Inzamam-ul-Haq (right) dismissed as England celebrate during the third Test in Headingley in 2006. Inzamam was dismissed hilariously in the first innings when he tripped over his stumps and was adjudged 'hit wicket' off the bowling of Monty Panesar © Getty Images
Inzamam-ul-Haq (right) dismissed as England celebrate during the third Test in Headingley in 2006. Inzamam was dismissed hilariously in the first innings when he tripped over his stumps and was adjudged ‘hit wicket’ off the bowling of Monty Panesar © Getty Images

As England and Pakistan get ready to face each other, Arunabha Sengupta says that historically the two teams have seldom kept the contest within the limiting boundaries of the cricket field.

Never can the face-off between English and Pakistani cricketers don the garb of just another cricket match.

The riveting battles on the field are laced with —nay, often replaced by —flare-ups that are only part-cricketing.

They extend to flying accusations that get under the skin of entire populations — ranging from uncomfortable questions about the art of reverse swing to curious hints of patriotism inherent in match officials, even ending in litigation. They traverse across blatant over-stepping and shady sports bars, leading to tragic derailment of promising careers. They encompass rows with umpires that end in kidnapping, dousing with pails of water, wagged fingers, diplomatic hot potatoes, and even the forfeiture of a Test match.

Whenever Pakistan and England meet, the stage is set for drama, controversy and calumny; often eclipsing high class cricket.

They have never really been just rivals across 22 yards. The complex relations between the cricketing powers go long, long back.

George Vernon’s touring English side did play Punjab in the North-Western city of Lahore as long ago as in 1890, but the concept of Pakistan was still to remain unknown for decades. It was more than half a century later that as the British finally left India that the great country was split into two, giving birth to the fledgling nation. And as traumatised people migrated across the recently drawn up borders to either side, the game of cricket became one of the means to national identity for the newly born country.

A scarcely known fact is that many still hoped that it would be possible for India and Pakistan to continue as one Test-playing side, much like the West Indies. In fact, the team that toured Australia to play Don Bradman’s men in 1947-48 were selected from ‘undivided India’. However, soon the communal problems, riots and turbulence made such collaboration impossible.

By May 1949, the Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan was formed. The conflict with the seat of power of the cricketing empire started almost immediately.

The inflexible MCC stood steadfast in their refusal to add Pakistan as an official cricketing nation. It took some brilliant fast bowling by Fazal Mahmood and Khan Mohammad, the wise head on the young shoulders of Hanif Mohammad and the suave calm of Abdul Hafeez Kardar to beat Nigel Howard’s touring MCC side in 1951-52 and ensure that they could be ignored no longer.

When the seventh and youngest Test playing nation travelled to Old Blighty for the first time, naysayers were aplenty as they prepared to face Len Hutton’s formidable men. Even Vijay Merchant thought winning a few county matches would be a successful result.

They waited three days for the rain to stop and the first Test to start at Lord’s, and then they were bowled out for 87. Wet weather ensured no result, but at Trent Bridge Denis Compton pulverised them by hitting 278. “The Pakistani fielders are still in Trent Bridge but only just,” John Arlott described during the carnage as the tourists went one down. At Old Trafford Alec Bedser and Johnny Wardle bowled them out for 90, and had them struggling at 25 for 4 in the second innings when weather came to the rescue. Neville Cardus wrote, “In my opinion, a mistake was made by those authorities who decided that the time was now ripe for Test matches between Pakistan and England. To say the plain truth, the Pakistan team would scarcely hold its own in the county cricket championship against Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Middlesex or Northamptonshire, not even in a fine summer.”

Cardus should have stuck to his normal fare of romantic semi-fictional reportage tinged dazzling wordplay. At The Oval, Fazal Mahmood captured six wickets in each innings and England were beaten by 24 runs. The series was squared. A few days earlier, MA Ispahani, High Commissioner of Pakistan, had called the team rabbits. “What do you expect from these people who need to be taught table manners?” Now the same men had forked out a defeat to one of the strongest English sides ever seen.

The cricketing credentials established, the next step for the two sides was in the step of controversy, obviously with an umpire thrown in the midst. When Donald Carr’s team arrived in Pakistan in 1955-56 for their series of unofficial ‘Tests’, there were plenty of misunderstandings between the England captain and Kardar. And besides, the decisions and self-important posturing, of umpire Idrees Baig got on their nerves. During the Peshawar ‘Test’, Baig was infamously ‘kidnapped’ from a party by masked English cricketers and buckets of water were emptied over him.

Down the years we have had plenty of classic encounters and performances.

Be it Headingley 1971 where England squeezed home by 25 runs or Lord’s 1992 when Pakistan scrambled through by two wickets, there have been engrossing contests across time.

We have had supreme knocks by Zaheer Abbas and Jonathan Trott, by Mohammad Yousuf and Ted Dexter.

We have had lethal spells from Ian Botham and Imran Khan, from Abdul Qadir and Derek Underwood.

Yet, at the same time, we have had Iqbal Qasim struck by a Bob Willis bouncer.

We have had Shakoor Rana and Mike Gatting bringing the countries on the verge of a diplomatic crisis.

We have had Botham airing his views about Pakistan and his mother-in-law.

We have had Imran on one side and Botham and Alan Lamb on the other, coming off the field and facing each other in the court of law.

We have had allegations against Pakistani aerodynamics and the cricket ball by a generation-and-half of Englishmen, culminating in a self-important overbearing umpire awarding a Test to England in circumstances never seen before and, we pray, never to be witnessed again.

And we have had Mohammed Aamer’s ridiculously huge no-ball, ending in unfortunate bans for some prodigiously talented cricketers.

No matter where and how the two teams meet, the air crackles with excitement, some of the most bizarre variety.

Pakistan vs England is always a fare served up with the zestiest of spices. It can delight and also set the system on fire.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)