Abid Hussain on tape-ball cricket in Karachi

Abid Hussain

November 2015


Imagine a park without a single blade of grass, with no greenery save a few trees and shrubs of acacia. Garbage is strewn around liberally and donkeys occasionally bray from one corner. In another corner is a mosque. In the middle are two cricket pitches - strips of cement and concrete - placed nearly perpendicular to each other, like a T.

Welcome to Nadeem Sarwar Park in Karachi, a five-minute drive from Nine-Zero, one of the city's most recognisable addresses and headquarters of its most prominent political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). It is as much a park as the Sahara can ever aspire to be but it is also a cricket field of a kind, where avid amateurs gather every evening for feisty games of tape-ball, or tape-tennis, cricket.

One cloudy Sunday evening this September, I came across Tariq in the park. A stick-thin, paan-chewing milk seller, Tariq is to Nadeem Sarwar Park what Bradman was to the MCG or Mahela to the SSC. Dressed in a white T-shirt, three-quarter-length trousers, driving gloves and a pair of flip-flops, Tariq went to bat. Chasing a target of 61 in five overs, he started like a runaway train. The first two overs went for 20 and 23. The faster the ball arrived, the further Tariq and his partner hit it. Victory looked like a formality.

But in the beginning of the third over things started happening. A left-arm bowler with a run-up as long as Shoaib Akhtar's came from over the wicket - imagine Pramodya Wickramasinghe left-armed - and delivered a scorching reverse-swinging ball that bowled Tariq's partner (right-handed) behind his legs. The next batsman was comprehensively beaten by swing and pace two balls in a row. He managed an edged single off the fourth and brought Tariq back on strike. Immediately Tariq asked the umpire to check the ball. His suspicion was correct. One side of the red electrical tape was tattered from wear and tear.

If an opener misses three balls in the first over, his own team will sledge him: "Are you Misbah?"

Any half-decent tape-ball bowler knows that the reverse a torn ball generates is his best weapon against a marauding batsman. On cue, a replacement ball was called for, freshly taped and shiny red, like the bright orb on the Japanese flag. The bowler ran in again. Tariq shuffled inside the crease. A short-of-a-length ball reared up at his neck like a shark, pacy but without swing. Here I saw what a combination of supple wrists and extraordinary timing could achieve as Tariq leaned back, perhaps a degree or three, swivelled and lofted the ball over the square-leg fielder for six. Having bowled four near-perfect deliveries with the old ball, the bowler's shoulders drooped. He ran in again and pitched fuller. But Tariq, by now in the zone, swung the bat through 360 degrees and sent the ball soaring back over the bowler's head for another six. The finishing touches were applied in the following over.

I asked Tariq and his captain, Shahab, about the ball change and both chuckled: "Phate hue tape se bowling kar rahe the, batting kahan se hoti?" [They were bowling with ripped tape, how could we bat against that?] Said half in jest, this assertion of batting entitlement reminded me of a conversation I had with former Pakistan left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim. "Kaka", as he is fondly known, was a street-cricket regular, and he believes the idea of wrapping electrical tape around a tennis ball in Karachi's streets actually emerged to eliminate the tyranny of batsmen.

For more than two decades after Partition, cricket was mostly played at established clubs in older areas of the city, such as Saddar, Jahangir Park or the Polo Ground, or at schools such as Karachi Grammar, Bai Virbaiji Soparivala, Sindh Madressatul Islam and others. This was formal, organised cricket with proper equipment. As the first three censuses post-Partition show, the population of Karachi grew at a rapid pace, going from just over a million in 1951 to over 3.5 million by 1972. These were years of giddy development, as new residential colonies mushroomed across the city, moving northwards or westwards, away from the old town. Development in Nazimabad began in 1952. About 14km away from the city centre and named after Khawaja Nazimuddin (the country's second governor-general as well as its second prime minister, and the first to be deposed), the locality was home to middle-class households of mostly Urdu-speaking migrant families - Muhajirs.

This growth also saw a change in the playing of cricket. With these new developments came vast empty spaces and wide, sparsely populated avenues and streets. Either to speed up the game, or to replicate it without investing in proper gear, a new cricketing infrastructure bloomed. Ishaq Patel, a coach at the National Bank of Pakistan and a Nazimabad resident, recalls that the first time he played with a rubber-cork ball was in the late '60s, followed by a hard tennis ball that would be scuffed artificially and dipped in water regularly to increase its weight and pace. "It was a cheaper alternative," says Iqbal Munir, a renowned photojournalist and a resident of Nazimabad in the early '70s.

