Late Sunday morning, and there isn’t a piece of free ground to be found at the Polo Ground in downtown Karachi. Every last patch of its 20 acres of path and grass is taken up with ball cricket games. There must be 30, 40, 50 overlapping games – enough, anyway, to make it impossible to count the hundreds of players who are scattered all around, defenders blending in with each one so that, if the he man in the middle of the wicket in one match spun on the spot, he could play cover in another, or leg up for a third. Apart from India and the Oval Maidan in Mumbai, there is no cricket spectacle like this.
The place is officially known as Gulshan-e-Jinnah but no one will be able to give you directions if you call it that. Polo Ground, on the other hand, everyone knows that. Everyone in Karachi cricket has played here over the years. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, this is where Hanif Mohammad and his four brothers learned the game. They had just moved to the city after partition. “You could see hundreds of people, mostly young people, playing cricket there every day,” Hanif wrote in his autobiography. “Whoever came first picked their own spot and threw their stumps for practice or for a match. Even the maulvis would join in.
His younger brother Mushtaq told Peter Oborne how “when we were still little, my younger cousin Iqbal and my older cousin Nisar and I would leave every Sunday with only two annas each in our pockets, and we would head to Polo Ground in the center of the city where many teams were playing games with intertwined rankings”. He still hasn’t forgiven his older brothers for making him the 12th man. Soon, Mushtaq and his brother were both graduating at the old Gymkhana ground over the next wall, where Pakistan played some of their first matches against MCC and other teams.
In the 1960s the government used Polo Ground for military parades and after that it gained a reputation as a place where young lovers came to meet. It stopped, the story goes, when a TV crew came and did a show where the presenter asked the couples if they had told their parents they were visiting the park together. The cricketers, however, have always been there. For years players have come from all over the country to play at this park in Karachi as they try to find their way in the game. These days they dream of going much further than the Gymkhana, up to at the national stadium, further from the city.
There’s still a man at the gate collecting rupees from guys who want to park their motorbikes inside, and a vendor wandering between games inside, carrying tall piles of pomegranate seeds on hanging trays with a yoke on his shoulders.
Even he doesn’t try to make his way through the middle of the park. The game does not stop for strollers, and besides there are no more free paths. Sidewalks make the best wickets. Latecomers must play in the grass near the fences, where if unlucky the ball will slip through the railings and run into the road outside.
The smallest children, five and six, are there too, on the mud boundary that surrounds the park. Inside, everything is more serious. There’s still a lot of laughs but it’s kind of bragging. Almost everyone who plays here wants to be fast, and many really are, and almost everyone who bats wants to hit sixes, and most do. So the balls fly everywhere, until they sink into the long grass, where they are picked up by the blind outfielders who run behind trees, bushes and pavilions trying to follow the shouts of “catch” of the launcher. Some even have to fetch the ball from the muddy pond in the middle.
Some players are wearing shalwar kameez, some are in jeans and t-shirts, but many are in grim cricket kit, bright stripes and shiny slashes, some of them from Pakistan Super League, one even in one top from England, but many of the others are from the area. teams, the Rising Stars, the Young Fighters.
They use piles of rickety bricks as wickets, or sets of welded metal stumps, and keep bags of spare balls ready. The floor is littered with chewed up bits of red tape, scraps from which they were wrapped around tennis balls to improve swing and bounce. There always seems to be a guy who has a knack for it, and players will throw old ones at him to fix with the stuff he keeps in his bag.
The sad thing is that it is so close to the England team hotel, just a five minute walk along the way, but the players themselves can only see it through the tinted windows of their trainer as they pass on their way to practice. . There is a palpable frustration among some of them, especially those who have come to play PSL before, that the security cordon is so tight they can’t even walk to the park. They may not be able to see it, but they can be sure that everyone who plays here will be watching them on Tuesday and, probably not, somewhere among them will be the bowler they will face when they return here in a few years.
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