The AstroTurf nets in Stoke-on-Trent's Hanley Park where young British Pakistanis mingle with pros and former internationals
The AstroTurf nets in Stoke-on-Trent's Hanley Park where young British Pakistanis mingle with pros and former internationals
Breathless hitting, breathtaking spells: a short history of the incandescent Pakistani presence in the north Staffordshire leagues
It was in the May of that torrid, tempestuous summer of 2010, driving through the pouring rain of an east Lancashire night toward the old mill town of Nelson, with Anwar Ali sat impassively in the back, his English as barren as my Urdu, that the growing financial lunacy of club cricket hit unequivocally home.
It was already 10pm and we still had a 95-mile return trip to Stoke-on-Trent. My club Moddershall had engaged Anwar as sub pro for the day on strict condition that we ferried him back for his Lancashire League game on the Sunday. Eschewing a traditional post-match oat soda, we set off more or less immediately after conceding victory to the wild and wet Atlantic weather, with our opponents 32 for 6 off 10.4 overs chasing 137. Anwar took 4 for 16 and £330 with him on the journey back to a club once represented by Saeed Ahmed, Sadiq Mohammad and Sarfraz Nawaz - 137 Test caps between them - and before them, for nine years in the 1930s, Learie Constantine, whose contract reputedly made him the best paid sportsman in the country.
Squeezed in next to Anwar was a former Worcestershire seamer whom we had also paid £250 for the day (he had rushed on to the outfield when he saw Anwar counting his money, and a few weeks later, with a fee already agreed, demanded an extra £70 at 7pm on Friday night, when it would be impossible for us to find someone else), and who was going to visit family in Bradford. Chuck in a batsman who made a pound-a-run 66 and our haul of six points - which would have been 25 had we won - had cost us over £100 each. For an abandoned game. Come the end of the season, having realised that £20 notes were not an especially cost-effective way to paper over the team's cracks, we would be relegated from the Premier League after a 14-year stint that had yielded three championships.
During that same summer of 2010, Wisden editor Lawrence Booth, attempting to understand the temptations behind the Pakistani spot-fixing scandal, reported in a piece for the Daily Mail that a top-tier Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) central contract, such as that held by Mohammad Asif, was worth a paltry £22,500 per annum (or around US$32,730). England and Australia players of equivalent seniority pocketed salaries of £400,000 (or around $582,000), while top players from India, West Indies and Sri Lanka earned well over three times the PCB retainer. Mohammad Amir, meanwhile, picked up around £1300 per month. In that context, Anwar's weekend's work wasn't too shabby.
The high-water mark of this Pakistani Test presence in north Staffs was the mid-2000s, when an "arms race" between clubs brought Wahab, Afridi, Asif, Imran Farhat, Imran Nazir, Sohail Tanvir, Tanvir Ahmed, Rehman, Aizaz Cheema and others to the Potteries
The Pakistanis' lack of pay, compounded by their political exclusion from IPL riches - especially galling for players who by that stage ought to have won both World T20s - not only offers some explanation for the Mohammads overstepping the line of decency, but also for why so many excellent Pakistani cricketers populate English league cricket each summer. Quite simply, it is economic stratification. They could do with the cash, while from the clubs' perspective these mercurial talents offer the best value for money. Once upon a time, during league cricket's heyday, such players would put bums on seats. Now, frankly, they're only really there to put batsmen on their bums or bring bowlers to their knees, helping clubs pursue their glories and vendettas.
Up until quite recently, you'd still get quality international players turning up for a full summer. Nowadays it's not so easy. The explosion of domestic T20 leagues; the encroachments of the international calendar, A tours and training camps; short-term county deals; tightening UK Border Authority criteria for visas; league directives on registering replacements - all make it harder to sign the glittering stars of yore, though the more workmanlike talents still come.
Besides Anwar Ali's fleeting appearance as a sub, recreational cricket in North Staffordshire - both the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League (NSSCL), and the predecessor from which it split in 1963 - has, down the years, enjoyed the likes of Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq, Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmed, Wahab Riaz and that man Mohammad Asif, not to mention many other Test players who made the ball leap and dance from the pitch at improbable angles and speeds, or who smote the ball high over the parked cars and into the pathway of moving ones driving past, oblivious to the international talent on show.
When the stars were in town, several of those parked cars were likely to be taxis belonging to the city's phalanx of first- and second-generation Pakistani progeny, cricket nuts all, their own cricket-nut sons trying to find a place in a society that in many ways holds them at arm's length. Except at the cricket. Except when one throws oneself into the cut and thrust, and in those hours - the hours between "Play!" and "Time" - when cricket consumes you utterly, makes you forget the grind; makes you forget even who you are and who you are supposed to be, the values you are supposed to project or personify; when cricket, the collective struggles of cricket, the ecstasy of a wicket or the euphoria of a win, melts those dutifully embodied hand-me-down identities and in that fleeting moment of ego-loss briefly opens up the possibility - perhaps closing again as quickly as Sunil's or Geoffrey's gate - of some as-yet-unknown, as-yet-unlived spirit of cooperation, and the fearless facing of a future that needs to be first imagined, then invented.
Moddershall A's Ijaz Ahmed Jr (right) gives some tips to a youngster
© Ijaz Ahmed jnr
Moddershall A's Ijaz Ahmed Jr (right) gives some tips to a youngster © Ijaz Ahmed jnr
Perhaps this possibility of truly throwing themselves into the joyous here and now is denied the Pakistani professionals. Perhaps it's always just a job. It isn't always an especially glamorous one - certainly not for the innumerable first-class journeymen, nor even the numerable one-, two-, or three-cap wonders to have made the trip from Peshawar, Punjab or Pindi to the Potteries, to a city that, although ensconced in a Minor County, has nevertheless thrown up a handful of Test cricketers, including Bob Taylor, Dominic Cork, David Steele, Rob Bailey, Kim Barnett, Ken Higgs and Jack Ikin. No, it wasn't always glamorous.
