We were seniors or juniors, I cannot remember. The sun had baked the earth of Lahore into clay even in early March. I was a new convert to cricket. Having been raised on the mean streets of Doha, the game was as foreign to me as Gulli-Danda [also a source of shame]. However, in any high school of Lahore, one had no choice but to embrace, live, and breath cricket. The alternative was severe mocking, taunting and social ostracization. Naturally, I threw myself headlong into the crazy game.
By 1987, I had some valued teachers and a severe case of idolation of Imran Khan. Who didn’t?. Hours were spent dissecting his bowling, emulating his runup and bowling motion, affecting the look. It was in 1987 that Pakistan toured India for a 5 Test series, part of Zia’s cricket diplomacy. We all knew that Imran Khan would win it for us – finally take revenge for 1971 [umm. ok, no.]. The first four matches were draws, but our hope never wavered.
Every test day would be spent with the radio/TV, at the expense of school, exams, chores. Amma would periodically hurl spoons and abuses but not one over would be missed. Immediately after the last ball of the day, a meeting would convene on Jorey Pull Cricket Ground – the abandoned Girl’s school building where we played tape-ball. Every ball, every at-bat was discussed at length. Imran’s genius was attested. Gavaskar’s vileness was condemned. Kapil’s incomprehensible effectiveness was lamented. Draw after draw after draw after draw.
March 13-17, 1987 was the final test of the series at Bangalore. Much more than that, it was also the final test for Sunil Gavaskar. Imran’s retirement was looming after the upcoming World Cup. This was it – their final showdown. The stage was set for the only chance for Pakistan to win on Indian soil. Quizzically, Imran had called in this really odd left-arm off-spinner, Iqbal Qasim, and dropped Abdul Qadir. There was a great deal of hand-wringing about the decision in public. Yes, Abdul Qadir had had his ass kicked in the past four tests but he was still the greatest leg-spinner. How can you drop someone like him? The bangalore pitch was like a crater from what we could hear. A leg spinner would be an immense advantage. Dare we doubt you, Imran?
Day 1. Rameez Raja failed again. Along with whomever the hell they had. In fact, Maninder Singh cleaned the house with 7 for 27 and Pakistan scored a measely 116. The darkest of nights had begun for the nation of Pakistan and the group of teenagers in Lahore Cantt. But the doughy Iqbal Qasim and the unflappable Tauseef Ahmed [whom I met and played with in subsequent years] cleaned out the Indian lineup with 5 apiece. Pakistan, now, stepped back to the
plate wicket [crap, I almost mixed my sports metaphors]. Rameez Raja almost produced and Imran sat on the pitch for 140 minutes to give their team a “decent” lead. India needed only 221 to win with two entire days left to play.
Day 4. We had finals or something. Stuck in chemistry class. Asif way in the back had one tiny AM radio with a broken headphone he had taped to the inside of his cap. Every over, every 4, and every OUT had a pre-determined tap or signal. There was a deafening silence in the class – all of our ears attuned to Asif’s pencil, pad and thumb. When the fourth wicket fell, I raised my hand in class. “Feeling queasy, sir.” He stared daggers at me. I held his gaze. “OK”. I ran out. Under the sole neem tree, was a group of escapees, hunched over the radio, yelling back at Omar Kureishi*. I never went back to class. The next day, I spend the whole day paying for it.
The spinners won us the Test and the series. By 16 runs. At one end, stood the great Gavaskar watching his teammates go down one by one in slow succession to the off-spinners. After five and a half hours on the crease, he went down on 96. His last inning.
I can recall that I didn’t have a voice for days after. Vocal cords ripped sore from the screams. That day of cricket has never been topped in my memories. It became a mythic match. Imran Khan a demigod. Such was that unbridled joy in the game. In the years following, I played a lot of cricket. Lots of good cricket. I met many of the members of the cricket squad. I only remember talking to them about the ’87 test series. There is another aspect to that history that will have to wait for another post.
All that came back after following the strikingly similar win by Pakistan at the same venue. In fact, I was rather blasÈ about this win – I kept smiling from the ’87 memories.