x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Karachi's once-great stadium that is now stuck in a bygone era

Venue that stood like ‘a candle in an uninhabited place’ has become the city's phantom limb, writes Osman Samiuddin

The National Cricket Stadium of Karachi. Rizwan Tabassum / AFP
The National Cricket Stadium of Karachi. Rizwan Tabassum / AFP

The National Stadium of Karachi stands on Dalmia road, not far from what could be the centre of an unending, shapeless city.

It is situated roughly halfway between death and the fruits of capitalism (not necessarily the same thing); to one side are two prominent hospitals, Aga Khan and Liaquat National Medical. At the other end, past the Second World War cemetery, is the Millenium Mall, one of the city's biggest.

As far as Karachi goes, its people forever mired between these two extremes, it is a fitting location.

Visitors to the stadium these days may feel its desertion and mistake it for a recent development; since February 25, 2009 perhaps, when it staged its last day of international cricket.

That would not be accurate, for long before the terror attacks on the Sri Lankan team a week later in Lahore, the stadium had begun to feel unused and de-fanged.

Attendances had been down for decades; that last Test had pitiable crowds.

Internationals were played in an atmosphere for side games. Even one-day matches suffered: in 2008, few bothered to come to the Asia Cup.

Security concerns since 9/11 had, in any case, limited the number of Tests at the stadium to just six, so that even as the city grew around it unordered, and new roads and flyovers and housing colonies were born, and even as it still stood vast, like a massive upturned four-legged insect with its floodlights, the stadium seemed to be fading.

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Murad Ali could well be the Pakistan Cricket Board's (PCB) longest-serving employee, old enough to reveal tales of legends that have no business in family publications. He joined as ground staff when the National Stadium was built over the winter of 1954. Whatever else may have changed, he has not; he is still ground staff.

"I was here at the first Test ever, against India," he recalled, shuffling around the outer practice grounds. "There was a traffic jam till Jail Road. This ground where we are used to host weddings. I used to sit on a horse and go around cutting grass."

There is nothing grand about the stadium and it has none of the red-stoned ambition or Moghul pretensions of Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium.

The National Stadium is white and cemented. Usually it is dusty. The stands, seating 34,000 make do, no more.

The difference with Gaddafi Stadium - one, beautiful, faux-cultural, a work of art and architecture, and the other clunky and functional - is a difference not just of geography but reflective of the people, a thinking, a way of life.

All told, the National Stadium took about four months to build. Kafiluddin Ahmed, chief engineer in the local government and cricket board treasurer was the man most responsible, a man who gave to cricket as much pleasure as he derived.

Cricketers, including Hanif Mohammad, were arranged jobs in his department. He held daily nets at his own house, where many of the city's brightest cricketers went.

A hyper, restless man - "a pocket-dynamo," the late commentator Omar Kureishi called him, "short in stature and combative by nature" - Kafiluddin ensured the stadium, so direly needed, was up in time.

Corners were happily cut, necessarily so if the deadline was to be met: the Test against India began on February 26, 1955, and work started the preceding October.

Sheikh Gulzar Ali Engineers and Contractors brought the brick, sweat and mortar, and others, such as AT Naqvi, Karachi's chief commissioner, and prime minister (and board president) Mohammad Ali made sure to sweep red tape out of the way.

Funds arrived from multiple sources; the government, private donations, the board itself, fund-raising matches.

Over 5,000 people worked at it before a stadium emerged over 176 acres, before deadline and at a cost of 2.2 million Pakistan rupees. Once complete, said Pakistan's first Test captain Abdul Hafeez Kardar, it stood like "a candle in an uninhabited place".

Plans were grand, in keeping with the ambition of a new country. "The ... National Stadium envisages a cricket stadium, a club house with residential accommodation, an Olympic stadium, covered swimming pools, a tennis pavilion with 13 courts, one football ground with a pavilion and two grounds for practice, one hockey ground with a pavilion with two grounds for practice and grounds for other sports," Dawn newspaper noted.

"This might sound a little too ambitious, but the record time, of a few weeks in which the cricket stadium has been completed holds out high hope that the whole project will be completed earlier than many people expect."

The whole enterprise would have cost PKR14.6m and if it was fantasy even then as it is now, it was at least an honest one.

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For nearly 46 years Pakistan did not lose a Test at the National Stadium, not when England were mighty, when the West Indians were mightiest and even when Australia were building their might.

Half-formed theories emerged to explain such invulnerability. Home umpires were snidely accredited. Karachi's sea breeze was said to play an unexpected role aiding swing in the afternoons, even as the jungle and hills that surrounded it gave way to urban development, and the pitches were greener than now remembered.

"Every country has one home ground where they have a very good record and this was ours," was the simpler reasoning of Javed Miandad, a Karachiite through and through.

"Wickets were made to our strengths. And because of the sea, the breeze made a difference for bowlers even if ours relied more on reverse."

Miandad, of course, is lord of the ground. He averaged nearly 60 in Tests there and played when matches were highlights on the city's social calendar.

"The ground was always full and the atmosphere used to be alive. People waited to go to Tests, they had clothes made for it and made it a real occasion."

On good days, the ground convulsed in a cheery rowdiness, as when Miandad and Asif Iqbal put on 97 imaginative runs in nine overs to win a Test against India in November 1978.

But there was always an edge over which it could tip. England visited in March 1969 as the country was bringing itself down, first removing a military dictator, then escalating a civil war which would lead to the creation of Bangladesh.

More incendiary still, the selectors had replaced Karachi's Hanif Mohammad as captain with Lahore's Saeed Ahmed. Students in the stands rioted against the switch, the government, anything, then invaded the pitch and forced an abandonment on the third day. Several players, tourists and hosts, feared for their lives in the dressing room.

Zaheer Abbas was still seven months from making his debut but he remembered the scenes.

They would create an uneasy relationship with the city in which he lived and played.

"Karachi holds so many sad memories," he wrote years later. "There is always trouble of some sort. The supporters can be over-demanding ... This is not an attack on the National Stadium, where after all I have frequently done well and where I appreciate the warmth and kindness shown to me. But, in truth, I do not enjoy playing there. The crowds are altogether too fickle ..."

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These moods at least captured something of the city and the times, a reflection of the life that created them.

When Pakistan did finally lose their first Test in Karachi, to England in December 2000, they did so within a vacuum.

"Certainly there was no crowd to speak of and the atmosphere was very sterile and the pitch one of the slowest, flattest that I played on," remembered Michael Atherton, the former England captain and first-innings centurion.

"The match itself was very dull until Pakistan imploded on the final day and then tried to waste time to prevent defeat. Quite a weird atmosphere at the end with the sun having gone down, and the match ending in near darkness."

There have been renovations since, grudging concessions to modernity. A shiny new academy is being built. Some days, too rare, it breathes again.

Life has changed, the city has, too, but quite like the phantom limb - only inverted - the National Stadium, despite being there, is not really there.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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