I wonder what was going through Ijaz Ahmed Jr's mind as he sat in departures at Lahore's international airport in late April 2010 waiting to fly to Manchester, and then on to a new club in Stoke-on-Trent. He was 41 years old, no spring chicken, and his first-class season for Faisalabad had been moderate: 499 runs at 36, against an average in excess of 50 in the two previous. He wouldn't have known this, nor wanted to believe it, but he had already scored the last of his 33 first-class hundreds and all bar 456 of his 13,058 first-class runs. It was now over 15 years since his Test debut, in the same game as Saqlain Mushtaq: good enough to squeeze in among Inzamam-ul-Haq and Saeed Anwar on September 8, 1995, Test career done just 12 days later.
Heavy existential questions - the coming of the post-playing years, the uncertainty of that great beyond - were doubtless either being ruminated upon or forcefully repressed. Thoughts now had to turn to navigating the strange purgatory of those final seasons, to wringing every last drop of employability out of your body before - bang! - you suddenly have to do something other than all you've ever done. With only a one-year deal on the table, he would above all have been hoping his wares met our needs, which were to help our newly promoted A team (our 2nd XI, effectively) compete in the rarefied air of NSSCL's third tier.
Ijaz knocked at the door at 1am, clutching a cricket kit-cum-suitcase and a carrier bag protesting at its load of duty-free cigarettes. He coughed. Although he wasn't pro-ing for my team - I didn't know it then, but I was in my final year as 1st XI skipper - I was his first port of call, before he picked up keys to his digs the next day. He looked exhausted from the flight, but also had a vague air of fretfulness. Once he had lugged that kitbag inside, onto the warped linoleum hallway floor and into the boxy front room, with its badly stacked boxes of badly packed knick-knacks, bric-a-brac and this-n-that into which we had squeezed a fold-out bed, he may just have wondered what he had let himself in for. His face was that of a man upon whom it has started to dawn that his family's two-week package holiday in the Med will be taking place in a hotel that hasn't yet finished being built.
Khalid Wazir (Nantwich), Nasim-ul-Ghani (Longton, Great Chell), Manzoor Elahi (Porthill Park), Shahid Mahboob (Crewe), Mushtaq Ahmed (Little Stoke), Ata-ur-Rehman (Audley), Ijaz Ahmed Jr (Moddershall A), Saqlain Mushtaq (Burslem), Mohammad Akram (Little Stoke), Hasan Raza (Little Stoke), Mohammad Hussain (Porthill Park, Barlaston, Stone, Hem Heath, Leek), Mohammad Wasim (Crewe), Mohammad Zahid (Whitmore), Azhar Mahmood (Checkley, Stone), Fazl-e-Akbar (Porthill Park), Shahid Afridi (Little Stoke, Leek), Imran Nazir (J&G Meakin), Abdul Razzaq (Hem Heath), Irfan Fazil (Norton-in-Hales, Whitmore), Qaiser Abbas (Knypersley, Stone, Hem Heath), Imran Farhat (Porthill Park), Shoaib Malik (Barlaston), Shabbir Ahmed (Barlaston, Little Stoke), Yasir Ali (Elworth), Mohammad Khalil (Leycett), Mohammad Asif (Ashcombe Park), Rao Iftikhar Anjum (Porthill Park), Abdur Rehman (Caverswall, Ashcombe Park), Sohail Tanvir (Haslington), Abdur Rauf (Barlaston), Fawad Alam (Sneyd), Wahab Riaz (J&G Meakin), Tanvir Ahmed (Sneyd, Newcastle & Hartshill), Aizaz Cheema (Crewe), Junaid Khan (Ashcombe Park), Mohammad Ayub (Oakamoor, Woore), Bilawal Bhatti (Hem Heath)
If "Jazzy" was anxious, then I was probably depressed. Not that I'd been diagnosed as such. Or rather, I had been diagnosed as such - five years earlier, and every subsequent year thereafter - but that was a ruse to allow me to apply for an extension to my PhD writing-up period. These can only be granted for maternity, paternity, prolonged jury service, bereavement and representing your country in war or at sport, none of which were likely to apply to me. This only left serious illness - said illness having to fall under the heading "mental". A friend who knew what was what gave me a checklist of symptoms to parrot to the GP, who, he predicted, "will be writing you out a prescription within five minutes". He was.
A year after this diagnosis, in 2006, my attic was burgled while I was downstairs watching TV. By sheer bad luck all backed-up copies of my thesis were attached to the laptop: 18 months' work, or 65,000 words, vanished. Life had imitated art, although depressed might be too mild a word for it. I immediately caught a lucky break, however, spending nine months selling advertising overseas, deferring my new one-year extension for 12 months, but by early 2008, money running out, I had little option but to decamp from Nottingham back to Staffordshire, rejoining Moddershall after a two-year break, and moving back in with my folks. My mother soon became ill with cirrhosis and headed toward the inevitably of transplant while my father struggled to cope and I cooked and cleaned and dealt with cricket club issues rather than studying. It was tense, and Dad and I ended up having a blazing row, which coincided with my best mate from school - arguably doing worse than me at the time, in the wake of a nervous breakdown and the death of his father - beating a tactical retreat from his life in London. In January 2010 we moved into that two-up, four-down with a half-tiled bathroom tacked onto the end of a kitchen narrower than Glenn McGrath's corridor: two good mates, neither of us enjoying the purplest of patches.
Our neighbours were a pair of alcoholic sixtysomething bachelors housed by social services. Brian and Dave. Both were thin as pipe cleaners, and with about as many aspects to their personalities. Drink had reduced them to emaciated, befuddled shells, a permanently bickering Vladimir and Estragon, all audible through walls as thin as French pastry. The only time they would venture out from the murky shelter of their boozecave was when DTs forced them to procure more bottles of White Lightning, sending them shakily up the street like a pair of stick insects learning how to roller-skate. Once, they couldn't summon the energy to remove a sizeable dog mess that had found its way onto their front doorstep, so it sat there for a whole month. We never did invite them around for tea.
Welcome to Staffordshire, Jazzy! Make yourself at home!
Rao Iftikhar's motto, at least according to his skipper, Dan Hancock, "was 'cricket, rest, cricket, rest'. He couldn't understand why we needed to drink the night before a game
Now, I'm not saying all this was representative or typical of the experience for your Pakistani overseas pro - Abdul Razzaq and Mushtaq Ahmed's first nights were a little more salubrious and red-carpet, no doubt - but as we sat and talked about quitting smoking - Ijaz's wheezing chest sounding like the warm-up of a Peruvian pan-pipe ensemble - and about not quitting cricket, he may indeed have wondered what he had let himself in for.
