September 22, 2008

Ode to a magazine

Thirty-six years after it first began publication, Pakistan's best loved cricket publication closed its doors this April



The cover of the final issue © The Cricketer, Pakistan

Quietly, in April this year, the Cricketer (Pakistan) breathed its last. To the month it was 36 years old, and the 432nd issue was its last. Through that time it was comfortably the leading cricket monthly in Pakistan. With it goes a piece of every young, English-reading, cricket-mad Pakistani.

The Cricketer (no relation to the Cricketer International) was first published in April 1972. It was an appropriate time for cricket was stirring again in the land. The 60s had been dark and empty. Hanif Mohammad had played his last Test two months before the start of the 70s and a new decade and era were upon the country.

Pakistan Tobacco was still five years from becoming the first national sponsor, but Pakistan Television was beginning to show an interest. The domestic scene had been given fresh impetus with the entry of some departments. Others would come in a few years later, bringing with them financial benefits. The club scene had yet to be totally eclipsed, and more importantly Pakistan's first superstars - the early holy trinity of AH Kardar, Hanif and Fazal Mahmood were stars - had just arrived. A few years later the "professionals" crisis would erupt, when increasingly emancipated players would, for the first time, ask for pay commensurate to their skill. It was a fertile period.

Other magazines had been around before, like Sportimes, but the Cricketer blew them away. Riaz Ahmed Mansuri brought it up, brought it together and brought it out. He has built a publishing mini-empire of sorts now, with seven magazines in his stable, but the Cricketer remained his baby. "Whatever I am today, I am because of the Cricketer," he says. He remains a ridiculously hardworking man, one in whom resides the true shrewd, sharp, entrepreneurial spirit of Karachi.

He started with nothing in 1971, just an idea that hit him at a crowded bus depot where the most popular magazine at a hawker's was an old edition of the Cricketer International. "I knew students and friends of mine were devoted to keeping scrapbooks with pictures and articles, so I thought why not?" remembers Mansuri.

There was no doubt ever that it would be in anything other than English, the language of "authority". The first issue came out after Mansuri sold home-made subscriptions to his colleagues on the social circuit, eventually raising Rs 2500. But the genius was to hire Hanif Mohammad as chief editor, for it brought credibility and promised financial reward.

Mansuri had seen that Sir Pelham Warner was editor at the Cricketer International, and so decided to rope in a big name as editor. As Omar Noman noted in Pride and Passion, "not many people were going to refuse an ad for a magazine brought out by Hanif Mohammad". Asif Iqbal was approached first but he was still playing and recommended Hanif instead. It took, Mansuri reckons, 30 meetings to convince Hanif, though the "Little Master" apparently later admitted to him that he was convinced from the off.

Even now, reading those early issues, a real spirit is apparent, a desire to, among other things, properly document the scene as fully as possible. In a region of the world where history is poorly kept, it is something to be cherished. Interviews, comments, match reports, diligent documentation of the club scene, no-holds barred comment, profiles and interviews of older, lesser-known players; if it wasn't in the Cricketer, it really wasn't worth worrying about.

It brooked little crap and was clever and populist in siding with players, and not the establishment's Kardar, in the professional and Packer crises. Soon it introduced its "Five Cricketers of the Year", thereby investing the domestic scene with more value and prestige than any board ever did.

 
 
The Cricketer was where cricket started for this writer. Old copies were borrowed from a neighbouring uncle and read from page to page, sometimes kept for months at an end, until a subscription was organised. Countless others have similar tales
 

Rare is the Pakistani hack who hasn't contributed to its pages - Omar Kureishi, Qamar Ahmed, Waheed Khan, Shahid Hashmi, Sohaib Alvi, Abdul Rasheed Shakoor, Abdul Majid Bhatti, Afia Salam, Fareshteh Gati. International writers were regularly roped in. But probably no journalist came to be as closely associated with the magazine as the indefatigable Gul Hameed Bhatti, guru of stats before Statsguru came out, and eminently better company.

He was, for many years, the man responsible for bringing the magazine out every month. Where Mansuri was the business head, Bhatti was its driving editorial force, whether with the innovative "Figures Are Fun With GHB" column, the devoted monthly round-up of the "Lahore (club) Cricket Scene", or any number of interviews, meticulously researched profiles, or match reports.

The Cricketer's circulation was never massive, for Pakistan has never really been a big market for English monthlies, but what loyalty it had was solid and true. At its peak, from the 1978-79 series against India until the early 90s, estimates suggest it touched 20,000 copies a month. Its impact was greater: Mansuri recalls a leading cricketer, featured on the cover during the 1982-83 series against India, demanding money from him "because you are selling the mag off my back".

As a youngster in Saudi Arabia, a country where cricket was less understood than it is in the USA, the magazine was where cricket started for this writer. Old copies were borrowed from a neighbouring uncle and read from page to page, sometimes kept for months at an end, until a subscription was organised. Countless others have similar tales.

From its start till even the early- to mid-90s, it was a significant cog in Pakistan cricket's wheel. Its success was evident in the number of cricket magazines it indirectly spawned: Cricket World Quarterly, Cricket Herald, Akhbar-e-Watan, Cricketstar, Sportsweek, Imran Khan's Cricket Life, and even an Asian edition of the Cricketer International. Mansuri's magazine outlasted them all, but eventually the times changed, the spirit wavered and finances tightened. Long before it ceased publication, the significance had gone. The Urdu version, started in 1978, is still going strong.

The morose temptation is to say that the magazine died at a fitting time, when cricket in Pakistan is truly in the doldrums. But Mansuri insists it is not a permanent state. He is looking for an editorial team to come and start up the magazine again. The Cricketer is dead, long live the Cricketer.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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