|Pak Test Series Win
Softens British Media
by SHAHED SADULLAH
It would be going a bit over the top to say that Pakistan's stunning victories over England have been received in the UK in a manner that gives rise to hopes that a new appreciation of Pakistan is now on the horizon. But they have given rise to comments that were very seldom seen over the past 25 years.
The history of Pakistan-England cricketing relations has been a troubled one since 1987 when England captain Mike Gatting had his infamous exchange with Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana at Faisalabad. The fact that Gatting just may have been doing what Rana alleged he was doing, i.e. moving his field after the bowler had started his runup which the laws of the game do not permit, was given no credence whatsoever. The English cricket authorities of the time confirmed the attitude of the media by granting their players a 'hardship allowance' thereby stating in as many words that touring Pakistan was something that only the condemned could be asked to do. Ian Botham's remark about Pakistan, that it was the sort of place he would like to send his mother-in-law, was perhaps the most memorable by-product of that tour.
In 1992 and 1996, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, the finest swing bowling combination the world has ever seen, were labeled as cheats because it was alleged that they could not produce reverse swing, at that time an art unknown outside Pakistan, without tampering with the ball. I was present at the High Court in London when a former England Test batsman gave a sworn statement that in his opinion, reverse swing was only possible with a tampered ball. Today, most county trundlers try the art and it is openly acknowledged that one of the reasons for England's spectacular success in the last two Ashes series was the mastery that its bowlers had acquired over this art. Now Wasim and Waqar are acknowledged for what they were, the greatest swing bowlers ever, but this is twenty years down the line.
That was followed by the tour of 2006 when the Oval Test was forfeited by Pakistan. An Australian umpire who was then settled in England decided to accuse the Pakistan side of tampering with the ball on what was no more than a hunch; he then made the shocking offer to walk away from it all if paid a huge sum of money. Yet, the English media came out overwhelmingly on his side, even after his decision was overruled by a top ICC official. And finally there was the tour of 2010 which ended up with three Pakistani players serving sentences in British jails and the almost complete neutralization of Pakistan's exceptional seam attack. One holds no brief for the three, for they got what they deserved. But the triumphant way in which this was handled by the British media, perhaps highlighted by the very inadequate Pakistani responses, brought England-Pakistan cricketing relations to such a low that most British Pakistanis felt that it would perhaps be for the better if cricket between the two countries was suspended for the foreseeable future. To my knowledge, this was the fifth attempt at an entrapment operation against a Pakistan cricket team or a player or a former player. To the best of my knowledge, no such 'sting' operation has been launched against any other team or player of any other country. When former Sri Lankan captain Hashan Tillekaratne stated that these sort of practices had been going on for a long time in the Sri Lankan side and that he was even prepared to name the players involved, the matter did not merit as much as a mention in the British electronic media, the very same media which was absolutely obsessed with the tree Pakistani players.
But over the last few days there have been pieces full of praise not just for the Pakistani cricketers' cricketing abilities, but for the manner in which they have conducted themselves and the spirit and discipline – not known to be Pakistani virtues – they have brought to their cricket. There were, of course, any number of instances in which the umpires could be said to be leaning towards England; Asad Shafiq when he was well set was adjudged lbw when only the edge of the ball was seen to be pitching in line, but Cook was given not out even when more than a third of the ball was seen to be pitching in line. The rules have been purposely screwed to make that sort of thing possible. The two decisions that were unsupportable even on TV replay were both against Pakistan - the decision against Saeed Ajmal in the First Test and the absurd decision of third umpire Billy Bowden to give Strauss not out when replays showed that Azhar had clearly caught him, a decision which even all English sports writers, without exception, said was inexplicable. Strauss is a top England batsman and keep in mind that England were chasing only 145. A stand of 50 or 60 would probably have changed the game entirely at that point. The two umpiring decisions that have been overruled even under these screwed up rules, had both originally gone against Pakistan. But those are always the odds against Pakistan when Pakistan is playing either England or Australia. Nobody would mistake Davis, Oxenford or Bowden to be Pakistani names but any suggestion of bias would be regarded as unprintable; freedom of speech, which allows people to lampoon prophets of God, stops here.
I have covered Pakistan's Test matches from the press box in almost every English Test venue and the atmosphere is so vitiated with pure hatred for Pakistan, where the primary and only purpose seems to be to get, anyhow, an anti-Pakistan story, that in 2010 I decided not to get any accreditation to cover the series and thought I would enjoy it much more with friends or on my TV. At least one cricket correspondent of a British tabloid told me in confidence that he was asked by his sports editor to produce an 'anti-Pakistani' story at regular intervals – and he was certainly not alone.
This time around too, the former England captain Bob Willis tried to create a controversy on the very first day of the series over Saeed Ajmal's action - rather predictably – almost immediately after Ajmal had completely bamboozled the England side by taking 7 for 55. Ajmal has played county cricket in England and over the past year has featured in series against New Zealand, the West Indies, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, without so much as a poop about his action. He gets seven England batsmen in a match winning performance and suddenly his actions become suspect. But the difference this time around was that no one supported Willis and there were quite a few who came out and said, albeit in not so many words, that Willis was talking through his hat - which for Willis is by no means a first.
Of course this may be just as much due to the fact that Pakistan's victories have been so comprehensive that it would be churlish, even by English standards, to introduce an element of controversy here. And Ajmal is not the only Pakistani bowler to have bamboozled England. Umar Gul did it in in England's second innings in the First Test and in the second innings in Abu Dhabi it was Abdur Rahman; just how many can you accuse, even if they are Pakistanis?
One very much hopes that the fulsome praise for Pakistani cricketers that is now found so widely in the British media signals something rather more meaningful and more lasting. One particular piece by the cricket correspondent of The Times, Simon Barnes, gives cause for hope that finally, the British media may have had enough and that now, maybe, just maybe, there is a realization of how grossly unfairly the British media has treated Pakistan cricket. In the piece, Barnes welcomes Pakistan back which itself is a strange thing to do given that Pakistan cricket had actually not gone anywhere. Many MAG readers may have read the piece on the internet but for the benefit of those who may have missed it, it would be worthwhile to quote the last few paragraphs from it. Barnes wrote:
"We English are learning to be less proprietorial about cricket, to understand that its racial and cultural mixture is its strength. Pakistan, for all its turbulence and troubles, adds a great richness to this mixture.
"And I don't mean patronising guff like great characters and colourful incidents and a plucky little nation seeking to rise above misfortune. I'm talking about the search for victory and for sporting excellence, its interpretation by a different culture and the richness of humanity in all its diversity as represented by the different ways we approach, play and understand sport.
"It is in our nature to misunderstand and mistrust other cultures. That is true not just of our culture, but of all cultures. The intimacy of cricketing cultures, with its double fistful of leading nations, gives us a vivid insight into a remarkable number of other cultures and, in these troubled times, it is useful for us all to have some tentative understanding of and admiration for an Islamic nation.
"The Pakistanis have taken on an England who were reckoned to be top dog in the world and made them think again about themselves, about Pakistan and about a lot of other things as well. Not for the first time. Welcome back."
To my mind, that is as close as an Englishman can bring himself to an apology, at least on this issue. One swallow, or even a handful of them, do not make a summer and I could be very wrong about the change in the attitude of the British press. But if this is the start of something new, it could have a far more telling impact on British Pakistanis than any political initiative ever could.