Turn left out of Stoke railway station, then first right, walking just a little further than Shoaib Akhtar's long run, and you reach the neighbourhood of Shelton, not long since rebranded by Stoke-on-Trent City Council as the "University Quarter". There at the back of Staffordshire University are rows of cheap terrace houses in lines as regular as a North Korean military parade. It's the architecture of battery-farmed chicken: backyards weeping for sunshine, cobbled alleyways strewn with junk paraphernalia, gutters crammed with litter. Where once they housed the city's pottery workers, now they're home to students, South Asians and amiable East Europeans turning unlovely houses into unlovely cafés. And cricket professionals too, for this is where Ijaz lived - the Shelton and Hanley Park Ward - half a mile from me as the crow flies over the A500 (or "D road" as it is known locally).
Less an organic city than a federation of six towns glued together for expedience in 1910, Stoke-on-Trent was granted city status in 1925 and today has a population of around 250,000. The place thrived until the sharp decline of the pits and pots in the 1970s and '80s - partly through policy, partly through market forces - and in its struggle to carve out a post-industrial identity and provide skilled work beyond the vast distribution centres, it has, amid the blight and disillusionment, become something of a breeding ground for far-right politics. Nick Griffin, the former leader of the British National Party (BNP), once described Stoke-on-Trent as its "jewel in the crown". Just five days after Ijaz's arrival, the 2010 General Election saw a staggering 8% of the city vote BNP, as compared to 2% nationwide.
Mohammad Asif shone in the West Midlands before embarking on a starry, and colourful, career with Pakistan
© The Sentinel
Mohammad Asif shone in the West Midlands before embarking on a starry, and colourful, career with Pakistan © The Sentinel
Escaping the quadruple miseries of cricket, Brian and Dave, the PhD, and the city's flirtation with far-right sentiment, I would often stroll around Hanley Park, staring at - and perhaps talking to - the ducks in the lake. Thankfully, in the leafy bosom of that idyllic space conceived by some civic-minded Victorian - there amid the bowling green, bandstand, pond and tennis courts - stood four AstroTurf nets invariably occupied by boisterous young British Pakistanis. Occasionally those nets would be visited by the local Pakistani pros, international players strolling in from their Shelton digs, trying to stay fit and stimulated during the week. And if the kids weren't too shy to ask - most weren't - they might receive some free coaching tips. The far-right groups' belief in the inherent supremacy of the white race might not have withstood watching the doughty though limited locals of the Potteries - the butchers, bakers and saggar maker's bottom knockers - trying to deal with the flippers and bumpers and inswingers of these frenetically brilliant men from Pakistan.
The trailblazers for these Pakistanis' cricketing pilgrimages to the Potteries were Khalid Wazir and Nasim-ul-Ghani, who first came over in 1964. The previous English summer had seen the birth of limited-overs cricket, in the form of the Gillette Cup, as well as the inauguration of NSSCL, which had withdrawn from the North Staffordshire and District League (NSDL), the country's second oldest.
Wazir debuted at Lord's in 1954 while a teenage student. He was only the 16th player to be capped by Pakistan, which itself had been a sovereign nation for but seven short years, a Test-playing nation for two. He played only one more Test, at Old Trafford, and would have an equally negligible impact for Nantwich, who soon replaced him with Sonny Ramadhin. Nasim, meanwhile, was an even younger debutant: at 16 years and 248 days, Test cricket's youngest ever when he faced West Indies in Barbados in 1958, in the process becoming Pakistan's 26th Test cricketer. He famously scored a Lord's century as nightwatchman, and batted at both No. 1 and No. 11 for Pakistan, for whom he later became a selector.
Urbane, affable and modest, Nasim spent seven seasons at Longton at a time when the likes of Wes Hall and Garry Sobers were rival pros at Great Chell and Norton, drawing huge crowds and picking up equally huge hat (and, in Sobers' case, frequently sending them to the bookmakers). Indeed, this trio of Sobers, Hall and Nasim formed three quarters of the NSSCL XI bowling attack when they claimed the League Cricket Conference Trophy in 1965 by beating the Yorkshire Cricket Council. After winning a hat-trick of titles with Longton, Nasim moved across the city to Great Chell, and in 1971 he bagged them the club's solitary NSSCL championship before it folded in 1992.
"He didn't get a single fifty or five-for! But he always asked which batsmen we wanted him to get out, and he did"
By the 1970s, of course, many Pakistani Test stars were being imported to county cricket, bringing no little magic to the shires. There were Imran Khan and Javed Miandad at Sussex, Asif Iqbal next door at Kent, Sarfraz Nawaz and Mushtaq Mohammad at Northamptonshire, Sadiq Mohammad and Zaheer Abbas at Gloucestershire, Majid Khan at Glamorgan, Intikhab Alam at Surrey. There were also a handful who turned out in the Minor Counties Championship. Nasim played 76 such games for Staffordshire, and his 85 almost helped them upset Sussex in the Gillette Cup in 1978. Mushtaq Mohammad turned out for both Staffordshire and Shropshire, helping the latter down Yorkshire in 1984; Mudassar Nazar played 35 games for Cheshire in the early 1980s; and the late Wasim Raja was part of a strong Durham side that went six years without losing a match.
It would be 28 years after Nasim before another past, present or future Pakistani Test player turned up in the NSSCL, although next from the list of Test caps was No. 101, Manzoor Elahi, and then No. 115, Shahid Mahboob. A seam-bowling allrounder for Pakistan in the 1983 World Cup, Mahboob played a lone Test against India six years later, and since 2012 has turned out as a grouchy offie in the lower echelons for Crewe, one of NSSCL's founding dozen.
Between Mahboob, whose sole Test appearance came in 1989, and Bilawal Bhatti, the most recent from the list of Pakistani Test caps to turn out in the league, 34 of 103 Pakistani Test debutants have turned up in North Staffs. By way of comparison, only 14 Pakistani Test players have ever turned out in that fabled honeypot for overseas players, the Lancashire League. In the Bradford League, the city with the highest proportion of Pakistani-heritage population, it is 12. It would be fanciful to suggest the Potteries played any active role in the international success of 37 Pakistani Test players, amassing 477 caps between them, but there's no doubt they have sprinkled the local game with plenty of stardust.
