Testing Times - National Stadium, Karachi

The Test match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka marked the end of a decade-long drought of five-day international cricket at the National Stadium, Karachi (NSK). As expected, there was a great enthusiasm in the city, best known as a fortress of Pakistan cricket for it has only been defeated just twice, in 2000 by Nasser Hussain’s England team, in a final-day run chase amidst pitch black conditions and in 2007 by Graeme Smith-led South Africa, in the 42 Tests held at the ground. 

The Test match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka marked the end of a decade-long drought of five-day international cricket at the National Stadium, Karachi (NSK). As expected, there was a great enthusiasm in the city, best known as a fortress of Pakistan cricket for it has only been defeated just twice, in 2000 by Nasser Hussain’s England team, in a final-day run chase amidst pitch black conditions and in 2007 by Graeme Smith-led South Africa, in the 42 Tests held at the ground. 

It was NSK that had hosted the last uninterrupted Test match to go to the distance on a Pakistan soil, ironically between the same two teams, in February 2009. The feature of the high-scoring drawn game, ten years ago, on a belter of a wicket, where the two rival captains Mahela Jayawardene (240) and Younis Khan (313) leading from the front, not to mention Thilan Samaraweera (231), to making life very uneasy for the bowlers. Pakistan’s 765-6 declared remains the highest total in its Test history. 

In 2019, now led by Azhar Ali and armed with exciting young pace attack, it was a keenly awaited event for Pakistan cricketers and their supporters, all around the world. After beating Sri Lanka by 263 runs, Pakistan has now recorded 21 Test victories at NSK, through some great individual and team performances. Surprisingly in the playing line-up, Karachi was represented by just one player, Asad Shafiq, a rather gloomy scenario for a city with a long tradition of producing some great names of Pakistan cricket. 

Karachi as the biggest and most populous city and the country’s capital till 1960, is one of the key centres of cricket in Pakistan. As a financial hub of the newly independent state, it opened the doors to great numbers of Muslim migrants from India. Amongst those who opted to migrate to Karachi were the Junagadh-born Mohammed brothers –Wazir, Raees, Hanif, Mushtaq, and Sadiq – would form the backbone of Pakistan batting and remarkably at least one of the siblings, featured in the country’s first 87 Tests till 1978. 

It was the knowhow about the opponents and conditions that helped the brothers to adapt so well in crisis and serve the country with distinction. Included initially in 1952 as an opening batsman and wicket-keeper, Hanif with watertight technique and the soundest of temperament was the first great Pakistan batsman and the only triple hundred maker amongst his countrymen till 2002. In 1959 he scored two Test hundreds at NSK, a match-winning against West Indies and a match-saving against Australia. His son Shoaib Mohammed, also a determined opening batsman, with an unbeaten 203 against New Zealand in 1990, was only the third man to reach double hundred at NSK

Moreover, Alimuddin, Wallis Mathias, Nasim-ul-Ghani, Antao D’Souza, Mohammad Munaf, Intikhab Alam, Mohammad Farooq, Asif Iqbal, Wasim Bari, Zaheer Abbas, and Aftab Baloch, were some of the big names to have a strong impact in Karachi cricket and would go on to represent Pakistan. The cosmopolitan appeal of the capital city also allured a number of cricketers from Lahore, namely Waqar Hasan, Mahmood Hussain, Shuja-ud-din, Saeed Ahmed and Pervez Sajjad, to pursue their careers in Karachi.

A new stadium erected in four months’ period in February 1955 was a testimony to the dedication of Kafil-ud-din, chief engineer of the Public Works Department (PWD) and a passionate patron of Pakistan cricket. He oversaw all the construction work to ensure it was ready to host the Indians for a Test match, last of the five-match series. A fresh coir matting pitch at the New (later named National) Stadium, set the tone for slow-scoring attrition battle between bat and ball. On the third day with the crowd estimated at 40,000, a heavy thunderstorm reduced the playing time to just two hours on an uncovered mat and the four-day match ended in a draw. 

Opening batsman, Alim-ud-din, became the first Test centurion at the ground with skipper A.H.Kardar reaching a Test-best 93. In the conditions described as ‘paradise for pace bowlers,’ the bowling honours were shared by India’s Karachi-born Gulabrai Ramchand (6-49) and Pakistan’s Fazal Mahmood (5-48) and Khan Mohammed (5-73). The new venue immediately became the focal cricket centre of the city. Previously, major cricket matches in Karachi were held at the Gymkhana Ground, the venue of the momentous Pakistan win against MCC in November 1951 and it becoming the seventh Test-playing country.  

