Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss walk out to bat

Gymkhana jaunts: Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss walk out to bat at the Bagh-e-Jinnah, 2005

© Getty Images

Encounter

In Gaddafi's shadow

As one of the oldest grounds in the subcontinent fades from memory, one man's refusal to let the past go keeps it on life support

Danyal Rasool |

Lawrence Road is a busy street in Lahore, a stone's throw from Government Officers' Residences, an upscale housing society. The virtue of being busy doesn't mark any road in the city apart, and the tooting cars, weaving motorcycles and ubiquitous rickshaws suggest it is an ordinary street. If the idea of being surrounded by history, culture and mystique ever entranced travellers in the area, the spell lifted decades ago. An F-6 jet* stands on display in the middle of the road.

It is the indifference towards the public park stretching across one side of the road that rankles. I have been guilty of it myself; not until I learnt the story behind it, and its embedded tradition of cricket, did I realise what a remarkable place Bagh-e-Jinnah (originally known as Lawrence Gardens) is. Stretching across 141 acres, it is home to Pakistan's oldest cricket ground, and the subcontinent's second oldest: the Lahore Gymkhana Cricket Ground. During the 1950s, unarguably the ground's most glamorous years, it hosted three official Tests, against India, New Zealand and West Indies, the first is said to have drawn crowds of 25,000. It was founded on May 1, 1878, for a slightly different purpose: it was then a launching site for hot-air balloons.

I visited the ground on a muggy April afternoon to keep an appointment with Najum Latif, its honorary curator and founder of the Gymkhana's cricket museum. Its understated beauty struck me as I entered the premises. Manicured lawns and lush green trees flanked a gravelled walking trail. The fact that the place is as well maintained as it is owes no doubt to its expansive presence in an area surrounded by the residences of bureaucrats and politicians.

It is hard to know whether the Gymkhana could ever be viable as an international venue; as opposed to Gaddafi, which is a sports stadium, it is a cricket ground

In the distance was the ground's iconic pavilion, a 19th-century structure with red clay tiles lining its sloping roof. But for the sun beating down and the absence of grey, I might have been in an English village. The ground was empty, and as I made my way to the pavilion, I saw on a blackboard the warning, "Unauthorised persons not allowed past this point", a wistful remnant of the time when there would have been enough traffic coming through to warrant the sign. I walked past, introduced myself to a receptionist and asked for Latif.

The ground's story cannot begin to be understood - indeed, cannot begin at all - without its curator. Latif, now in his early 70s, has devoted an extraordinary portion of his life to the development and promotion of this ground. His views about the modern cricketer, love for tradition, and disdain for the direction cricket is heading in come across as so old-school English, it must have been an oversight on God's part that he was born in Pakistan. He has many acquaintances among Pakistan cricketers from previous generations, and told me he was Fazal Mahmood's only friend "in his last years".

We were seated in the pavilion when Latif told me about the origins of the ground. The Lahore Gymkhana bought the land in 1880 on a 100-year lease, which was extended for 30 years in 1980 and then another 30 in 2010. The ground raises money by subletting every so often, but it isn't nearly enough. All outstanding expenses for its development and upkeep are borne by the Gymkhana, which can comfortably do so through member contributions.

Najum Latif: working to preserve the Gymkhana ground's legacy by creating a museum showcasing Pakistan cricket memorabilia

Najum Latif: working to preserve the Gymkhana ground's legacy by creating a museum showcasing Pakistan cricket memorabilia © Danyal Rasool

"This transformed very quickly into a cricket ground for English officers stationed here," Latif told me. "It had the first turf wickets in Pakistan, with a shipload of clay imported from Worcestershire in 1882. It is now maintained by clay from Nandipur [a town in Punjab].

"Most people don't appreciate the extent to which this ground, this very pavilion, is steeped in cricket history. There are obviously many Pakistani greats who played here but this place has witnessed Maurice Tate, Bert Sutcliffe, Learie Constantine and Garry Sobers play." And he could go on: Walcott, Weekes and Worrell, Keith Miller, Douglas Jardine, Roy Gilchrist, Tom Graveney, Ian Botham, and more recently Jacques Kallis, Kevin Pietersen and Sachin Tendulkar have all been guests.

The pavilion was built using oak imported from England in the 19th century, and here Latif has a bone to pick with modern cricket. "I love Gymkhana's pavilion. The teams' dressing rooms were right next to each other, and as soon as you stepped out, you entered the main hall, where both sides would have lunch and tea together. They were not segregated. Now, when the Pakistan team plays international opposition, they are pariahs to each other. This isn't what cricket is supposed to be."

These views might seem quixotic today, but one can understand how someone who has genuinely held them could have such deep affection for a place most people have long forgotten has anything to do with cricket. This is a venue that hasn't hosted an international match in 57 years.

"If they were to host an annual match in memory of all this ground has borne witness to, people would come, learn more about its history, the museum, and they might wish to see it get more cricket" Najum Latif

"We in Pakistan are great at decimating our own culture," Latif lamented, genuine anger creeping into his voice. "Why has the PCB never seriously contemplated the idea of hosting international cricket here simply because Gaddafi Stadium was built?"

