A personal recollection of Minto Park, now named Greater Allama Iqbal Park, takes one to the late 1960s with wrestlers grappling opponents, who after an oil massage, would enter the Akhara - fray made up of soft soil.
Next to them was fresh water being pulled out from a deep well through strung together little bucket-like pouches, for a shower afterwards.
A 15-minute walk from Said Mitha Bazar, inside Lohari Gate to Minto Park, was a real treat, both in the morning or evening. In the days, before one was sucked into cricket.
Mian Mohammad Aslam, popularly referred as ‘Mian Atto’, a former ICC elite umpire, continues to raise his voice at the declining standards of grassroots cricket in Lahore. The quality of cricket at club, school, college or university level has certainly gone down and particularly Minto Park is the issue that is close to his heart and he reminds everyone, who is prepared to listen, of its glory days. With Punjab University, Old Campus ground also now redundant, the best cricket venues in Lahore are far away from the old city and kids from the low-income families.
In the first two decades of Pakistan, till the late 1960s, Minto Park besides nets of all the leading cricket clubs which included Mamdot, Crescent, Ravi Gymkhana, Muslim Gymkhana, had three cricket pitches with the most sought after middle wicket turf and the other two were matting. At the peak of its popularity amongst the players and cricket-loving public, three Wazir Ali Summer League matches took place concurrently on a Sunday.
The 125-acre space named after Lord Minto, Viceroy and Governor General of British India (1905-10), emerged as the hub of club cricket in Lahore in 1890s. It was at the disposal of population of the walled city that with its 13 original gates had its historic significance ever since the days of the great Mughal empire. Minto Park was the home ground for Mamdot CC, Crescent CC, Ravi Gymkhana, Friends CC, Pioneer CC, Youngster CC & Victorious CC seven of the leading clubs of Lahore with their daily net practice and matches of various tournaments. Amir Elahi, Lala Amarnath, Gul Mohammad, Nazar Mohammad, A.H.Kardar and Imtiaz Ahmed honed their skills in Minto Park to become international stars for All India and Pakistan. Few other leading clubs of Lahore: Universal CC, Lahore Gymkhana, Delhi Gymkhana, Model Town CC, Punjab CC, Ludhiana Gymkhana etc. had their basis outside the old city.
The landscape of Minto Park would change, following the completion of 203-feet high Minar-e-Pakistan or Yadgar-e-Pakistan in 1968 to commemorate the resolution of Pakistan presented in an historic public session of Muslim League on March 23, 1940. Naturally this monument became the main attraction for the locals and the visitors from all over the country, amidst the kite-flying competitions, wrestling and cricket matches played on Sunday. After being renamed as Iqbal Parks in the 1980s, gradually it started losing its appeal as the great nursery of cricketers, particularly when the Punjab government drifted towards the idea of transforming the park space into a more communal family-based attraction.
The demolition of ‘Peelee Kothee’, a building-cum-pavilion financed by Nawab of Mamdot and used for storage of cricket equipment and also for players to have their lunch, was surely the beginning of the end of Minto Park. Though 10-12 clubs carried on with their nets till 2005, there were no longer cricket matches played as the space was taken up by the theme park. The renovation and modernisation of the park has been at the expense of cricket, by far the most popular sport in Pakistan, and Mian Aslam, has a nostalgic childhood relationship with Minto Park, that stretches to six decade. Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab at the time, once informed him that cricket will never return to Minto Park, in his lifetime as Metro and Orange Train were far more beneficial projects for the city.
Mian Aslam was born on April 1, 1949, in a family that resided in Bhaati Gate in the Old City of Lahore, within walking distance of Minto Park, the hub of club cricket in the city. The game was very much in the blood as Mian Mohammad Hussain, their maternal grandfather, had taken to cricket in a big way. For a period he took over as President of Mamdot CC and was known for his generosity with time and finances. Three of Pakistan’s well known cricketers – A.H.Kardar, Imtiaz Ahmed and Zulfiqar Ahmed – were all students at Islamia HS, Bhaati Gate.