Early in that 2010 summer Ijaz came across a future international Test paceman playing his first game of English club cricket: Junaid Khan. His wicketkeeper, Steve Proffitt, was as nervous as the opposition batsmen. "You never know what you're going to get until he bowls that first ball. It was blowing a gale, freezing cold. He's left-arm, so someone asked for the sightscreen to be moved. Next minute, he starts pushing it. On his own! From his own end! You're thinking: hang on a minute, why's the pro pushing his own sightscreen?"
Food fit for pros: from front (clockwise): Jalat Khan, Asif Raza, Nayyer Abbas, Sadaf Hussain, Nasir Malik, Usman Salahuddin, Bilawal Bhatti and Khalid Malik sit down for a meal
© Khalid Malik
Food fit for pros: from front (clockwise): Jalat Khan, Asif Raza, Nayyer Abbas, Sadaf Hussain, Nasir Malik, Usman Salahuddin, Bilawal Bhatti and Khalid Malik sit down for a meal © Khalid Malik
Junaid took 6 for 66 on the day (Ijaz scored 65), and in the 11 games he played for Ashcombe Park before being called back for a Pakistan A tour, took 58 wickets at 9.45. "He was ridiculously quick, ridiculously accurate - he retired me from wicketkeeping; my finger's never really recovered", sighs Proffitt, although there was perhaps some preliminary work done by one of Junaid's predecessors, Mohammad Asif.
Asif was an unknown when he arrived in 2003, his agent telling the club they had "a good young lad who's going to be the next Shoaib Akhtar", which of course not only didn't pan out for Asif's bowling style but is also ironic given that Shoaib Akhtar almost stopped Asif becoming the next Shoaib Akhtar by rounding on him with a bat. "This 6'4" skinny, lanky guy walked through Customs," remembers Proffitt, "and we wondered what we'd got. He didn't look like your typical fast bowler."
First stop on a wet and miserable April day was the club's picturesque ground on the edge of the Moorlands - "He probably wondered what he'd got into" - before dropping down the hill into the sleepy village of Cheddleton, where Asif's lodgings were a one-bedroom flat next door to the Post Office. "We didn't want him in Shelton," says Proffitt. "We wanted him close by so he could help out with training. He couldn't drive, so I had to ferry him about everywhere. He always used to text me: 'What time you pick me?'"
With the culinary possibilities of rural England somewhat alien to a 20-year-old boy from Punjab, this ferrying included regular trips into Shelton to visit the large Pak Foods store. Yet "Iffy", as the Ashcombe lads called him - presumably as a diminutive of Asif - soon made himself at home in the Staffordshire Moorlands. In fact, he also made a few other cricketers at home in the Staffordshire Moorlands. "Two or three moved in. There was Zulqarnain Haider, Waqas Ahmed and some leggie whose name I forget", remembers Proffitt. "They were pro-ing in different parts of the country and would somehow get to Stoke station for their games. Iffy liked people around him because he made them do all the cooking, washing and cleaning!" Whatever the reasons, it certainly made for interesting midweek practice at Ashcombe Park.
In his second year, still unable to drive, Asif upgraded to a two-bedroom flat above a barber's shop in Leek, a market town four miles up the road. "I used to get my hair cut there," recalls Proffitt, "and he [the barber] would tell me Iffy had been round town till one o'clock. But on the field he never let us down, so I wasn't bothered what he got up to." Despite not driving, he still got about. "He'd get the bus into Stoke, get trains here and there. Nowadays, with the UK Border Authority regulations, you have to have a lot more control of where they are, so it probably couldn't happen."
Our neighbours were a pair of alcoholic sixtysomething bachelors housed by social services. Brian and Dave. Both were thin as pipe cleaners, and with about as many aspects to their personalities
On the field Asif performed as you might expect he would in the third tier of league cricket, taking 60 wickets in 2003, followed by 74 in 2004, including a best of 9 for 24. A matter of months after what turned out to be his final appearance for Ashcombe, he was debuting for Pakistan in the New Year's Test at the SCG, trying to outfox Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden - not an insignificant step-up in class from NSDL Senior A. Ashcombe did try and re-engage him for 2005, but NSSCL team Barlaston had gazumped them. However, his star was in the ascendant, and a PCB central contract would mean he never turned out for his new club. In 2006 he was signed by Leicestershire, by which time he was finally able to drive, paying his old team-mates the occasional visit in a "big, blacked-out BMW". Five years later, days before his trial at Southwark Crown Court for conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments, he turned up again at Ashcombe. "We had a photo taken," remembers Proffitt, "me handing him a £20 note! He was always such a joker; I just don't think he realised the seriousness of what he'd done - until he was convicted."
Controversy may have stalked Asif's career, yet Proffitt remembers "a loveable rogue. He was a great lad in the dressing room. He was a future Pakistan Test player but he played like an English village cricketer. When he was in his zone he wanted to knock people's heads off, as fast bowlers generally do, but after the match he just wanted to have a Marlboro, a bottle of Budweiser and join in the craic with the lads."
Playing alongside Asif and Amir at Lord's in 2010 - in just his second Test, having debuted across the city the previous week - was Wahab Riaz, later to become one of the world's fieriest bowlers, famous for his wholehearted, lung-busting spells on flat Asian pitches. Three summers earlier Wahab had played for J&G Meakin, a vigorously aspirational club from Hanley - Stoke-on-Trent's commercial centre - that was named after the neighbouring pottery works.
The Meakins ground is compact - 35 to 40 yards behind the stumps (just about enough space for Wahab's run-up, and for the slip cordon when he really let fly) and not much more square - and bordered on two sides by the Caldon Canal, built to get the city's porcelain products to market. The club used to have a long steel pole with a scooping device on the end permanently stationed on the towpath to allow players to fish out the regular flow of cricket balls despatched into the water.
The J&G Meakin chairman, James Menzies, vice-captain in 2007, remembers Wahab as "a quiet character who stayed in Manchester and caught the bus down to Stoke on a Saturday morning. He was 22, first time overseas. And he was cheap." He started inconsistently, but returned to Pakistan for a three-week fast-bowling camp and came back with more confidence, although not always expressed appropriately. "He used to do stupid things, like running in with his arms out mimicking a plane, so we had to get him to stop that, as it was disrespectful." As for the post-camp bowling, Menzies says it was "just incredible. We had a renegotiation of his wage, including a wicket bonus and a few other bits and bobs, and it sort of galvanised him." His parents came over too, which helped him settle, and despite being unable to train midweek "he got involved in club life as much as he could", often staying overnight in the Potteries.