It is hard to know whether the Gymkhana could be viable as an international venue today, but it is clear that, as opposed to the Gaddafi, which is a sports stadium, the Gymkhana is a cricket ground. In this, the situation is not too dissimilar to that in Wellington, where the Basin Reserve is perhaps the most picturesque cricket ground in world cricket, but the modern Cake Tin is undoubtedly better equipped for the 21st century. As a compromise, the Basin Reserve hosts Wellington's Tests (though this year it did host its first ODI in nearly 11 years), while the Cake Tin stages the other formats. The comparison might be flawed, but has anyone at the PCB even entertained the idea?

We returned to Gymkhana's wickets again, and I could not help point out, tongue slightly in cheek, that as a turf wicket it could not have ranked among his late friend Fazal Mahmood's favourites. Latif laughed graciously - Fazal, goes the famous theory, was not fond of bowling on turf wickets.

"It wasn't. Fazal used to insist matting be laid out here as well, but to be honest, he was quite flustered by the perception that he was only a matting bowler. In any case, this ground has always had a reputation for being a batting paradise. Batsmen who had been struggling often came to play here to feel the middle of the bat again.

The Bagh-e-Jinnah hasn't hosted a first-class match in Pakistan's domestic competition since 1995

The Bagh-e-Jinnah hasn't hosted a first-class match in Pakistan's domestic competition since 1995 © Getty Images

"Fazal had great affection for this ground, and used to say it was the most prestigious in the province. He once told me a story from the late 1940s. He used to come over to watch the English play, hoping to get a game if either side was a man short. On one occasion he happened to be wearing black socks with his white cricket shoes, and as soon as he was about to place a foot inside the boundary rope, he heard a stern English accent roar, 'Don't you dare!' Fazal froze right there, one foot suspended in mid-air, as the gentleman, Mr Bustin, who was the editor of the Civil and Military Gazette, went over to Fazal, put an arm around his shoulder, and said, 'This is a breach of cricket's sanctity, and there is no greater sin.'"

I visited Latif again a few days later, much more excited this time and looking forward to the museum, which is, remarkably, the only one of its kind in the country. It is Latif's pride and joy and it's almost entirely down to him that it exists at all. He told me how he visited Lahore Gymkhana in 2001, after a decades-long absence, and asked to see the main hall, where the players used to dine. He saw with horror that the hall had effectively become a storage area: a large roller sat in the middle of a cobwebbed room, and practice nets were strewn on the floor. The memories of the glory days of the room, and the cricketers within it, moved him and he decided he needed to dedicate it to those memories.

But the Gymkhana can be overbearingly bureaucratic and the process of starting up the museum wasn't smooth. Two years of proposals were ignored before Zia Haider Rizvi, a lawyer by profession, was appointed Convener of Sports in the Gymkhana's then-annual elections. More importantly he was a friend of Latif's, and though unconvinced about the idea, gave him the green light nonetheless.

I could not help point out, tongue slightly in cheek, that as a turf wicket it could not have ranked among his late friend Fazal Mahmood's favourites. Latif laughed graciously - Fazal, goes the famous theory, was not fond of bowling on turf wickets

"Even those weren't the end of the troubles," said Latif. "After I had put up some pictures of former players to start, a few members said only Gymkhana members' pictures deserved a place in the museum. I flatly refused, asking why on earth anyone would care about the members, or even know who they were. This place is historic because of the historical figures who played here.

"And then there was the issue of how to start collecting memorabilia. People don't just part with souvenirs so easily, especially for a new project as low-profile as this one. I started off by donating most of the stuff I owned, and asking friends of mine who were former cricketers to donate whatever artefacts they thought would be worthy of a cricket museum."

We sat on the porch outside the pavilion this time. It was a cool, windy day with clouds sweeping overhead. An Under-16 T20 game between two sides from Aitchison College was in progress. The quality of cricket was poor, with the batting side struggling to last their full allotment. The sports dean of Aitchison, the elite college founded around the same time as the Gymkhana, sat beside me and explained that the batting side was missing their star batsman, a left-hander so good he thought he would make it all the way to the Pakistan side: Ihtesham-ul-Haq was taking his O-level exams, but he had ambitions of matching the achievements of his father, Inzamam.

A photograph of Nazar Mohammad meeting Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan

A photograph of Nazar Mohammad meeting Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan © Danyal Rasool

I followed Latif to two large wooden doors and he showed me inside the museum. A large, windowless room housing memorabilia from the 19th century gave off the musty smell that adds legitimacy and character to some museums. In this case it was perhaps telling of the indifference with which almost everyone except Latif himself treated the place. The cabinets and picture frames were slightly dusty, and as we entered, a lizard shot across the wall and hid itself behind a glass frame carrying the museum's piece de resistance, an autographed cricket ball presented by Sir Donald Bradman to the touring Pakistanis in 1995-96.

