Episode 47: The great Pakistani fast bowler who nearly became a Hollywood movie star

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

The Lahore Gymkhana ground is one of the most delightful places in the world to play or watch cricket. It houses a cricket museum, small but full of treasures, which was the first of its kind in Pakistan. Its founder and curator is the eminent cricket historian Najum Latif. He has watched generations of Pakistan’s great players perform at the ground, played with many himself, befriended many more and, vitally, captured their oral memories of past epochs of Pakistan cricket. He is the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller on their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Najum describes one of his earliest souvenirs of Pakistan cricket – a stump broken by the pace bowler Munawwar Ali Khan at the ground against the touring West Indians in 1948. It was no local freak: he later did the same thing in Karachi. Munawwar was unlucky to miss a hat trick in Lahore – he had the great George Headley dropped by Pakistan’s opening batsman, Nazar Mohammed. 2-4 minutes Nazar’s fine early career was ended by a badly set broken arm. It was not a cricket injury: he had jumped out of a window into a graveyard to escape the jealous husband of a great singer with whom he was having an affair. He may have found solace in the performances of his son. Mudassar Nazar. 4-7 minutes

Najum shares a memory of the extraordinary dedication of Nazar Mohammed’s opening partner, the teenaged Hanif Mohammed, practising his shots in full kit in the middle of the night in front of a hotel mirror. It prepared him for the longest-ever innings in Test cricket, his match-saving 337 against the West Indies in 1957-58. 8-11 minutes

Najum became an especially close friend of Pakistan’s great early fast-medium bowler Fazal Mahmood, who bowled them to an epic victory over England at the Oval in 1954 (the next was in 1982). He traces the trajectory of Fazal’s early career, robbed by Partition of a tour of India in his prime in 1947-48. All his life, he felt certain that he would have dismissed Don Bradman, and had to settle for Len Hutton. 13-15 minutes In his era, Pakistan’s international players were essentially amateurs, playing for honour. Fazal depended on his income as a police officer – although his good looks earned him an offer of the starring role in a major movie from a great Hollywood director. 17-18 minutes In retirement Fazal became a very religious man, and Najum narrates the moving story of his dying day, when virtually his last act was to lead the call to prayer at his local mosque. 19-21 minutes

Najum profiles another close friend, Imtiaz Ahmed, the first wicket-keeper to score a double-century in a Test, and Pakistan’s third Test match captain. 31-34 minutes

He tells the story of two other charismatic cricketers who turned to religion later in life. S F Rahman, leg break bowler, dancer and man about town, became a celebrated preacher and theologian in the austere Wahabi strand of Islam. Saeed Ahmed, Pakistan’s most glamorous and exciting batsman of the 1950s and 1960s, became an evangelist and a strong influence on many of Pakistan’s highly religious players in the 2000s. Najum relates Saeed’s favourite story of a private conversation with the Queen during Pakistan’s tour of 1967. Saeed says that she gave him an open invitation to call in on Buckingham Palace. If he takes it now, she might have to be reminded of the cricketing past of the bearded visitor in his flowing robes. 35-39 minutes

Najum sets the scene at the beautiful Lahore Gymkhana ground, reminiscent of many historic English county grounds and with a pavilion of imported English oak built in 1880. For Tests and other big matches in the 1950s, it could accommodate up to 20,000 spectators with temporary wooden seating and enclosures for players’ friends and singers and movie stars (often the same people) and VIPs. Even in big matches, it was a very intimate ground in which schoolboys like himself could mingle with players and even lurk in the pavilion in pursuit of autographs. Sadly, he notes the disappearance of most of the vibrant school, college and club cricket in Lahore which conveyed so many players to higher honours, and of the park pitches where they played. In the early days, all matches were timed rather than limited-overs and players were trained in long-form cricket skills. 24-30 minutes

Najum describes his cricket museum, currently a victim of Lahore’s lockdown, its origins in 2001, the famous cricketers who have supported it, and some of its treasures. They include a piece of the original turf, imported from Worcestershire, some cricket trousers signed by Imran Khan, souvenirs of Majid Khan (a great performer on the ground) and his father Jahangir Khan, historic photographs – and the camera, improvised before zoom lenses from one for aerial reconnaissance, which took them from a precarious perch on the pavilion roof. Najum gives the latest news of Majid, his friend for nearly sixty years. 39-45 minutes

The literary event of the year is imminent: the publication of Wisden Cricketers Almanack.  Peter and Richard invite listeners to submit their nominations for the Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year to obornehellercricket@outlook.com. They will present the results in advance of Wisden’s Please remember that players cannot appear twice in the Wisden Five, to avoid wasting a nomination!

Listen to more episodes of Oborne & Heller

Previous Episode – Episode 46: Wilf Wooller – the man at so many great moments of Welsh cricket

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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