Munir, whose father, Munir Hussain, was a pioneering cricket commentator, fondly recalls his trips to Jinnah Sports in Saddar, where he would buy tennis balls for less than three rupees (roughly 30 cents at the time). Tape-tennis was still a few years away.

Who put tape on the tennis ball? Where, is easier to answer: it was in Nazimabad. When, is trickier. The range of responses spanned 12 years - any time between 1977 and 1989. One former first-class player was convinced there was no tape-ball before 1982. Another said it was in 1986, after Javed Miandad's Sharjah six. Film-maker and media analyst Hasan Zaidi, himself an avid cricketer during his school days, recalls playing tape-ball in 1980 in the PECHS area of Karachi. In The Unquiet Ones, Osman Samiuddin estimates that it emerged between 1982 and 1984.

The bigger tape-ball tournaments rope in commentators, though in street games, the resident jokers of the neighbourhood - with zero playing ability but the sharpest wit - take their place

Shakeel Khan provided the earliest memory. Khan has maintained a low profile since quitting cricket in 2008 after a chequered umpiring career. Sporting a flowing white beard and a happy disposition, he took me for a walk along Nazimabad's Gol Market, around the streets where cricket was once played. "This is where I first saw a tape-ball match, I think the year was 1978," he says, pointing towards the Jama Masjid Gol Market. The land on which the mosque stands used to be a ground with a half-built cement track. "It was just another new technique," he says. "Those were days when boys just wanted to recreate real playing conditions but with minimum fuss and expenditure."

But who put the tape on? Like the others, Khan did not have a definitive response. One name kept recurring, though, recalled with the reverence reserved for a mythical hero or a divine figure: Nadeem Moosa. A former first-class cricketer and arguably the biggest street-cricket legend in Karachi, Moosa is acknowledged as the father of the "finger" variation of spin bowling (in which a tennis ball is gripped with a squeeze and spun like a carrom ball). In The Unquiet Ones he tells Samiuddin he may at least have been partly responsible for tape-ball cricket: "The rivalries between mohallas were so fierce. We had guys in Nazimabad 1 and we used to play guys from Nazimabad 3 [Nazimabad is broken up into five blocks, each denoted by a number, and North Nazimabad is another neighbourhood, with its own lettered blocks] and I think, in trying to stop our team and me, they said, let's put some tape on." The logic was that it would make the ball harder to squeeze in the peculiar Jack Iverson-style grip. In practice it has not stopped "finger" bowlers from thriving.

The arrival of tape-ball fed nicely into another key development in street cricket's growth. In 1979, Pakistan Television (PTV) broadcast highlights of World Series Cricket and the streets of Karachi became home to night cricket. That same year Sadiq Mohammad organised a night tournament near Saddar, the first in Karachi. Sadiq, still a Test cricketer at the time, convinced four first-class teams to pay Rs 25,000 as entry fees for the tournament, played at the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation football stadium. He sought help from Pakistan Steel Mills to set up lighting for the ground and provided colour kits and white balls.

This was still formal cricket (even though the Pakistan board was not happy about it) but it was coming into its own. "Night cricket is the current craze in Karachi," wrote Gul Hameed Bhatti in the June 1979 issue of the monthly Herald. "Boys play improvised games of cricket with tennis balls in by-lanes under electric pole lights."

Street cricket soon spread far and wide in a developing metropolis, from areas on the eastern corner in Malir to Gulshan-e-Iqbal in District East. Upscale localities such as PECHS and Old Clifton were catching on gradually, though Nazimabad and Saddar remained the main forces. The competition was so strong and interest so high that a street match between teams from two different Nazimabad blocks would easily attract 200 to 300 spectators.

A slip is used either because you're pretentious or because you want to seriously sledge a batsman

It took time for tape-ball to become as ubiquitous as it was by the time I started playing in the mid-'90s. Until the 1987 World Cup there were still plenty of hard-ball matches at schools and clubs, often at Bakhtiari Youth Centre in North Nazimabad or the iconic Eidgah Ground. A majority of street games were still played with a ganji, or shaved tennis ball, sometimes soaked in water.

Gradually, however, tape-ball took over and, in essence, turbo-boosted street cricket. These rapid-fire games begin in fourth gear. If an opener misses three balls in the first over, his own team will sledge him: "Are you Misbah?" Or with a cruder reminder that "this isn't a Test".

A typical street game might be played in a narrow lane, not more than 15 feet wide, with houses on both sides. If you're lucky there will be a vacant plot on one side. Lighting for night matches is provided by 1000-watt hanger-lights - yellow tubes that are hung overhead (and one of the players almost always has to be a makeshift electrician). Many times, there's only enough light to cover the pitch, the bowler ghosting in from the darkness into the batsman's view. Matches are four to six overs long, but usually between eight and 15 overs in tournaments.