A newspaper report about Bob Woolmer's scouting trip to see Imran Tahir bowl in the leagues
© The Sentinel
A newspaper report about Bob Woolmer's scouting trip to see Imran Tahir bowl in the leagues © The Sentinel
All in all, he took 77 wickets at 13.66. Of course, the stats don't show how many batsmen were more or less incapacitated before reaching the middle, but you cannot imagine, having watched Wahab's ferocious spells to the likes of Shane Watson in Adelaide and Joe Root in Dubai, that it was an especially comfortable experience. (Mind you, one team got lucky when he was removed, without a warning, from the attack for running on the wicket, which, after an exchange of views between the Meakins captain and umpires, led to the former receiving a ban.) Wahab finished the season with seven consecutive five-fors and was signed on a five-year deal, which failed to materialise as "he was never available". Menzies is in no doubt, however, that "he's the best pro we ever had" and it will not be much of a surprise to learn that the batsmen of NSSCL's third tier were unable to stop him getting Meakins promoted.
The previous season they had finished third-bottom, despite calling on the services of Imran Nazir, a relaxed character with Bollywood looks who certainly took to the ground's compact dimensions. He was already an international by then, spoke good English, and seemed like a ticket to success. He lived in the Potteries, got involved socially, but "wasn't really one for netting," says Menzies. "He used to come, go on the bowling machine, and that was it. He'd have sessions where he'd crank it up to 99mph on a decent length and just smash it all round the ground." Not that this was a venue that required range hitting.
The short boundaries were doubtless attractive from the point of view of Nazir's run bonus, and his first seven scores at home were 227 (19 fours, 18 sixes), 9, 21, 149 (16 fours, ten sixes), 134 not out (ten fours, 12 sixes), 59 (eight fours, one six) and 168 (21 fours, 13 sixes). There was also a 100 and 97 on the road, and with five games of the season left he had 1153 runs, and Aakash Chopra's league record aggregate of 1415 firmly in his sights. He finished with 1153: two abandonments, two blobs (one golden, yorked first ball by a student) and home a week early.
Nazir's pyrotechnics helped Meakins rack up several huge totals but few wins. Take his contribution of a league-record 227 to a total of 397 for 3 declared in a draw with Haslington. The opposition pro was none other than Sohail Tanvir, whose figures were 11-0-79-1. "He was off after three overs," recalls Menzies, "and came back on later bowling spin. Imran absolutely destroyed him, smashing him on to the factory roof, everywhere."
A matter of months after what turned out to be his final appearance for Ashcombe, Asif was debuting in the New Year's Test at the SCG - not an insignificant step-up in class from NSDL Senior A
Still, Haslington made a pretty reasonable fist of the chase, reaching 389 for 7 before coming off for bad light with two overs left. Their skipper, Dean Bedson, contributed 152 to that reply and recalls Tanvir's "calmness and laid-back approach at tea, 'Just go out and bat, we'll get close', which was quite amusing to the young side we had!"
Tanvir lived in a flat attached to Haslington's spanking new pavilion, financed by Mike Trevor, a cheese magnate who built the club from scratch, moved it to its current location in the Cheshire countryside, and was buried on the site. Bedson recalls Tanvir being a quiet, level-headed presence in the dressing room, although he would crank up his bowling when he wanted to - "I remember him hitting one of the Oulton lads and knocking him on to the stumps" (a game in which he recorded season's bests of 116 and 8 for 59) - while another opponent, Chris Beech, then a 14-year-old first-team debutant for Blythe, laughs at being "asked to open because no one else fancied it, and being stuck down his end for seven overs, about two balls of which were at the stumps. I was hit twice on the grille, got off strike, and was then cleaned up by a dobber, by which time Tanvir found his yorker and broke the captain's brother's foot."
The mid-2000s was quite the time for the players of North Staffordshire's third tier - the plumbers and policemen and printers of the Potteries. Aside from Tanvir, Nazir, Wahab, Asif, and a clutch of more-than-useful Pakistani first-class players, there was also a man who once snared 19 wickets in a three-match Test series against England, who has a career-best of 9 for 65 for Somerset, and who was one of Caverswall's best loved pros: Abdur Rehman. He bagged them 82 league wickets in 2005, played a handful of games the following year, then turned up at Ashcombe Park as a replacement for Junaid in 2010, when Ijaz made a sedate 85 against him.
Proffitt recalls Rehman having "the quickest arm ball I've ever seen. You're thinking: if he [the batsman] edges this, I'm gonna get killed. He had the signal - a little tap on his elbow - and you'd be looking for it. When you saw it, it was: 'Oh no!'" Mostly, though, Proffitt remembers someone who enjoyed a fag - often with scant regard for the indoor smoking ban - and who was a larrikin, on field and off. "He obviously made a really good impression at Caverswall, because the season we had him as a sub pro [at Ashcombe Park], a couple of their blokes came up to watch him play for us, which always makes you think that guy's done well there."
Mushtaq Ahmed (front row, second from right) with the Little Stoke 1st XI that won the North Staffordshire & South Cheshire League in 2002
© Little Stoke
Mushtaq Ahmed (front row, second from right) with the Little Stoke 1st XI that won the North Staffordshire & South Cheshire League in 2002 © Little Stoke
As sub pros go, Rehman was clearly a good 'un. It was a seller's market, a perilous market, as Barlaston must have felt in 1999 when their 17-year-old sub pro turned up with his kit in a Tesco carrier bag. Yet Shoaib Malik did a more than steady job, taking 25 wickets in six games with his fizzing offbreaks, albeit running out several more senior, less athletic colleagues while batting. (A couple of years later a 17-year-old Fawad Alam not only turned out for the Sneyd 1st XI on Saturdays but, if staying overnight for a Sunday afternoon cup game, also played in the Under-18s league on Sunday mornings. A steady ringer!)
