There are disappointingly few links between Bob Dylan and cricket. There is, of course, Bob Willis famously adding a middle name in adoration, but there appears no record of the new Nobel Prize winner for Literature ever viewing the game, let alone commenting on it. This is a remarkable pity because Dylan’s writing and cricket would be very easy bedfellows. Cricket’s complexity, its savage toying with hopes, its potential for wry comedy, its inherent global unfairness and roots in misguided racial superiority – these are all topics with which Dylan could surely plough a rich furrow.
John Arlott, CLR James and Neville Cardus all delicately carved open the sport with their pens to examine deeper human workings, and we are certainly currently blessed with some splendid lyricism in cricket writing. Dylan’s peerless lexicon would therefore surely be just the thing for cricket reportage. Plus, his experience of people rejecting his use of modern technology when going electric would lend him a certain empathy with Virat Kohli’s current struggle to get DRS accepted by India: “I don’t believe you, umpire…...we’re going upstairs.”
Yet there is one team – Pakistan – to whom Dylan’s literary gifts would be particularly well applied. A side thesauruses weep over in self-doubt as writers futilely attempt to document their idiosyncrasies, whims, peaks and catastrophes. People often blithely comment they love Dylan’s songs but dislike his voice. This is seems rather akin to saying you love Pakistan’s cricket but dislike the controversies. You can no more disentangle Dylan from his voice of (as David Bowie put it) “sand and glue”, as you can Pakistan from their lush pastures of scandal and brilliance. So to celebrate both Pakistan’s 400th Test and the seismic songwriter’s new award arriving in the same week, here are a few of the Green Shirts’ famous and not so famous cricketing moments introduced by Dylan’s words.
Pakistan granted Test status, 1952
I ain't lookin' to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up
Analyse you, categorise you
Finalise you or advertise you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.
- All I really want to do (1964)
Five years after becoming an independent nation in 1947, Pakistan were granted the status of Test-playing nation by the Imperial Cricket Council which, although sounding like something belonging in Rogue One, was actually the forerunner to the present ICC. In an act of friendship between the two boards, it was India’s BCCI which lobbied hard for their neighbours to join the Test table, a position which had been denied to the USA upon the Commonwealth-based organisation’s formation in 1909 (a rebuff potentially the most self-defeating in any sport’s history.) Regrettably times have changed little when it comes to nations being granted Test status: We still have a Commonwealth-based club taking largely arbitrary decisions. They just do so in Dubai, rather than London.
Hanif Mohammad plays the longest ever Test innings, Barbados, 1957-58
I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an' blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
- Shelter from the Storm (1975)
Pakistan have notched four triple centuries in Test cricket, with Azhar Ali’s this week coming in the same year the scorer of the first sadly passed away. Both he and Hanif Mohammad’s innings came against the West Indies but there, as superb as the present Pakistani opener’s effort was, the comparisons rather end. Ali’s knock was against an attack which might politely be described as “polite”, in conditions more welcoming than a mug of cocoa. Mohammad’s 337 was by contrast played with his back up against a number of terrifyingly large walls. The match situation was dire when he walked to the crease (Pakistan following on 473 behind), the opposition attack featured two accepted greats in Roy Gilchrist and Alf Valentine, and the heat in Bridgetown was relentless. Mohammad nevertheless batted for 970 minutes to secure a draw in an innings which displayed even more endurance than is required to listen to some of Dylan’s eighties output. A remarkable feat.
First Test series win away, in New Zealand, 1972-73
Oh sister am I not a brother to you
And one deserving of affection ?
And is our purpose not the same on this earth
To love and follow His direction?
- Oh Sister (1976)
Siblings have not necessarily been a happy topic for Pakistan fans in recent times. The Akmal triumvirate, despite a wealth of promise, have largely delivered less than a postman with a gate phobia (though we all live in hope for Umar.) Yet previously things fraternal have been pretty productive for Pakistan. The Khans, Rajas and a quartet of Mohammads (as noted above) have all had at least one brother who went on to notable or stellar success.