Each street often has its own customised regulations, usually based on the topography of the playing area and the players' relationship with its residents. Owais Mughal, or chashmaatoo (Urdu colloquial for bespectacled), is an electrical engineer based in Singapore and the US. In the late '80s and early '90s, he was one of the stars of the circuit, as a left-arm fast bowler from Federal "B" Area, another tape-ball hotbed. Mughal shared a list of rules he wrote for the K-2 Bhai Tournament. It makes for a fun read, illustrative of the seriousness with which such matches were taken. Eighteen rules are specified. "Nitto brand electric tape will be used in the tournament"; any time a ball is hit directly inside a house, the batsman is out. The "Umpire's decision will be final" is a clear directive. In case a match doesn't end by sunset, "it will be replayed the next day at 4pm".

The etymology of the tournament's name should be noted. "He was a famous boy in our street, a bit chubby but very cute, so everyone called him 'cutie', which soon evolved into 'Kitto bhai'," Mughal says of the founder. "But once he started smoking, and his choice of cigarettes was K-2, naturally he became K-2 bhai. He was probably 150kgs, so he couldn't play himself, except batting sometimes. But he was present for every game as the team's manager. You know, all through my life playing cricket, I've always seen some dedicated 'non-playing-managers' who do all the khwaari [in this context, taking effort that is likely to go unrewarded] of collecting players for the game from their homes, paying the tournament fees on time, do all the administration work for team, like taking teams for lunch, tea etc, but they never get to play in the XI themselves. I've never understood their motivation, but cricket in Karachi was zinda-o-javed [alive and kicking] because of these selfless people.

"Those were good times. I once had to handwrite four copies of tournament rules for four teams in order to save money on photocopying."

Any half-decent tape-ball bowler knows that the reverse this generates is his best weapon against a marauding batsman

It is worth making a distinction between playing on a street, and the skills it requires, and playing on grounds. The Dilscoop, for instance, was a street staple long before Tillakaratne Dilshan came to be associated with it. During night games, when the area behind the wicket is generally poorly lit, a lap over the shoulder is a given; against quicker bowlers within a confined space, the ability to move around and nurdle balls behind the wicket is priceless. As a bowler (and so biased, perhaps), I would argue that we are likelier to hold sway against a batsman - of a similar skill level - in a street game. On an open ground the equation is reversed.

Boundaries in street matches are marked arbitrarily. There can be two or three fielders patrolling the straight boundary. There are silly points, silly mid-offs, and silly mid-ons. No street match is ever complete without a long stop (but called third man), who, by standing right behind the wicketkeeper, literally and figuratively covers his ass. A slip is used either because you're pretentious or because you want to seriously sledge a batsman. On a few occasions I have witnessed arguments over whether chuckers should be allowed - a perennial moral dilemma - turn into full-fledged fights.

Running singles is an art form, but I have been part of matches where every single player was run out. What that implies is that fielding can be, but is not always, of a dizzyingly high level. There are wicketkeepers who stand a foot behind a rickety wooden crate masquerading as stumps, or some crudely welded steel wickets, and not let a single dust particle pass. And then there are the fast bowlers.

Karachi does not necessarily have a great record when it comes to supplying the national team with potent fast bowlers, but spend a day watching these games and you will wonder why. Usually they are slightly built, of medium height, in slippers, and almost always shabbily dressed; off a run-up of no more than ten steps they can deliver the street equivalent of a 90mph thunderbolt. God help you if there's a slit in the tape covering the ball, though that is unlikely because great care is taken to ensure that there isn't. Some players twist and wrap the tape around in such a way as to create a raised seam but that is generally not allowed.

Karachi's streets are full of stories of those who kept playing despite losing family members, friends and neighbours to violence, or to forced exile

The lime-green tennis ball is lightweight but hard to squeeze (Shield 31 or Shield 41 are the most popular brands), and is usually wrapped in red tape (white for night matches). The physics of a tape-ball is similar to that for an actual cricket ball. Generally a single ball can be used for four or five overs, but given the abrasiveness of the surfaces, it will usually need re-taping if an innings goes beyond six or seven overs. The challenge for a fast bowler is to eke out as many overs as possible from an older ball that will reverse.

(Tip: A good way of tampering is to stretch the tape while wrapping the ball, making it easier for the tape to rip sooner. But because the swing can then be so pronounced, it is difficult to get away with it for too long.)