The man whose bowling action Shoaib Malik and so many others emulated, Saqlain Mushtaq, had a bounteous time at Burslem in 2009. Across three games, three victories, he produced figures of 67.1-21-120-18. "Watching him from slip was a joy," recalls his Burslem captain, Chris Lowndes. "Offspin, quicker ball, flight; and his doosras were landed with perfection. His first wicket was the easiest slip catch I ever caught, and he came running down saying, 'Bloody great catch, skip.' I thought he was taking the piss but he was just a nice bloke who loved getting wickets."
One of Saqlain's best mates also made a strong impression during a brief stint in north Staffs: Azhar Mahmood, who turned out five times for Checkley in 2007. "We won all five," recalls chairman and team-mate Gavin Carr, "and he didn't get a single fifty or five-for! But he always asked which batsmen we wanted him to get out, and he did."
The most illustrious sub pro of the lot was Shahid Afridi, who in 2003 deputised for Justin Kemp at Little Stoke and then, the following week, for Albie Morkel at Leek. Eventual champions Longton were unlucky enough to play back-to-back games against him - Afridi dismissed on both occasions by Dave Edwards - forcing NSSCL to introduce rules preventing sub pros appearing for more than one club per season. He was a big draw - in a throwback to the 1950s, his first game brought a reporter from a national newspaper - and the interest wasn't restricted to the taxi drivers.
Wahab finished the 2007 season with seven consecutive five-fors and was signed on a five-year deal, which failed to materialise as "he was never available"
The following year, when Newcastle & Hartshill skipper Martyn Elliott mentioned to their pro that Afridi was sub pro-ing for Little Stoke that afternoon, Tanvir Ahmed "told me I had to win the toss and bowl, he will bowl them out and he will then open the batting and knock them off," says Elliott. "Because he had arranged to meet Afridi. 'Okay,' I say, 'let's see how it goes.' I go out to toss. Normally he's nowhere to be seen, but he rushes on to find out the outcome of the toss. I won it. He was happy, and set about demolishing Eccleshall - at one point we had eight in the slip cordon, the other two being him and mid-off - and bowled them out for 50-odd. He got eight-for, along with breaking someone's nose who was batting without a lid. We bat, he opens and smacks a quick 30-odd, dispatching the new ball into the cemetery as people visiting graves literally ran for cover. We knocked 'em off in around nine overs and Tanvir was up at Little Stoke for 4pm to watch Afridi. If only he'd done that every bloody week!"
The high-water mark of this Pakistani Test presence in north Staffs - when an "arms race" between clubs brought Wahab, Afridi, Asif, Imran Farhat, Imran Nazir, Sohail Tanvir, Tanvir Ahmed, Rehman, Aizaz Cheema and others to the Potteries - was the mid-2000s. This made it only marginally surreal to have the Pakistan national coach, Bob Woolmer, turn up at our ground in 2005 to scout Imran Tahir, then still trying to play for the land of his father. Woolmer had moved from a successful stint with the South African national team to the hottest of hot seats, while Imran was about to embark on the opposite journey: his long qualification process for the Proteas.
"Immy" had torn up the league with 104 wickets in 22 games in 2002, breaking Sobers' record, and added 74 the next year before signing for us in 2004, becoming our best and most loved overseas professional. We didn't get off on the best footing. No one had stopped to think that having his home debut coincide with an eight-hour pig roast hosted by a man named Pete Dolphin might not be the most culturally sensitive of welcomes, or that the smell of burning pork cannot have helped him land his wrong'un.
Still, he forgave us, and forged a deep bond with the club. He returned in 2008 after two years away, and that summer, either side of winning a first and much-coveted county contract, at Hampshire, guided us to a wholly improbable league title. We thought that once he'd signed for Hampshire, both he and our title hopes would be gone, but he looked at the fixtures and reckoned he could play five out of eight. On one occasion, determined to keep our fairy tale alive, Immy phoned at lunch on Thursday, day two of Hampshire's county game, telling us the game wouldn't go to the Saturday and we wouldn't need to dip into the sub-pro market. On another he drove the 180 miles from Southampton late on Friday night, played, then bombed straight off to Taunton for a Sunday League game. It was dedication, generosity, love; exactly what you want from a pro.
Porthill Park's Rao Iftikhar Anjum (right) preferred all play and no work
© The Sentinel
Porthill Park's Rao Iftikhar Anjum (right) preferred all play and no work © The Sentinel
Seven years later, during a brief spell in Nottinghamshire last summer, he turned up to watch one of our games and catch up with old friends. I suppose you could call this cultural adaptation. Imran may not have partaken of English club cricket's "win or lose, always booze" culture - and many clubs choose Australians or South Africans over Pakistanis for this very reason - but he was a player who galvanised and inspired the dressing room, a player whose affinity for the club outlived the picking up of a pay packet.
Possibly the most culturally adapted of all North Staffordshire's Pakistani Test-playing pros was Mohammad Hussain, who spent 12 seasons in five clubs, three of which he guided to promotion, one to the Premier League. He started in 1999 at Porthill Park, a club that would later employ Farhat, Rao Iftikhar Anjum and Fazl-e-Akbar, a genius English-style bowler who moved like a leopard, smoked like a chimney, and jagged the ball at angles usually seen in Picasso's cubist period. In 2009 it took a torn calf to end Fazl's stint in Stoke-on-Trent. By then, across 36 league matches, he had snared 142 wickets at 9.02: a wicket every three and a half overs!
Rao Iftikhar's motto, meanwhile, at least according to his skipper, Dan Hancock, "was 'cricket, rest, cricket, rest'. He couldn't understand why we needed to drink the night before a game. Or after. He used to say it's not good for a sportsman and water would be better. He also couldn't understand how we worked and played cricket too!"
If Mo Hussain had a motto, it wasn't the same as Rao's. The Porthill lads indeed partied like it was 1999 that summer, and "Reggie" (a nickname bestowed by a selector unable to remember the new pro's not-uncommon name) certainly got involved. With a monobrow that looked like a child's charcoal drawing of a seagull, a paunch that belied his birth certificate, and pigeon legs invariably slipped into plastic sandles, Mo certainly stood out from the hot-faced ravers at the Golden nightclub, where he occasionally found himself dancing on the bass bins late on Saturdays. He also enjoyed an occasional beer and an exotic cigarette. Once, when pro-ing at Stone, he offered to do a barbecue. "He brought chicken marinating in grout buckets," remembers team-mate Adrian Butters, "and we finished late so he cooked in darkness. Needless to say, it was undercooked and a couple of lads had to have a week off work… "
"Iffy liked people around him because he made them do all the cooking, washing and cleaning!"
