisions, the selection process, and team ordering. This behind-the-scenes look adds a fascinating dimension to the story.

The tour finally begins. The Pakistanis start out as underdogs and by sheer grit start to claw their way up. Rain and injuries complicate things. But slowly but surely, the tide begins to turn. The surprised English team gets on the defensive. The English press, which had earlier dismissed the Pakistani team — to the extent of questioning if they were even worthy of Test status — now focus their wrath on the English selection committee.

As for the games, I was unsure what to expect from this book — would reading about a cricket match be anywhere near as much fun as actually seeing it on the screen? However, Kardar manages to sweep us off our feet. The effect is of a fast-paced adrenaline-charged radio commentary. There are last-minute decisions, cliffhangers, and suspense abounds. One can almost visualise the critical missed catch in the second slip: “There was a pin drop silence at the Oval and no one was willing to say a word to Alimuddin who was himself so moved at the dropped catch that he could hardly utter the words, ‘I am sorry, Skipper.’”

The Pakistanis start out as underdogs and by sheer grit start to claw their way up. Rain and injuries complicate things. But slowly but surely, the tide begins to turn. The surprised English team gets on the defensive. The English press, which had earlier dismissed the Pakistani team — to the extent of questioning if they were even worthy of Test status — now focus their wrath on the English selection committee.

Overall, this book harks back to kinder gentler times, the era of the silver screen, of jazz and P.G. Wodehouse novels, when life was more relaxed and everything had a more human dimension. In those days — and perhaps this is just a tendency to romanticise — cricket was more of a wholesome gentleman’s game, far from the supremely commercialised spectacle it has now become. Sportsmen seemed to be more than just mere athletes or celebrities; they were real and very interesting personalities.

Kardar himself is a good example. In the grand scheme of things, his contribution far exceeded these games or even this particular tour; he set Pakistani cricket on the course for greatness. To quote Wazir Mohammed, who played on the tour: “All are captains in cricket, but there is only one Skipper. That is A.H. Kardar.”

He is also incredibly self-effacing as a writer. Osman Samiuddin notes that his three books on Pakistani cricket “can be read not only as an exercise of anti-vanity but outright self-abnegation; almost as if he wasn’t part of these tours.”

In a match where the early batting order collapsed, Kardar writes that “…I was left to play a determined innings to obtain a first innings lead.” The regular reader will take that at face value. When one looks at the extensive tour statistics in the latter half of the book, he discovers that Kardar scored an unbeaten 99, the highest score of the innings by far, and galvanised the lower order.

The book brought to my mind another legendary episode — the story of the Ashes tour of Australia from 1932. To counter the legendary Don Bradman, the English had invented the bodyline tactic — their bowlers would pitch short fast bouncers to prompt batsmen into defensive postures and easy catches.

It was extremely dangerous, Australian players sustained injuries, and spectators nearly rioted. The English discovered for themselves how lethal this strategy was when the West Indies used it against them the next year. Cricketing laws were promptly revised to prevent it. In 1984, the Australians dramatised this incident in the riveting TV miniseries Bodyline, starring Hugo Weaving, famous for the Matrix movies.

While reading this book, I was also working my way through the final season of Ted Lasso, the wildly popular comedy series about the rise of a lower order football team. In an alternate universe, it is easy to imagine a similar treatment for this story, a classic underdog drama reflecting the values of that era, the coming of age of Pakistani cricket.

Going through this book, one cannot help but wonder what a talented scriptwriter would make of this material, what actors to cast, etc. This would make the ideal origin story to the exciting saga of Pakistani cricket. But this seems a very tall order, given the state of our entertainment industry and our culture in general.

At the very end of his story, Kardar himself makes an observation, which perhaps reflects this same neglectful trend from 70 years ago: “I cannot resist mentioning too this record, of which I am certainly not proud. We were perhaps the only touring team ever to have come to England, certainly in post-war cricket, without one single newspaper or radio correspondent of our own… In contrast, England touring Australia this winter will be carrying over 20 newspaper correspondents.”

One cannot help but wonder: Do we not care for the blood, sweat and toil of our heroes? Will our glorious World Cup win of 1992 be similarly lost to history in another generation? Will we ever take ownership of our own stories?

One can only hope.

The reviewer teaches at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Islamabad.

He can be reached at taha.ali@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 27th, 2023

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