Nadeem Ahmed, son of Dr. Dilwar Hussain, former All-India Test wicket-keeper, paid his tribute in the following words,
‘As long as cricket is played in Lahore, the name of Mian Mohammad Hussain shall remain, well over forty odd years after his death. The game of cricket never saw the philanthropy and kindness surpassed amongst his generation. If you were a cricketer and he spotted your clothing or cricket shoes were not in good condition, he would insist on buying you the whole cricket kit, whether he knew you or not. He must have done that dozens of time over and over again in his life, illustrating his passion of the game. No player would go hungry either and his feasts were legendary in the cricket circles. He invited my late father on several occasions over his feasts, just to listen to his cricketing stories. He twice took Nazar Mohammad, by sea to England so his badly dislocated arm that he suffered in 1953, could be fixed, though to no avail. Mian Sahib paid for every dime from Bhaati Gate to Trafalgar Square, on top of the hospital bills.’
The eldest of the four brothers, Mian Aslam was a contemporary of Mohammad Iqbal aka ‘ Bala Natha’, Mohammad Ilyas, Mian Bashir and Iftikhar Ahmed at Muslim Model High School (1962-66) with their mentor Niaz Rabbani, making sure the sports-oriented students, did not neglect their academic obligations. He was a student at Islamia College, Civil Lines, in the 1966-68 period. His two younger brothers – Mian Pervez Akhtar and Mian Javed Akhtar- both went on to captain Government College, Lahore. In fact Pervez, also had an honour of leading Pakistan Universities, Railways, HBFC, Lahore Division and Punjab.
Having absorbed the atmosphere of the Minto Park for a couple of years, Mian Aslam along with Mohammad Javed, Suleman Farooqi and Imdad, founded Muslim Gymkhana in 1964. Within their first decade, it gradually picked itself to be considered as the top ten cricket clubs in Lahore. Muslim Gymkhana, besides its success in Lahore, stamped its authority in Connolly Cup, Sialkot, by winning it for a record nine consecutive years (1970-78). Muslim Gymkhana was unique amongst other clubs in Lahore, in organizing an annual festival, which on three occasions apiece has been staged at Lahore Gymkhana and Gaddafi Stadium,
In this era, the dedication of diehard cricket club officials of Lahore was put to the test, on a hot summers’ day, arriving at Minto Park, either by foot or on bicycle, fully drenched in sweat. The team’s collective cricket gear would be carried in a metal trunk, with a key in possession of either the captain or the secretary.
His nephew Taufeeq Umar, became the first in the family to represent Pakistan at the highest level and besides him other internationals to appear for Muslim Gymkhana, include, Aamer Malik, Ahmed Shehzad, Aqib Javed, Haafiz Shahid, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Ramzan, Mujahid Jamshed and Wasim Haider. The other two: Rana Qayyum-ul-Hasan and present Muslim Gymkhana captain Farhan Nazar, have both been part of the Pakistan u-19 team. Front-line batsman, Asif Ali had a lengthy career, as a front-line batsman, with MCB.
In the 1968-69 period, Mian Aslam not heeding to the medical advice by Dr.Taufeeq, unwisely returned to the game too soon after his appendix operation. It cut short his playing days as an all-rounder but he was unlikely to move away from the game. Supported and egged on by Q.D. Butt of Universal CC and secretary of Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) to take up umpiring, Mian Aslam developed into a no-nonsense character, he earned his reputation both in Lahore and Karachi as a competent unbiased official with both players and BCCP particularly Ghulam Mustafa Khan, who often chose him for ‘difficult’ matches by saying Chal Mujahid.
In a 40-year umpiring career that finally ended in 2013 in an inter-region u-19 tournament, Mian Aslam was one of the most accomplished umpires in Pakistan. After standing as an umpire for the first time in 1973, he was appointed by the Board for the 1975-76 Punjab Tournament. His first international assignment was in an ODI between Pakistan and Sri Lanka at Lahore in 1981-82 and not long after that he would stand in a Test between Pakistan and New Zealand in Hyderabad in 1984-85. In the 1995-96 World Cup, Mian Aslam, was picked as TV Umpire, in two matches. In 2000 his name was forwarded to join the ICC Elite panel of umpires and he stood alongside S.A.Bucknor, R.E.Koertzen and A.F.M.Akhtaruddin, in the period with one neutral umpire in a Test.