Batsmen retain the tyranny of their international counterparts, and demand re-taping or a new ball at the mere hint of swing. Nothing is more enjoyable for a gully ka lapayrroo (a street slogger) than a straight ball on a good length; it is the type of delivery Shahid Afridi practised his slogs to in the streets of Gulshan-e-Iqbal. Hasan Raza was a street legend, often hitting six straight sixes after announcing his intentions at the start of the over. In these circumstances, the fact that a tape ball can actually hurt is little consolation.

Peak cricket season in Karachi is Ramazan. The first known instance of an organised Ramazan tournament, a spiritual precursor to T20, was played at the Eidgah Ground in Nazimabad in 1980. Since then, annual Ramazan tournaments have proliferated. Often matches start after Fajr prayers, when the fast begins. Sometimes they are played between the afternoon Asar prayers till the time to break fast, at sunset. The vast majority of the action, however, is from midnight till sehri, just before the start of the fast at dawn. Mughal was a bowler for hire, so he played for multiple teams from various neighbourhoods. One year, he says, his team played 29 Ramazan tournaments. "One of my favourite memories is a tournament we played in Kharadar in the early '90s when the entire neighbourhood was lit up and people were sitting outside their houses and shops to follow matches all night long."

Who put tape on the tennis ball? Where, is easier: it was Nazimabad. When, is trickier. The range of responses spanned 12 years - any time between 1977 and 1989

There is a financial impetus driving the scene. In a recent report for the News, reporter Faizan Lakhani estimates that Ramazan cricket, as an industry, generates Rs 100 million (nearly US$1 million). Lakhani's calculation includes semi-professional and club-level hard-ball tournaments with professional cricketers, some of whom have represented Pakistan.

Street cricket can draw serious reward too. One estimate is that there are around 35 to 40 tape-ball tournaments during the month in different parts of the city, all with hefty prize money. One in Karachi this year ran over 15 nights with 32 teams, and offered Rs 300,000 ($2871) in prize money. That included Rs 150,000 for the winners and Rs 75,000 for the runners-up. The Man of the Tournament received a motorbike and men of the match Rs 1000. The entire tournament cost the organiser Rs 1.5 million ($14,360), the bulk of it in hiring a ground with floodlights. Teams call up players from around the country for such tournaments and the best ones can earn Rs 65,000 to Rs 85,000. A few years ago, Affan Ahmed, the man behind Nazimabad Kids - a regular, well-organised and successful tape-ball team - estimated he was spending up to Rs 300,000 for his team to play in Ramazan tournaments.

The bigger tournaments even rope in commentators, though at the more basic level of street games, the resident jokers of the neighbourhood - with zero playing ability but the sharpest wit - take their place. They are found near the bowler's end, heckling, sledging and bantering, conjuring up nicknames and catchphrases, and offering occasional insights about the weaknesses of a player.

In his poem "Firing", from the collection Karachi aur Doosri Nazmein (Karachi and Other Poems), the late Zeeshan Sahil writes:

It's firing
children are playing cricket
they make noise
but they don't go home
as if firing is a modern folk song
on its tune
you can run and make noise
and continue playing cricket…

Sahil wrote these verses between May and August in 1995, one of the city's bloodiest years, in which more than 1700 people died in political violence. This grisly peak came three years after a major government-led operation in the city, during Nawaz Sharif's first tenure as prime minister. The target of the operation was the MQM and its reign of violence and terror through the city. The French scholar Laurent Gayer observes in his seminal work, Karachi: Ordered Disorder and Struggle for the City, that in a metropolis traumatised by an increasing number of bodies in boris [gunny bags], "…Karachi's poets, in particular, started mulling over the false sense of normalcy - the apparent normality of the abnormal - that went along [with] this embedding of death and disorder in the Karachiites' everyday life."

The competition was so strong and interest so high that a street match between teams from Nazimabad would attract 200 to 300 spectators

Sahil's poignant verses caught the reality during those days, when pitched battles raged for territorial control between warring political parties, and shootouts involving law-enforcement agencies produced a hail of bullets; this was the city's white noise, a crackling background score. It was against this that tape-ball thrived and grew.

Given the approximate period of tape-ball's birth this should come as no surprise. Those were the days of General Zia-ul-Haq's martial law and, in addition, Karachi was witnessing a battle between the fading right-wing religious party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the secular, brash and youthful MQM (which was born in 1984). Both parties were represented by the same demographic: Urdu-speaking muhajirs, urbane, conservative, middle-class and white-collar employers. They shared neighbourhoods such as Azizabad, Nazimabad, North Nazimabad. Ideologically the parties were polar opposites and those differences would occasionally spill out during games. As one former first-class player and coach admitted, matches would sometimes become a conduit for political one-upmanship in his locality.