Later in the year, NSK would be the venue for Pakistan’s first-ever home Test win when it defeated New Zealand by an innings margin with off-spinner Zulfiqar Ahmed claiming a match haul of 11-79. The next year, Australians led by Ian Johnson, suffered a nine-wicket defeat as new-ball pair of Fazal Mahmood (13-114) and Khan Mohammed (7-112), two distinguished Punjab University bowlers, demonstrated their match-winning skills on a matting, to share all 20 wickets. 

Against Fazal, in particular, survival was ever so hard for bowling his leg cutters with great control, he had learned the art of operating on matting. In the four-Test matches on an NSK matting, he claimed 32 wickets @ 13.84, whilst becoming the first Pakistani to lead the team to a victory in his first Test as a captain, against West Indies in 1959. In the same year against Australia at NSK, Fazal had the honour to present a green Pakistan cricket blazer to Dwight Eisenhower, who became the first and only American President to attend Test cricket whilst accompanied by his Pakistani counterpart, General Ayub Khan.

The cricket authorities in Pakistan, now keen to align with the rest of the world, hosted its first Test match on turf pitch at Karachi, against MCC in February 1962. The touring captain Ted Dexter recorded his Test-best score of 205 on the occasion. In a one-off Test in 1964, Australian captain Bobby Simpson scored a century in each innings – 153 and 115 - against Pakistan, now under its new captain Hanif Mohammad and featuring six debutantes - Khalid Ibadullah, Abdul Kadir, Shafqat Rana, Majid Khan, Asif Iqbal, and Pervez Sajjad. 

The 1965 Test against the Kiwis featured till then one of its best run chases with Mohammad Ilyas’s rapid 126 that had followed Saeed Ahmed’s Test-best 172 in Pakistan’s first innings. A troubled tour of MCC in 1969 came to an abrupt end when the final Test match of the series at NSK was abandoned due to crowd invasion leading to riots on the third morning. Pakistan bowling attack featuring debutante paceman Sarfraz Nawaz took a hammering from Colin Milburn’s entertaining hundred. The two men went on to share the Northamptonshire dressing room for a number of years. 

Caught amid strained relations between cricket authorities in Karachi and Lahore, Intikhab Alam, a compromised choice at best, led Pakistan for the first time in what proved to be a farewell game for the great Hanif Mohammed and debut for his younger brother Sadiq, alongside three others – Mohammad Nazir Jr., Younis Ahmed, and Zaheer Abbas. The wicket for the four-day Test match started crumbling on the first morning and was the first surface at NSK that was ‘under-prepared’ to suit the slow bowlers. NSK was a lucky ground for Intikhab, on a matting, as a 17-year old, exactly ten years ago in 1959, he had created a real stir by bowling Australia’s opening batsman Colin McDonald for 19, off his first ball in a Test match.

The city threw up high quality cricketers in the 1970s – a generation born and bred in Karachi - and was represented by the street-smart genius of Javed Miandad, arguably the finest Pakistan batsman, besides Liaqat Ali, Sikander Bakht, Iqbal Qasim, Haroon Rasheed, and Mohsin Khan. In the 1980s Karachi continued to feed players - Tauseef Ahmed, Mansoor Akhtar, Ijaz Faqih, Rizwan-uz-Zaman, Rashid Khan, Azeem Hafeez, Qasim Umar, Shoaib Mohammed, Asif Mujtaba, Saleem Jaffer – and compete on almost equal terms with Lahore, the second major cricket nursery in Pakistan. 

In terms of wicket-keeping, following the axing of Imtiaz Ahmed in 1964, it was always Karachi-based stumpers - Abdul Kadir, Naushad Ali, Wasim Bari, Shahid Israr, Taslim Arif, Saleem Yousuf, and Anil Dalpat – that were found behind the timbers. Bari was the best of the above seven named, with far more skilful whilst keeping to pacemen standing back and was a pioneer of acrobatic diving catches in Pakistan,  He was rarely out of favour with the selectors, was the first to take seven catches in a Test innings in 1979 and at NSK in 1983 against India, became the first, and to date the only, Pakistani to claim 200 wicket-keeping dismissals. 