Hussain's next port-of-call was Barlaston - who would also later employ Shabbir Ahmed, Abdur Rauf and Hasan Raza, who broke the world record when, aged 14, he made a Test debut in the same game as Hussain. Then, after five successful years at Stone, Hussain went to Hem Heath, an old colliery club that won the proverbial lottery when they were re-sited a stone's throw from Stoke City's stadium - the use of their outfield as a £5-per-vehicle car park, not to mention bar takings therefrom, helping them fund the signings of Bilawal Bhatti and Abdul Razzaq.
Having someone still not 35, who has played 343 matches for Pakistan, would, you'd think, guarantee a top-of-the-table challenge, yet Razzaq's second season in the Potteries, in 2015, saw a narrow escape from relegation. Skipper Lee Ridgway admits that frustrations over Razzaq's fitness frayed at their relationship. "I just think his legs had gone - he's never 34, as he says he is! - but he was very professional about how he conducted himself, always going for a swim after the game to loosen his calf if we had a Cup game on the Sunday. He was quiet in the dressing room; always believed we could win, no matter the situation; and never spoke bad about opposition players. Well, there was one, who he used to refuse singles against when facing, so he could try and smash him out of the ground… " Hem Heath saw glimpses of the bowling skills, glimpses of the batting power, but the numbers tell you Razzaq picked up just 75 league wickets across two seasons, during which time his batting average was a modest 31 - hardly the match-winner they had expected.
As for Reggie Hussain, five times he took more than 75 wickets in a single league campaign. He was deceptive, not only in the sense of flight, angle, spin and drop but also with streetwise and not entirely Corinthian practices that assisted his bowling - for instance, blocking balls and taking two steps of a possible run before pirouetting to get back in his crease, all of which resulted in a rather surprising conical crater for him to aim at later. A good enough bowler to dismiss Darren Lehmann, and Michael Slater in his final Test appearance, Reggie took 841 league wickets at 14.56 across 12 seasons - or 5314.5 overs - in north Staffs, sending down no fewer than 1905 maidens in the process, four times bowling upwards of 200 in a season. That's more dots than the Braille edition of War and Peace.
Mo' please: in 12 seasons in the North Staffs league, Mohammad "Reggie" Hussain took 841 wickets at 14.56
© The Sentinel
Mo' please: in 12 seasons in the North Staffs league, Mohammad "Reggie" Hussain took 841 wickets at 14.56 © The Sentinel
Had Bob Woolmer (or the DRS) been around earlier, Hussain may well have added to his two Test caps. Yet constancy is not a quality Pakistan's selectors have been known for, chucking 'em in and chucking 'em out again. Many of its clutch of one-cap wonders form part of north Staffordshire's Pakistaniariat. Many are legends. Perhaps the harshest treatment was that of Yasir Ali. One of only five players in the history of the game whose first-class debut came in a Test match, Yasir helped Inzamam nudge Pakistan to a nail-biting one-wicket win against Bangladesh. He also happened to be the opposition pro the day we paid £646 for those six points, and is now in his seventh campaign at Elworth. Is that a successful pro: one who sticks around, forms bonds with the players, becomes a focal point for the club? Or is it all about the silverware and the stories?
Little Stoke's ground slopes a dozen feet from top to bottom - more pronounced than Lord's, a pool table to Little Stoke's links golf green - while the square itself is not entirely free of undulations, the top tracks having a pronounced ridge just back of a length outside the right-hander's off stump. It's a challenging camber, not least when six-foot five-inch beanpole Shabbir Ahmed is bowling - or "bowling" - which was the case during that 2010 season, when Little Stoke won the Premier League title.
A favourite of Woolmer's, Shabbir was, alongside Waqar Younis, the joint fastest Pakistan bowler to 50 Test wickets - in terms of matches, not pace. He achieved the mark in just ten outings: the ten he played before the ICC ruled his action illegal. In his first ten matches for Little Stoke, he managed just 17 wickets, with a best of 3 for 26. That was at a strike rate of 52.94, considerably higher than his Test figure of 50.50; at an average of 24.88, higher than his Test figure; and with an economy rate of 2.82, again higher than his Test figure. And yet, his eventual tally of 49 was enough to help them bag the flag and trophy - or rather, it was more helpful than his 206 runs.
Shabbir wasn't the first Pakistani Test player to turn out for Little Stoke. He had followed in the footsteps of sub pros Afridi and Mohammad Akram, while in 2002 an impish legspinner by the name of Mushtaq Ahmed bounced in from the Uttoxeter Road End, bouncing Little Stoke back to the Premier League at the first attempt. Mind you, given Mushy spent the next five seasons as the leading first-class wicket-taker in England, picking up 457 Championship wickets for Sussex as he won them three titles, three more than in their previous 112 years of trying, what chance did the Division 1A batters of the NSSCL have? Once bamboozled, as they used to say of President Calvin Coolidge, they were impossible to unbamboozle.
Between Shahid Mahboob, whose sole Test appearance came in 1989, and Bilawal Bhatti, 34 of 103 Pakistani Test debutants have turned up in North Staffs
Mushy's 118 wickets at a smidgeon over 11 each might have been even more prodigious, reflects opening batsman Rob Haydon, as there were murky rumours of a murky agreement among umpires irked by his exuberant appeals. "To be honest, if umpires' decisions to googlies were on, and we could catch, he'd probably have got 150. He got a bit frustrated with them at first, until he figured it only made it worse. He never really openly showed frustration to our drops either, and there was usually the knowledge there'd be another chance again soon."
The arrival of the little wizard who, ten years earlier, was helping Pakistan beat England in a World Cup final left his team-mates feeling awestruck, although any deference was quickly overcome. Haydon recalls "him turning up with a big beard a few days before the season and everyone was like, 'Is it him?' He then proceeded to sit us down and give us an inspiring pre-season chat, which basically said we all needed to chip in and it wasn't all about him. One hundred and eighteen wickets later... But he took a genuine interest in the lads, probably as he'd signed for the season - although he was called up mid-season by Surrey for a couple of games - unlike some of the sub pros we had at other times, like Afridi, who turned up then went off straight after."
