The ground where Pakistani cricket made its mark

Lahore Gymkhana Cricket Club now houses a museum dedicated to the country's favourite sport

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Postcard from Lahore

Najum Latif walks in a leisurely way towards the wicket; the sun is low, but is lost in the late-afternoon haze that has washed the sky a milky white. The gabble of wildlife hidden in the thick foliage that surrounds the field at Lahore Gymkhana Cricket Club almost drowns out the sound of traffic.

Mr Latif has made this same walk countless times in his life, with either bat or ball in hand. Today, aged 76, he walks as a storyteller, a historian and founding honorary curator of Pakistan’s first cricket museum, which is housed in the club's pavilion.

“This ground has the richest history in the whole of Pakistan,” he says proudly.

Indeed, the ground on which Mr Latif treads has been the scene of not only key moments in Pakistani cricket, but also the country's creation in 1947 from what was formerly British-ruled India.

Like the sport of cricket itself, the clay for the Lahore pitch came from Britain — brought by ship from Worcestershire in about 1880 to what was then Punjab province of British India. It is said to be the oldest cricket ground in Pakistan, and the second-oldest in South Asia after Eden Gardens in Kolkata, India.

On this ground in 1948 Pakistan played its first international match.

“It was against the West Indies led by John Goddard, and players like George Headley, Clyde Walcott, and Everton Weekes, they were part of that team,” says Mr Latif, a businessman and conservationist who played for the Lahore Government College's cricket team from 1961 to 1964.

The West Indies had expected to dominate this new nation. However, Pakistan made their mark on Test cricket — particularly through Munawwar Ali Khan, their opening bowler, who took two wickets with his first two deliveries.

“It was a sensational start for Pakistani Test cricket,” Mr Latif says.

The match ended in a draw, but it was clear then that Pakistan were never going to be minnows of the sport.

Before the partition of colonial-era India with independence from Britain in 1947, the Lahore Gymkhana featured matches between the subcontinent's finest players and the likes of the Marylebone Cricket Club and Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.

Perhaps one of the most significant games it hosted was a charity match played in the aftermath of partition, when somewhere between 200,000 and two million people lost their lives as millions migrated both ways between India and Pakistan.

Refugees arrived in their droves in Lahore, in need of assistance after leaving most of their possessions behind in their haste to flee India.

“There was a shortage of money. So to raise money a cricket match was organised between Punjab and Sindh. The money that was collected was then used to buy food and clothes for the refugees.”

That match between the two provinces became the first official first-class cricket match in Pakistan.

When India first toured Pakistan in 1955, the third Test of five was played at the Lahore Gymkhana ground.

Mr Latif was there, and remembers well a reprimand he received from India's captain, Vinoo Mankad.

“I was just a schoolboy, looking for autographs. As he led the team out, I thrust my autograph book before him to sign. He looked at me and said, ‘No, boy, this is not the time. I'm leading the team out in the field'.”

The rebuff did little to discourage Mr Latif's love of cricket. As his encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport developed, he realised that its stories and records deserved to be preserved in a tangible form. After visiting the museum at Lord's Cricket Ground in London he felt compelled to act.

“Nobody had preserved any ball, none of the memorabilia. So that inspiration that I had at Lord’s drove me to start this museum.”

Opened in 2003, the museum is housed in the same room at the Lahore Gymkhana pavilion where players used to have lunch and tea, and where the Pakistan Cricket Board was founded in 1949.

Although undergoing renovation at the time of visiting, Mr Latif happily showed The National some of its records, photographs and memorabilia. They included the cap of legendary Jahangir Khan from India's first Test match in England, at Lord’s in 1932; a pair of signed cricket trousers worn by the World Cup-winning captain Imran Khan, signed bats and match balls.

Also in the collection are old scorebooks and sepia photographs showing teams lined up in front of stands full of fans, each telling a story of past cricketing contests.

Quote
It was like a big festival. We even had different enclosures for VIPs and film stars
Najum Latif, founder of Lahore Gymkhana's cricket museum

“It was like a big festival. We even had different enclosures for VIPs and film stars,” Mr Latif says.

But Pakistan was banned from hosting international cricket for 10 years after a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team tour bus in Lahore in 2009, undoubtedly the darkest chapter in the country's cricketing story.

“It has been very sad, and a very difficult experience for Pakistan. Not only Pakistani cricket but also the people of Pakistan, who were deprived from seeing great players and deprived of such festive moments that cricket always brings; we were completely lost,” Mr Latif says

Although other teams have toured Pakistan since then, Mr Latif believes the recent tour by England, it first since 2005, was a significant turning point.

“I am seeing all children back on the streets, you know, wearing Pakistan shirts and playing cricket, because they're watching cricket on the television when England were playing.

“It is a very, very important thing for us. It has brought so much joy. And I must say hats off to [England captain] Ben Stokes, because he has taught the world how to play Test cricket.”

Even though England won all three Tests, for Mr Latif the series was just another part of Pakistan’s rich cricketing history.

“Winning and losing is not important. It is how you play it. And that is the only way to keep Test cricket alive.”

Updated: December 24, 2022, 4:36 AM
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