Telling Pakistan's story through its cricket

Osman Samiuddin's history of the game in Pakistan is much more than its subtitle advertises it as

Ahmer Naqvi
Ahmer Naqvi
Javed Miandad celebrates the semi-final win, New Zealand v Pakistan, World Cup semi-final, March 21, Auckland, 1992

Miandad: it was about izzat  •  Getty Images

Starting in 2008 and lasting for around half a decade, Pakistani music in particular and society in general was taken by storm by a show called Coke Studio, which brought together the country's best musicians to produce and release 30 or so songs each summer. Along with becoming a cultural phenomenon in the country, it was also widely influential and popular abroad. For those who had been following the music scene in Pakistan for a while, it felt like a validation and a bringing to light of the potential they had known to exist for so long.
Pakistani cricket fans had experienced something similar a few years before then, when Osman Samiuddin began to establish himself as a writer on the world stage. Here was someone who, like Coke Studio, was able to capture the aura and mystique of what we loved and present it in a way that people from across and beyond Pakistan could relate to. While his effortlessly evocative writing style soon became iconic, he has added the resolute discipline and commitment of an old-school journalist since then, as evidenced by his role in breaking the Big Three story in 2014.
The Unquiet Ones, his first book, reads as a triumph of both these facets of his writing. The book's subtitle is "A history of Pakistan cricket", though it is tempting to read it as "A history of Pakistan, as cricket". Pakistan has been obsessively written about in the global press since 9/11, yet like with Jon Stewart during the Bush administration, this book on cricket comes across as one of the most authentic and authoritative depictions of what the country is actually like. The reason for that is the depth and immediacy brought to the task of conveying why and how cricket became ubiquitous in Pakistan.
The book's format allows 70 years of history to be covered in under 500 pages at the pace of a well-told story. There are five sections, covering distinct eras of varying lengths of time. Each section starts with one match that is used to define that era, and includes essays on at most two players who were similarly definitive. The remaining space in devoted to the peripheries, the slow but profound changes that occurred in that era, and the peculiarities and unsung heroes whose impact is no longer understood or appreciated.
Each of the 31 essays here is remarkably eclectic, stitching together pop-culture references, obscure press clips, off-the-cuff remarks, bureaucratic missives and ribald jokes to bring the narrative to life. The focus on a couple of iconic cricketers allows for a diverse exploration of the minutiae surrounding them. Possibly the best example of this is the chapter titled "Operation One Unit", which is ostensibly meant to describe the development of the first-class structure in the country, yet also serves also as a definitive recounting of the political and social reasons behind the neglect of East Pakistan and Balochistan.
Despite each anecdote remaining almost wholly or at least tangentially concerned with cricket, the book dwells on the country's writers and intellectuals, the development of its industries, the politics of its identity, the humour of its people, the might of its military, and the vitality of its diversity. And it is important that such a context is provided, because without it the world and many within the country are often left with nothing but clichés to describe this team and its captivating players. What this book makes clear is that without understanding the bewitching complexity of Pakistani society, it is futile trying to understand its cricket.
The essay on Javed Miandad is most illustrative of this example. Miandad is most readily described as a street-fighter in cricket lore, which is a slightly amusing and largely mistaken reading of the person. Samiuddin's essay uses the maddeningly woolly idea of izzat to explain Miandad, and the unpacking of this concept brings us to a clearer understanding of the man and the cricketer. It requires an explanation of Indian Muslim history, pan-Islamic symbolism, Karachi's ethnic and commercial upheavals, and the subcontinental psyche to arrive at an understanding of Miandad himself - and you realise that you need no less for such a player.
The Unquiet Ones is the second history of Pakistan cricket to come out in about six months, following up on Peter Oborne's well-received Wounded Tiger. It is heartening that both these superbly researched books are similar only in their approach of going with quality than quantity; there isn't too much overlap in the stories they tell. This is also largely due to a paucity of writing on Pakistani cricket, and neither book attempts to be comprehensive - which might have made them unwieldy. While Oborne's narrative generally focused on providing a counter to conventional understandings of Pakistani cricket, Samiuddin's is an effort at consolidating the fringes of the Pakistani game and reimagining it more holistically. The Unquiet Ones is also more fluid in its chronology: the essays freely move across the years within the fixed parameters of any particular era.
There are two major issues with the book, although the first is a bit like Imran Khan declaring with Miandad on 280 not out - the decision makes sense but it is still a controversial one. The final section covers the last 22 years, from 1992 to early 2014. It comprises an exhilarating recounting of the fixing scandals and a deliciously subtle skewering of the way the game is run, but it skips a lot of the action and stars of the modern period. The decision is true to the book's structure of using a few icons to define a period, and helps retain the taut sense of narrative, but there is wistfulness at missing out on Samiuddin taking on some of the topics involved in greater detail.
The other issue was the complete absence of any discussion of the women's game. Since this aspect of Pakistan cricket has largely been a development from the '90s onwards, it is part of an era somewhat squeezed for space in the book. However, given that so much of The Unquiet Ones defines itself by using the peripheral to illuminate the central, this omission feels more glaring. Before the launch of this title, Samiuddin spoke of the need for a standalone book on the subject. As a writer who covered some women's cricket in Pakistan during its nascent years, he might be the best person to write it.
Reading The Unquiet Ones, it is clearly apparent that it is a labour of love, but it also leaves the reader, particularly the cricket fan, impatient for more. Like with an exciting ODI player who finally gets to play Test cricket, Samiuddin's abilities as a writer and a journalist feel more fully expressed in the expanse of a book. Consequently, and perhaps unsurprisingly given his past, The Unquiet Ones is highly recommended. It manages to retain an easy charm ideal for someone casually interested in the game, but it has the class to entice the cricket tragic to keep coming back for a re-read.
The Unquiet Ones: A history of Pakistan cricket
By Osman Samiuddin
HarperCollins India
480 pages

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal