Heart and Soil of Pakistan Cricket
Pakistan’s best known cricket groundsman, Mohammad Bashir’s passing away in Lahore is indeed a significant event and it led to outpouring of tributes in TV, print and on-line media.
Popularly referred as Haji Bashir, he breathed his last on 18th November, following a brief illness, aged 79.
In a career stretching to six decades, he was the backbone in the development of pitches and outfield, at all the leading cricket venues in the country. Bashir along with Ghulam Mustafa Khan, the secretary, was part of the furniture at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, for their longevity as a cricket Board employee. Bashir performed his duty as a groundsman at the stadium for a staggering 57 years, 4 months and 10 days, as he would remind us all, before his final exit in 2016.
Born in December 1940 in village Tehaiet (Punjab), British India, in what then were the outskirts of Lahore and now part of Green Town, Bashir was one of six brothers from the two marriages of his father – Mian Siraj Din, a Railways employee till 1947. Having reported at Lahore Stadium as a gardener (Maalee) on November 1, 1959, few weeks prior to the first ever Test match at the stadium, against the touring Australians led by Richie Benaud, Bashir’s first task was to work with basic cutting tool on the outfield. By the second month, he had taken a huge leap by his appointment of an assistant groundsman.
In a chat in January 2012, Haji Bashir recalled his early days, ‘Due to my father’s death and poverty in the family, I was unable to go to school and only managed to study up till grade IV through my own private efforts. After a short stint at Railways alongside my two uncles, I was working as a general labourer on a building site before informed about an opportunity at the newly-built sports stadium. Australians was the first team to play at Lahore Stadium and soon I was working as an assistant groundsman to Mohammad Amin, who resided in Mozang Chungi, and was an overall in charge of the stadium. After his death in 1966, I replaced him as a groundsman and in the period of 1975-87 would report to former Test cricketer Gul Mohammad - Director of Gaddafi Stadium.’
More recently in 2019, he spoke about the stadium, ‘In the early days PWD employees supervised the stadium and it was their chief engineer who played a key role in building the new cricket venue. Raja Saleem Akhtar, father of Wasim and Ramiz Raja, was involved too, alongside Dr. Jahangir Khan, Mian Mohammad Saeed and Q.D.Butt, as part of a six-member stadium committee. Strictly speaking I too was a PWD employee for ten years, i.e. 1956-66. Fazal Mahmood, amongst the 1950s heroes, was the one I felt close to and he respected by role at the stadium. A.H.Kardar and Majid Khan were the two former captains, who engaged with me on the subject of the pitches.’
‘Once on the insistence of Sheikh Mansoor, I started a shift at 4pm and prepared a pitch at Gujranwala by 1am for a match for the following morning. By the grace of Allah, I was able to predict the behaviour of the pitch for all five days of the 1978 Test against India, in a TV interview, the night before the start. It paved the way for a great victory for Pakistan, in front of full house and remains my favourite. I was not tempted by the offers made by General Hussain Mohammad Ershad and Bishen Bedi, to work in Bangladesh and India respectively, for Pakistan was always my priority. I am no longer a PCB employee but my advice is still valued by its chief curator, Agha Zahid.’
Following the death of Mohammad Ameen, Haji Bashir was picked amongst the three strong candidates to replace him. The stadium, in 1974 was named after Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi and presently has a seating capacity of 27,000. In 1983 the management of the stadium stopped reporting to the Pakistan Sports Board (PSB). Bashir, along with his family, occupied one of the quarters – No.6 – opposite Gate No.10 of the stadium, for a 15-year period, whilst Board’s employee. His reputation as an honest and dedicated worker was never in question and even after his last stint at the Board was made welcome at Gaddafi Stadium, his second home.
According to the family sources, his ‘forced’ retirement in 1991, after 25 year service as a groundsman, set him back but through sheer will power and exemplary track record, was reinstated for a number of spells on contract basis. Pakistan cricket simply could not move forward without him and that is a fact. Bashir adapted to the technical changes in ground equipment better than others in his profession in Pakistan and could be relied upon for a basic vocabulary of English required for his work environment whilst dealing with pitch experts arriving from overseas since 1976 on the initiative of A.H.Kardar– the Board President. The Australian John Maley, who had worked in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, did soil study at Lahore and Karachi. Bashir also worked alongside British-born ICC curator, Andy Atkinson, who was first invited by the PCB, back in 2001.
