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Tape-ball cricket: a league of its own

It's not unusual for several tape-ball games to take place simultaneously Abid Hussain

"You can defend 12 an over but 15 is better and you should aim for 20."

The speaker was Shabbaz Kalia. He is Pakistan's biggest star of tape-ball - probably the world's most exciting version of street cricket. Twenty an over has been a routine achievement for him in a professional tape-ball career of over 20 years. His six-hitting has earned him a following in all of Pakistan's major cities, and more recently in international tournaments in the UAE. In one eight-over innings, he and his brother shared a partnership of 222.

Tape-ball was developed in a cricket-crazy country after a long search to replace the conventional cricket ball with something cheaper, easier to replace when lost or damaged, and less likely to damage people and property in small, crowded spaces. There were earlier experiments with balls made of rubber and composition material, and tennis balls - sometimes soaked or partly shaved. Then some genius thought of covering a tennis ball with electrical tape.

Historians seem to agree that this first happened in street cricket in Karachi during the 1970s. Osman Samiuddin and Ahsan Iftikhar Nagi have suggested that it was done to counter a legendary street cricketer, Nadeem Moosa, who obtained unplayable spin by squeezing a conventional tennis ball. Writer Abid Hussain traced tape-ball to Karachi's sprawling overspill development of Nazimabad in the late 1970s. Tape-ball was also popular in the Federal B area of the city, and by the late 1980s there was a recognised circuit. The K-2 Bhai Tournament at that time seems to be the first to require a set of rules. One of these suggested the commercial potential of the new sport: "Nitto brand electric tape will be used in the tournament." Another was an obvious necessity for street cricket: "Any time the ball is hit directly inside a house, the batsman is out."

Taping created a ball that could be delivered at fair pace with an overarm action without impossible bounce. However, it did not require batsmen to wear protection, it did not cause too much damage when hit out of the ground, and it did not matter much if it got lost. A replacement could be produced quickly.

Best of all, as it acquired scuffs or nicks, a tape-ball could be made to swing, both conventionally and in reverse.

This gives a little hope to bowlers who can deliver a reliable yorker, and gives some balance to a version of cricket that would otherwise be stacked in favour of batsmen. They do not have to worry about lbw (the rule doesn't exist in tape-ball) or close catchers or flighted spin (which cannot be delivered). A terrible pitch does not affect a tape-ball bowler. The stock stroke in tape-ball cricket is to walk across the stumps and loft the ball over midwicket. But it is harder to do this with a fast, late-swinging yorker.

Since the 1980s, tape-ball has generated a production line of fast bowlers for Pakistan who learnt to produce this kind of delivery in their teens or even earlier. The roll call includes Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Sami and Umar Gul. Mohammad Amir was first spotted at 13 in a local tape-ball tournament. Skills learnt from tape-ball earned Aaqib Javed a place as an opening bowler in a first-class match at the age of 12 and two months (according to official records), and a Test cap at 16. "All our youngsters play tape ball cricket in the streets," he was quoted as saying in the book Pundits From Pakistan. "When you throw a light object over a distance, your joints and ligaments will get stronger, your bowling muscles will develop."

Two former Pakistan wicketkeepers, Moin Khan and Rashid Latif, agree with Javed's assessment but expressed concern that tape-ball encourages a slinging action. They work hard to refine this in the teenage pupils of their cricket academies, and to add back the weapons a bowler gets from the regulation ball and pitch, while keeping the aggression and sheer élan they develop from tape-ball. Conversely, they and other coaches have to make young batsmen apply themselves and concentrate after the simple six-hitting of tape-ball. That said, tape-ball cricket did no harm to Pakistan's current batting anchors, Misbah ul-Haq and Younis Khan, who spent long hours in tape-ball cricket as boys. Younis told me that tape-ball, with its constant demand for "big overs" from batsmen, had encouraged him to become a finisher.

Tape-ball spread very quickly in the 1980s through the whole of Pakistan from its starting point in Karachi. It had many things going for it. The equipment was much cheaper. A tape-ball bat is broader and lighter than a conventional one and lasts longer. It does not need to be knocked in and oiled. Tape-ball needed less space to play and did not demand a good surface. It carried far less risk of injury. The rules were much simpler and more adaptable for local conditions than regular cricket. There was a lesser need for skilled umpiring or scoring. Tape-ball cricket needed little or no practice or coaching: a good eye, alertness and athleticism, could take a player a long way. Eight players were enough for a team. Matches were fast and furious, with something dramatic happening with every ball. At eight overs (or fewer) each innings, matches were completed quickly, and it was easy to organise tournaments over a single day or after dusk during Ramadan.

It is much easier to play tape-ball spontaneously than regular cricket, as I saw for myself during a railway journey (of some 20 hours) between Karachi and Lahore. Virtually every time I looked out of the window I saw a tape-ball match. I counted over 250, some under street lights, some seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Tape-ball has also spread beyond Pakistan to the UAE and other countries with Pakistani expatriates or communities of Pakistani origin. There are successful organised leagues in Bradford and elsewhere in Yorkshire.

Intriguingly, tape-ball is beginning to develop as a separate professional sport in Pakistan. Local businesses are forming tape-ball teams and organising city tournaments as a cheap and popular means to get recognition and a following.

Kalia is not only a professional player but a promoter, like Clarke and Parr and other cricket pioneers in 19th-century England. He is in demand to organise tournaments in all of Pakistan's major cities and international contests in Dubai and Muscat. Recently he staged a series of tape-ball matches featuring veterans including former Pakistan Test captains Mohammad Yousuf, Inzamam ul-Haq and Saleem Malik. He told me that the most lucrative tournaments are sponsored by Warid Telecom and shown on their cable television network. They carry prize money of half a million rupees (now equivalent to about £3500) for the winning team.

This is a much lower reward when compared to the earnings of a successful regular cricketer. But it is much easier to become a successful tape-ball player than a regular cricket player. A tape-ball career lasts longer than a regular cricket one, and can be combined much more easily with other work or education.

If tape-ball acquires a national structure, a set of rules and regular television coverage, it might go on a separate path from regular cricket, not only in Pakistan, and offer a less demanding career for all the best and most dedicated players. If tape-ball takes off as a separate sport, it could conquer the world.