With Hanif having retired three years previously, in 1972-73 it was down to his two younger brothers Sadiq and Mushtaq to lay the foundations for the side’s first ever away Test series win, a 1-0 defeat of the Kiwis. The former notched 366 at an average of 73 with the latter weighing in with a remarkable 314 at 105 from just three innings, helping their side to a solitary but sufficient victory in Dunedin alongside draws in Wellington and Auckland, heralding a new morning in Pakistan cricket.
Sarfraz Nawaz’s curveball floors Australia in Pakistan’s hundredth Test, 1978/79
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.
The sky, too, is folding under you.
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.
It’s all over now, Baby Blue (1965)
Pakistan can lay probable claim to inventing at least two of cricket’s most effective bowling weapons: The doosra was sprung on the world by Saqlain Mushtaq in the 1990s, but a quarter of a century earlier batsmen were equally bamboozled by pacer Sarfraz Nawaz’s discovery of reverse swing, a skill he alloyed with his already considerable mastery of line and conventional movement through the air.
His vicious gifts and growling wildcat demeanour were never more apparent than in Pakistan’s 100th Test, at the MCG against Australia. With the home side cruising on the final day, needing just 77 runs to win with seven wickets in hand, Nawaz produced what was to become known as the “spell from hell”, taking all seven for one run in the space of 33 deliveries. Watching his astonishing performance now, his short run and action may seem no reason to get excited, but few batsmen could get any relief against him, that or any other day, as he nabbed 177 wickets in the course of his Test career.
Hasan Raza becomes the youngest Test player in history, 1996
Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast.
Oh, but what a shame that all we've shared can't last.
- You’re a big girl now (1975)
The concept of time has often been thought a thorny one in the Pakistan national set up, not least regarding exactly how much of it has passed in the lives of its cricketers. Many have suspiciously noted that the youthfulness recorded in the “age” column of player profiles hasn’t always matched the actual physical appearance.
Afridi is the poster boy, poster man perhaps, of such controversies but Pakistan have always had a history of blooding players in the first flush of youth. Hanif Mohammad himself debuted at seventeen in the longest form, but the world record holder for youngest Test cap is Hasan Raza, who turned out against Zimbabwe at just fourteen in October 1996, ironically a few weeks after Afridi’s broke the fastest ODI century world record as a 16-year-old. Despite scoring a promising 27 in a ten-wicket win, Raza was soon out of the side. Sporadic recalls followed as he went on to play 23 times for his country and enjoyed a highly productive domestic career, but he never fulfilled his prodigious young potential in internationals, leaving those prophesying his greatness sad-eyed.
Pakistan’s long, lonesome road from home, 2009 – present
Gon’ walk on down that dirt road ’til I’m right beside the sun
Gon’ walk on down until I’m right beside the sun
I’m gonna have to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone
- Dirt Road Blues (1997)
The attack on the Sri Lankan team bus on its way to the Gaddafi Stadium in 2009 remains a pall over cricket. In many respects it is remarkable how little you ever hear those cricketers and officials involved talk of it, and how stoically they resumed their international careers. On a mere cricketing level, with matches at home rendered impossible, it granted Pakistan pariah status in many quarters. They inevitably lost the right to host the 2011 World Cup, which was meant to be shared jointly between themselves and India (and Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) thus denying cricket the chance to provide at least sporting solidarity between the two nations. We will also never know how many potential fans may have been lost by cricketing idols not being viewed in the flesh in Lahore, Karachi and beyond.
After six long years international cricket returned to Pakistan in 2015, when Zimbabwe toured for an ODI and T20I series. Since then it has remained the Emirates or away whenever they play, with 2009’s awful events still hovering in the news. Any Test visit to Pakistan by anyone currently appears unlikely and the next best option – an invite for a Test series in India – is a mere smoke ring of the mind at present. But perhaps we might hope the BCCI and PCB might eventually find common cause, even in these intensely fragile political times, as they did back in 1952? As Dylan noted in Where are you tonight? on the somewhat underrated Street Legal (1978):
“I fought with my twin, that enemy within
Till both of us fell by the way.”