Veteran batsman Melvyn Dawson was equally impressed, particularly by an established international turning out in a pre-season friendly. "The Sentinel had word of it, so came along for a story. Mushy had a couple of pictures taken, then sat in the dressing room commanding an audience from this big executive swivel chair that he'd somehow got hold of, asking about everyone and not talking about himself at all. The Sentinel photographer followed him to the crease, and then stood at mid-on to take a few pictures. He didn't have to use much film, though, as Mushy was bowled first ball! But he made a huge impact on the club, staying behind and socialising even if he was knackered or freezing."
Mushtaq was given a house in the nearby village of Hixon, where his cousin stayed as live-in chef and go-fer. Acclimatisation proved unproblematic, says Haydon. "He smoked like a chimney in that executive chair, and would usually be arranging with Mike Walley - or 'Mick Willey', as he called him - who to send down the shop for fags."
Misbah-ul-Haq showed up a Moddershall match in which his team-mate from Pakistan domestic cricket Asad Ali (left) was playing
© Nazakat Ali
Misbah-ul-Haq showed up a Moddershall match in which his team-mate from Pakistan domestic cricket Asad Ali (left) was playing © Nazakat Ali
But most of all, he won them lots of matches. "The week of the big local derby against Stone, Mushy was with Surrey against Leicestershire," says Haydon. "Stone were desperately trying to get our sub pro, Dinesh Mongia, stopped from playing, and prepared a proper August dustbowl for legspinner Andy Clarke, only for Surrey to win a day early, meaning Mushy got back to play. Cue plenty of confused Stone batsmen!"
In his novel Money, Martin Amis describes a tennis match halfway up a Manhattan skyscraper between a lithe, perma-tanned all-American and a hapless, rotund English advertising exec trying to break into the film industry, a man with all sorts of vices and addictions, "who ran on heavy fuel". It soon becomes apparent to John Self that his opponent possesses "the natural severity of the ball player", and much the same realisation has doubtless befallen the doughty clubbies of north Staffordshire in the face of these outlandish Pakistani talents.
During that summer of 2010, as my team was heading for relegation, my mind for fragmentation, and the England-Pakistan Test series for ignominy, the only thing that could probably have compensated for all the other shit would have been to have had our original professional turn up. Sure, Asad Ali ran in gamely for us, but he wasn't really capable of inflicting pain and humiliation on our opponents. On the other hand, to have had Mohammad Irfan making rivals hop about on club pitches might have been enough of a tonic to get me through the season in reasonable mental fettle (and perhaps to have found a few hours each week to learn Urdu, so he could be exactly sure of the cat-stroking, eyepatch-wearing plans I had).
With a monobrow that looked like a child's charcoal drawing of a seagull, and a paunch that belied his birth certificate, Mo certainly stood out from the hot-faced ravers at the Golden nightclub
Irfan was signed the previous October, when he had played just two first-class games for Khan Research Laboratories, thus fulfilling our main criterion, arrived at after Immy and then Rangana Herath had been spirited away mid-season: to have someone who absolutely wouldn't get called up for higher-level cricket. Yep, we thought this seven-foot one-inch bowler would go under the radar as far as international honours were concerned. By March he was at the National Academy; by August on the ODI leg of the England tour. My Irfantasy would never make it to reality.
So, with cricket-based sadism impossible and cricket-based masochism inescapable, both my spirits and my team sank. And so too did the A team, down by a solitary point, despite Ijaz's efforts, which included 921 runs at 54, and 40 wickets in the second half of the season. "I had to open with him at Crewe," recalls his skipper, Mike Dyer, "as I had no bowlers. He took 9 for 35. Then there was his 166 in a loss to Checkley, where he hit Gavin Carr for five sixes in an over and then a single to keep strike! And he wouldn't ever let me have more than one slip as he said he can cover first to third. And he kept to his word: never dropped a thing diving left and right." He wouldn't be re-engaged, though. Not for Division 3. Not at 41.
Once the sun had set on that longest of summers, Ijaz finally gave up smoking and I finally gave up cricket. Yet before I walked away from the game (only to walk back three years later) - back when Brian and Dave's heroin-dealing lodger's mate with a large tribal tattoo on his face was threatening to come through our front door with an axe for complaining about the incessant rave music, which, truth be told, made it quite difficult to get my head around "the schizonomadic and fascist-paranoid poles of sociolibidinal investment" - I would occasionally pop in to visit Asad and Ijaz after my purgative strolls around Hanley Park, making sure they were okay, breaking up the monotony of writing up my thesis.
After a harsh one-Test career, fast bowler Yasir Ali has found a stable home in English league cricket
© Lee Morris
After a harsh one-Test career, fast bowler Yasir Ali has found a stable home in English league cricket © Lee Morris
One evening, not long after they had provided board and lodgings for Asad's skipper at Sui Northern Gas Pipelines - one Misbah-ul-Haq Esq, in the UK for a routine ankle operation and a surprise spectator for the first hour of our game - I was invited over for mutton curry. It was Asad's cooking - a seniority thing, I supposed - and very spicy. But it wasn't the hottest thing to make passage through Ijaz's mouth that evening. "Everybody saying bad things happening in Pakistan team, Scott. Very bad." Without a great deal of elaboration, he then spoke of deliberate wides and no-balls. It all washed over me. I simply had too much on my (metaphorical) plate, too immersed in the PhD to really take it in.
All this was nine months before I started to write about cricket, and even if I'd grasped the full implications of these claims I wouldn't have had a clue what to do with them. Besides, in my depressed and distracted state, I had filed it as your run-of-the-mill Pakistani intrigue. I thought no more about Ijaz's remarks until a few weeks later, when, in north London, an 18-year-old superstar - younger than many of those cricket fanatics who would play past sundown in Hanley Park nets, who idolised and one day hoped to emulate him by running out at Lord's, luck and socio-economics permitting - sprinted in across that famous green turf and overstepped the line by a huge margin.
It was a dark day, that Saturday, August 28: the first day I ever threw a sickie from cricket, the day I could no longer find any good reason to continue playing. It is hard to see the end approaching from the horizon, but you know once it has arrived. The passion that had sustained 21 years of first-team cricket had gone, evaporated as quickly as a puddle in the tropical sun.
Scott Oliver writes about sport and cultural politics. He is working on a book about the Minor Counties
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