Though his primary work of preparation and maintenance of pitches was at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore that beginning in 1978, hosted 61 ODIs including the final of the 1996 World Cup, Bashir was often called to National Stadium, Karachi too. His knowledge of soil and local conditions was of utmost value for the selectors, Pakistan captains, umpires and journalists. It is hard to imagine if the wickets at Faisalabad, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Hyderabad, Sahiwal, Multan or Quetta, would have stood up to regular first-class cricket and then to emerge as international venues, without Bashir’s curatorship. Although based in Lahore, his expertise was sought by the Board, all around Pakistan, prior to international fixtures and domestic one-day finals.
As opposed to England and Australia who play cricket in the summer, the Asian sub-continent due to his intense heat has its cricket season peaking in the winter months - November to February. The sight of Bashir, for the best part of his days with the Board, dressed in shalwar kameez, and his associates working tirelessly in the off-season period of hot summer’s afternoon and in the monsoon phase, was a testament to his devotion as every blade of grass in the ground was attended to.
Since 1984 he often travelled to UAE at the invitation of Sharjah Cricket Association till the last ODI tournament in 2003. Bashir’s services were loaned to Bangladesh cricket Board, who hosted matches at Dhaka and Chittagong for the 1988 Asia Cup. He also had the honour of working at National Cricket Stadium, Tangier that held the first ever ODI tournament in Morocco in 2002. Even after his last stint with PCB at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore in 2016, Bashir, now supporting a lengthy white beard to emerge as a modern day W.G.Grace, the idea of retirement was not entertained by him, as he fulfilled his commitment with Pakistan Sports Board (PSB), Imran Khan Foundation in Larkana and Mianwali and more recently with Lahore Qalandars, a PSL franchise.
It pained him a great deal that the last of the 40th Test staged at the Gaddafi Stadium, back in March 2009 marred by the terrorist attacks on Sri Lanka team’s coach leading to a decade-long refusal of international teams to visit Pakistan. Since the lockdown caused by coronavirus pandemic in Lahore in March 2020, he was forced away from the game. Few days prior to his death, he was devoting his time in the reconstruction of a local mosque, as he wanted every day to count.
Buried in his ancestral graveyard in village Tehaiet at 10pm on the day of his death, Bashir is survived by wife whom he married in 1962, two sons, three daughters and nineteen grandchildren.
Bashir’s elder son, Mohammad Ashraf, was called by Yawar Saeed to assist in the preparation of a 1987 Reliance World Cup fixture between England and Sri Lanka at Peshawar. In 1991 he was appointed by the Board secretary Shahid Rafi as head curator of newly-built Pindi Stadium and in the recent series against Zimbabwe, completed his 25 ODIs. In this period he also fulfilled a one-year contract with Abu Dhabi, at the request of Director PCB Saleem Altaf, and in the initial preparation of pitches at Mirpur in Azad Kashmir and Abbotabad.
Now Mohammad Shaheer Hussain, Ashraf’s son and Bashir’s grandson, too is looking for a full-time opportunity with PCB, following a three-year stint in Oman and the last 18 months’ with Lahore Qalandars, making it as three generations of the family to have worked as a groundsman.
Majid Khan, ex Pakistan captain and former CEO of Pakistan Cricket Board
‘One could not undermine the service of Haji Bashir to Pakistan cricket. It was only in the period of my executive role in the Board that I got to know him well enough and found him to be curious about learning. In our discussions, I was happy to pass on my experience of having played all around the world and with reference to my interaction with groundsmen in England and Australia. Although we often invited overseas experts, the best pitches were prepared by people of local knowledge.’
‘It is a great shame that we never developed a culture where groundsman were given their due respect and status. We all know the quality of pitch and the ball are the two key factors that more than often determine the outcome of a cricket match, at all levels of the game. In my playing days we as players and the Board officials, ought to have learned the basic knowledge of preparation and maintenance of pitch and outfield Moreover technical and scientific aspects of ground care has never been imparted through seminars, workshops or printed manuals. The ground staff at all international venues including Haji Bashir, who was the best we have had, and his team of workers, should not have been treated as mere labourers or Maalees (gardeners). The maintenance role played by them, in the off-season at the peak of summer’s heat and in the monsoon, sets the scene for the upcoming season of international and domestic cricket.’
Agha Zahid, Test opening batsman and PCB Head Curator till 2020.
‘It was a pleasure to have Haji Bashir, working under me for 19 years as a curator at PCB headquarter, Lahore, till 2016. Even after his official retirement, I was more than keen to have him in our team at the Gaddafi Stadium, by extending his stay on contract basis. It worked fine for both parties. His positive, energetic outlook with wealth of experience made his age irrelevant to me. Although with more formal education he perhaps might have performed better but I can’t think of any curator in Pakistan with better work ethics. We have lost someone whose dedication to his profession whilst holding on to strong religious belief, was a shining example for all.’