There was a photograph of Muhammad Ali Jinnah meeting Nazar Mohammad (the first Pakistani Test centurion), the only picture of Pakistan's founder with a cricketer; a piece of turf from Lord's; a pair of Imran Khan's trousers from his victorious 1992 World Cup campaign; and a Test cap and blazer worn by Dr Jahangir Khan; as well as the usual autographed bats and handwritten scoreboards from many of the ground's matches.

I wondered how thankless the task had been for Latif, creating such a space, decorating it with history, and realising almost no one in Pakistan seemed to care for it. Was everything about this place destined to be desolate, forgotten and neglected?

"With Pakistan's situation, you'd have to spoil the ground's beauty, erect fences, ramp up security. When this venue last hosted international cricket, the crowds were more peaceful, more disciplined. I don't see how you can get that today" Majid Khan

The scorecard of the ground's first unofficial "Test", against West Indies in November 1948, caught my eye. When I first saw the entry "G.A. Headley", coming in at eight wickets down, I couldn't be sure it was the George Headley. He had come in so low for starters, and well, this was unfashionable little Lahore Gymkhana. Had it really played host to that Jamaican giant?

Latif confirmed it had. "The reason he came in so late was, he had back trouble, and wasn't supposed to bat. But then, as West Indian wickets starting tumbling, he was rushed to the ground to help them secure a draw." The match did end in a draw and Headley scored an unbeaten 57.

Towards the exit, Latif stopped by a picture of Vinoo Mankad leading the Indian team onto the field during the ground's first official Test. A young boy can be seen keeping pace with the Indian captain, autograph book in hand. Mankad looks straight ahead, pointedly ignoring the young fan. "I am that young boy," revealed Latif. "I had run onto the field, and I really wanted Mankad's autograph. Moments after this picture was taken, Mankad turned to me and said, in a chastising tone I'll never forget, 'This is not the time for autographs, young man. Get lost!'"

(Left) The scorecard for the first unofficial Test in Pakistan; (right) the last Test played at the Gymkhana ground

(Left) The scorecard for the first unofficial Test in Pakistan; (right) the last Test played at the Gymkhana ground © Danyal Rasool

As we stepped out of the pavilion back onto the porch, my mind swirling with images of Sobers playing exquisite late cuts and Fazal running in, the U-16 game was still on. A bulky teenager cleared his front leg and swung his bat so hard it flew out of his hand. He missed the ball, a half-volley, and his off stump was knocked clean out of the ground. Sobers and Fazal instantly melted from my mind; for this ground, it appeared such cricketers would now exist only in memories and archives.

The Gymkhana continued to host warm-up games for international sides once the Gaddafi was completed in 1959. In the 2000s, visiting sides, including India, West Indies, England and South Africa, played side games here, but its lack of exposure to top-flight cricket has left it unseen, unappreciated and undermined. It has, for reasons unclear to anyone, not hosted a domestic first-class game since 1995, with all elite-level cricketing action in Lahore moved over to the Gaddafi. The only action it gets is when it is rented out for weekend games, or to institutions like Aitchison. But it still retains a hold over those familiar with more bountiful days.

"Gymkhana is superior," Majid Khan told me when we met in Lahore recently. "Gaddafi is a concrete jungle. But unfortunately Gymkhana simply doesn't have the facilities for modern international cricket. Take Lord's and The Oval, for example. They were built in the 18th century [and 19th]. When international cricket began, they were small pavilions, and it was easy for those larger stadiums to be built around them. But with Pakistan's situation, you'd have to spoil the ground's beauty, erect fences, ramp up security. When this venue last hosted international cricket, the crowds were more peaceful, more disciplined. I don't see how you can get that today."

The cabinets and picture frames were slightly dusty, and as we entered, a lizard shot across the wall and hid itself behind a glass frame carrying the museum's piece de resistance, an autographed cricket ball presented by Sir Donald Bradman

Perhaps Majid is right in context of the current age, but a lot of his concerns weren't an issue in pre-9/11 Pakistan, by which time Gymkhana's exclusion from the international stage was already 42 years old. As someone whose relationship with this ground stretches back to before it ever hosted an international match, Latif believes it boils down simply to not enough people caring about heritage.

"If people, and the administration, really cared, they would demonstrate it with some gestures to acknowledge the prestige of this ground. If they were to host an annual match of some sort here, in memory of all this ground has borne witness to, people would come, learn more about this place, its history, the museum, and they might wish to see it get more cricket."

I sat looking quietly across the country's oldest cricket ground, inwardly bowing to its silent majesty and wondering how acute Latif's distress might be, having seen its golden age. Gymkhana's story is typically Pakistani. It is a story of outstanding beauty and rich culture, followed rapidly by profligacy and dereliction. Many today might not even be aware that Bagh-e-Jinnah used to be a cricket ground, and think only of the Gaddafi Stadium when pondering international cricket's history in Lahore - large, spacious, modern, glamorous Gaddafi. Who really needs an old hot-air balloon site when they've got an airport with a concrete runway?

* A previous version of this article had wrongly identified the aircraft as an F-86 Sabre

Danyal Rasool is a freelance sports writer who has been published in the Cricketer, Sport360, New Zealand Herald, and the Daily Times. @Danny61000

 

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