In the time of Sahil, tape-ball subconsciously became a defence mechanism of sorts, an escape. Karachi's streets are full of stories of those who kept playing despite losing family members, friends and neighbours to violence, or to forced exile. An MQM activist and alleged militant, Fahim Farooqui - or Fahim "Commando" - and his brother Mustafeez, used to play cricket with my older brothers at our house in North Nazimabad. Police shot both in separate "encounters" in 1995.

Mughal, who played most of his cricket in that period (1985-1995), recalls how each call for a strike - and there were innumerous - only increased the number and intensity of street games on the day. "We were cricket ke dhatti [cricket mad]," he says. "A strike meant a day off and empty roads, which allowed us to play all day long. With mobility coming to a complete halt because of a lack of public transport and no other means of entertainment during those days, all we did was play cricket."

Running singles is an art form but I have been part of matches where every single player was run out. What that implies is that fielding can be, but is not always, of a dizzyingly high level

What about all the firing and violence? "Cricket thodi rukti hai. Humne toh curfew mein bhi khela hai." [Cricket doesn't stop. We have played even during curfews].

If it was the growth of the city that allowed tape-ball and street cricket to thrive, it is continuing growth that now poses an obstacle.

When Honda Atlas Company founded its first plant in Karachi in 1964, the city's population was just over two million. During Qasim's street cricket days there would be, at most, one interruption every four overs caused by a passing vehicle. "Now when I see kids playing, they have to stop the game four times in one over to let a car or a bike pass," he says. Statistics are on Qasim's side. One report found that as of the end of 2013, the total number of vehicles on Karachi's roads was 3.1 million.

Roads have become narrower, the result of encroachment by roadside vendors, new markets and shops, and the expanding boundaries of residential plots. When Khan took me around Nazimabad and Paposh Nagar, two of the earliest nurseries for street cricket, most of the vast tracts of land adjoining wide roads that he remembered playing on had become sites for new construction. The streets of Nazimabad 2 and 3, the Mecca of tape-ball talent, were full of residential apartments and market blocks.

Street cricket has also become collateral to modernity. Over the last 15 years the internet and cable television have visibly eroded cricket's monopoly as an entertainment option. So too has football: it is now as common to see kids wearing football club kit as a Pakistan cricket team jersey. Where boys once felt nostalgic for the "Haal of Hamilton", those memories share space with those of the "Miracle of Istanbul".

Yet there's still hope. The increasing costs of a game of tape-ball - and it was the lower costs, remember, that propelled its growth - have not yet become a deterrent. A pack of three tennis balls now costs Rs 300 ($2.87), while good-quality bats are at least Rs 1200 ($11.48). The price of the most important component, the electrical tape, has remained roughly the same. A roll of Osaka, which established its Pakistan operations in 1984, costs Rs 30 (29 cents). Nitto, the market leader for years, used to sell for Rs 20 a roll but has now vanished, leaving behind many imitators.

Nothing is more enjoyable for a gully ka lapayrroo (a street slogger) than a straight ball on a good length; it is the type of delivery Shahid Afridi practised his slogs to in the streets of Gulshan-e-Iqbal

And street cricket still clearly holds commercial value. Between 2010 and 2012, Sprite organised a competition that brought in street cricketers to play in a simulated environment, even incorporating technology such as speed guns, pitch maps and other fancy tools.

Another Sunday, another park, though this time, I am at the legendary Polo Ground behind Governor House in Saddar. It is built on 20 acres of land and has reopened after an extensive renovation in September 2013. The Polo Ground is a proper park, a huge expanse of gorgeous, lush grassy field with tiled walkways dividing the park into four quadrants. When I enter, around 11am, there are at least 500 people playing cricket, maybe 30 to 35 games (defying the claims of many who told me that post-Ramazan there tends to be a lull).

Players of all ages, sizes and attire; some are wearing proper kit; others are in shalwar kameez. Most are in jeans. One boy wears a Che Guevara t-shirt, with at least half a bottle of sunscreen on his face. On the walkways, matches are being played in parallel. You can't tell which fielder belongs where, or which ball belongs to which side. From my vantage point behind two wicketkeepers, I see two batsmen simultaneously facing two bowlers. It is disorienting. In the background are monuments of the city's commerce, the PIDC building, the Mövenpick Hotel and the uniquely designed Shaheen Complex. Players shouting for a catch or screeching "bowler's end!" to a fielder, or high-fiving and back-slapping, or just celebrating a beautiful delivery that cuts the batsman in half and hits the top of a steel-frame wicket - here is a portrait of Karachi.

Abid Hussain is a journalist based in Karachi. He is part of the online cricket show PaceisPaceYaar @abidhussayn