Taher Memon – the man behind the first sponsorship deal of Pakistan cricket in 1977 through the Wills brand of Pakistan Tobacco Company.
‘For me, Haji Bashir was the only professional cricket groundsman in Pakistan, who was completely devoted to his work. In the 21-year (1977-98) working relationship with the cricket Board as a representative of Pakistan Tobacco Company, I closely monitored his work ethics and never saw him compromising with his professional integrity. Through his experience he was able to prepare different pitches for Tests, ODIs and domestic cricket needs, a subject that would often raise its head in our meetings of Domestic Tournament Monitoring Committee (DTMC).’
‘Bashir could be relied upon to prepare a belter of a pitch for limited-overs Wills Cup final, in view of the entertainment value of a cricket contest. In my experience he would ask for an input at early stages of the preparation of a pitch but then preferred to be left alone and was not verse to manipulation. As part of the Directorate of the Reliance World Cup, I saw how kind and mindful Haji Bashir was to the welfare of his junior team members. It was an absolute pleasure to catch up with him on a book launch of ‘Another Perspective’ in March 2019 at Gaddafi Stadium.’
Mohammad Ilyas, Test batsman and Chairman of selectors
‘Haji Bashir was a great guy. Very loving and caring and my generation of players grew up admiring dedication to his work as a groundsman. He welcomed me to Pakistan in 1983 when I arrived back having served a long ban due to unfortunate circumstances in the 1972-73 winter tour of Australia. There was a Training Camp in progress at the Gaddafi Stadium and Haji Bashir was the first person to recognize and acknowledge me and introduced me to players and ground workers. How can I forget that. In my playing career, I played on two Tests on the pitches prepared by him: against New Zealand in 1965 and against England in 1969. No one could match his experience and we shall all remember him as a very fine groundsman, who was well respected for his work and as a first rate human being.’
Sattar Malik – a reputed cricket administrator, based in south London
‘I first met Haji Bashir Sahib when I visited Lahore in January 1989 and my good friend Azhar Zaidi (renowned cricketer administrator and former Pakistan cricket manager) of P &T Gymkhana CC took me to Gaddafi Stadium. It was an absolute pleasure to meet him and it seemed like we had known each other for years. He was very friendly, humble and showed us round the stadium and took great pride in preparing wonderful cricket pitches.’
‘My next meeting with the great man was in March 1996, just before the World Cup final between Australia and Sri Lanka. On this occasion Ashraf Ali (former Test wicket keeper) took his and my family to the stadium. Considering it was such a busy time, again Haji Bashir took time out to show us around. The most amazing thing was he remembered our meeting all those years ago. It is difficult to describe in words the simplicity of the gentleman. An unsung hero, who put endless efforts behind the scene to provide wonderful surfaces to entertain the public. Haji Bashir was highly respected, giant of a man in his field and will be greatly missed by all cricket lovers.’
Ali Anwar Jafri - Venue Manager and Joint Secretary of Sharjah Cricket
'It was sad to hear about the demise of Haji Bashir Sahib. May Allah place him in His infinite mercy. I first met Haji Sahib in Sharjah Cricket Stadium in early 1984 when he visited for preparation of first ever turf pitch of the Middle East, just before the Asia Cup. During those days, Mohammad Ishaq used to be our curator, who had no experience in preparing a turf pitch, until than an unofficial international cricket was playing on a concrete wicket with an AstroTurf on top. Due to the considerable efforts of Haji Sahib not only did fans of cricket get to witness some above average cricket; but simultaneously, he also trained our inexperienced staff in such a manner that Sharjah, with its unique pitch, attained considerable fame in the world of cricket.'
'Similarly in 2002, when Mr. Abdul Rahman Bukhatir decided to build a stadium in Morroco Haji Sahib's services were employed once more. Even though it was an exponentially more difficult task as compared to the UAE project but with the help of Sharjah stadium’s Israr Ahmed and Mohammad Jameel, Haji Bashir Sahib was able to present a pitch of extremely high standards in a very short time, where 7 highly captivating matches were held over a period of only 10 days. I’m confident that Haji Sahib's name will shine on in every stadium that he graced with his skills.'
The writer is indebted the above six contributors, besides Haji Bashir’s sons -Mohammad Ashraf and Mohammad Akram.