Mian Aslam recalls
‘In my first few years as umpire we had very limited understanding of cricket laws and only focused on judging the batsman to be ‘out’ or ‘not out’. In my first big game, with Saleem Altaf bowling, it took me 4-5 overs to get my eye in. In 1978 the cricket Board arranged umpiring courses and Brigadier A.B.Shamsi made it compulsory for umpires to officiate in uniform. Among the number of compliments I received from Aftab Gul and Shahid Afridi, have meant a lot to me and it showed their confidence in my judgement. Most of the cricketers knew I was as unbiased as anyone and my friendship were outside the boundary. In one of the limited-overs final at Lahore, both Hanif Mohammad (PIA) and Irfan Mirza (UBL) agreed to my appointment but left the choice of the second umpire on a toss of a coin. A great honour for me.’
At 60 as per the Board ruling, Mian Aslam retired as an umpire but was disappointed not to have been accorded a formal farewell by the PCB Chairman Ijaz Butt. Perhaps the division of Lahore cricket in a number of groups was the reason behind it. He ended up with 264 first-class, 189 list-A and additional 117 matches, including National u-19 Championship. In 2005-06, Mian Aslam also officiated in two women’s ODIs between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In his successful umpiring career, the officials, he received more support than others included, Q.D.Butt, Raja Saleem Akhtar, Gul Mohammad, Col. Rafi Nasim, Arif Abbasi and Gen. Tauqeer Zia.
A WAPDA employee, Mian Aslam was entrusted with a number of roles in Lahore cricket. He served as a cricket coach at Punjab Sports Board (PSB) for 19 years (1975-94), regularly supervising camps for the junior level of the game. He was also appointed Joint Secretary of Lahore Region Cricket Association (LRCA) and was also chairman of selection committee for clubs in the North Zone, for two tenures in a six-year (2000-06) period.
He also had a spell each as chairman umpires committee and chairman grounds committee, both in Lahore. Mian Aslam also served two tenures of four years each as a coach and a manager of Pakistan Secondary Board and a 12-year span with Lahore Secondary Board. In 2013 he was among the top organisers in the Lahore Region Cricket Association (LRCA) to win the Lifetime Achievement Award. Married in 1982, both his sons have played in the u-19 cricket.
Mian Aslam, now a resident of Krishan Nagar in Lahore, has not been a great fan of the revamped cricket structure designed by the current PCB administration, led by Ehsan Mani and Wasim Khan. The uncertainty after the controversial exit of all departmental teams from domestic cricket was amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, making the last two calendar years, perhaps the most depressing period for cricket administrators of district cricket associations. He also sees the present panel of umpires as pretty ‘weak’ as vast majority of them are full-time and can be influenced by players or officials, to retain their employment.
Mian Aslam adds
‘The way I see it, club cricket in Lahore is finished and I am not very optimistic of the future. The price of cricket equipment and shortage of playing spaces, has taken the game away from most of the kids. In January, Muslim Gymkhana inaugurated a new net at the old Minto Park, in their efforts to reignite some interest in the game. At present there are no storage for nets and other cricketing equipment. There is no running water or washroom available. In the period of General Tauqeer Zia (1999-2002), I felt we made progress at grassroots level as PCB set aside Rs.4.8million for upgrading the six nets available for different clubs. After the sanctioning of funds, Punjab Sports Board (PSB) was responsible for the security and maintenance but sadly there is no sign of six rollers, tube well and heaps of special soil from Nandipur.’
It is worth mentioning that PCB in its bid to streamline the game of cricket started its restructuring programme through a revised constitution in 2019. In the first phase, the activities and even the affiliation of cricket associations and club cricket all over Pakistan, were put on hold. After establishing just six regions to participate in the 2019-20 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy which is playing Grade I (first-class) and second XI participating in Grade II (non- first-class), it had continued to promote junior cricket at both u-16 and u-19 level.
There has been a great deal of criticism from all around the country and it seemed only an elite group of players, since the six regional squads had been picked by PCB, would be able to take part in a country with 220 million population. Recently PCB has outlined its roadmap with registration of cricket clubs and followed it with the same for senior and u-19 teams of the 90 city cricket associations. It is hoped the latest announcements will satisfy Mian Aslam and other sceptics, to some degree, and see PCB efforts in regulating the game at every level, as forward thinking. He also can’t get his head around at the selection of a player for a Test squad in Zimbabwe, with only tape ball cricket and PSL appearances to his name.