As a captain though, in the back-to-back series against England in 1977-78, with Pakistan minus its star players, Bari was indecisive and it led to pretty dull cricket in the three home Tests. In the 1978 Test at NSK, with England team refusing to take the field against any Kerry Packer WSC contracted players, Mushtaq Mohammed, Zaheer Abbas and Imran Khan, all three had to return back to Australia. 

he theme continued throughout the 1990s, as the wicket-keepers’ role was exclusively Karachi’s as two of its brightest home-grown talents, Moin Khan and Rashid Latif, could both win matches with the bat too and would also go on to lead the country. In the same era, Saeed Anwar, Basit Ali, Hasan Raza, and Shahid Afridi, made a name for themselves but signs were there to see that cricketers from Punjab and the North West Frontier (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) were set to become bigger stakeholders in Pakistan cricket.

The 1973 Test against MCC featured three batsmen – Dennis Amiss, Majid Khan and Mushtaq Mohammed – all dismissed for 99. After narrowly missing three figures, Majid at the peak of his powers returned to NSK and made amends with a hundred each against West Indies in 1975 and New Zealand in 1976. In the latter, his 112 was a hundred before lunch on an opening day, shrugged off merely as a ‘fluke’ by the man himself. 

It required an innings of high merit of 206 – the first double hundred at the ground by a Pakistan batsman - by ‘wonder boy’ Javed Miandad, in his first Test series, to upstage Majid. It was a fantastic surface to bat on and the match aggregate of 1585 runs was a record, at the time, for any Test on the Asian sub-continent. Two years later in 1978 Miandad, in partnership with Asif Iqbal, won the game in a thrilling against-the-clock run-chase against India, touring Pakistan after a gap of 23 years. The capacity crowd at NSK could not have asked for a better finish to a Test match, against the arch-rival. 

A great victory at NSK could not have been possible without skipper Mushtaq Mohammed’s positive intent, as he went all out for a positive result thus breaking away from a typically conservative sub-continental mindset of ‘playing safe’. On the losing side was Sunil Gavaskar, Indian opening batsman of high merit, who fought vainly to the end, with 111 and 137 to his name whereas his team-mates could not stand the ‘heat’.

The Australia Test in February 1980 with Javed Miandad as the new Pakistan captain and Mushtaq Mohammed appointed as first tracksuit manager/coach was the first of a series of spinner-friendly wickets produced at NSK, leading to slow attrition battle of wits. 

One of the more under-rated Pakistan cricketers of his time, slow left-arm ‘roller’ Iqbal Qasim, as a Karachite exploited the conditions better than any other spinner, backed up his figures of 44 wickets @20.38 in 9 Tests. Against Australia, touring Pakistan after 15 years, Qasim was paired with off-spinner Tauseef Ahmed, who with only one previous first-class outing had impressed the senior Pakistan players in the nets to be included in the playing eleven. A remarkable, out of the blue, international debut for a working-class boy from Karachi. 

In the same year Miandad, batting against reputed West Indies pace attack featuring Colin Croft, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall, still without a helmet, scored 60 out of 128 all out. In the most trying conditions on a pitch dried by electric heaters, a world-record six of his team-mates had failed to score and Zaheer, had retired hurt, having taken a blow on his head. Against Australia in 1988, Miandad fought hard to reach 211 to power his side to an inning win. With 1393 runs @ 58.04 at NSK and as crowds’ favourite in his home city, Miandad, without fail was given standing ovation on his arrival at the crease.

The weight of expectation to produce his best form at NSK proved too much for Zaheer, on his day nothing short of a run-machine. In the 20 Test innings at NSK, he could only muster one hundred – 186 against India in 1982 and simply murdering the bowling after arriving with his side in deep trouble at 18-3. His tally of 531 runs @ 31.23 in Karachi was well short of his international reputation. Sadly, Zaheer’s career for Pakistan came to an abrupt end when he was replaced by Ramiz Raja, on the morning of the Test match at NSK, against Sri Lanka in 1985. Not the most dignified exit for a star batsman of his standing.

Imran Khan, a champion all-rounder that he was, was a match-winner at NSK on more than one occasion. As a bowler, he did prove deadly when backed by a Karachi sea breeze with two of his finest spells - 8-60 (11-79 in the match) against India in 1982 and 6-46 against West Indies in 1986 - helping his tally of 51 wickets @ 18.39 in 11 Tests at the ground. After hitting a maiden Test fifty against New Zealand in 1976, he scored an unbeaten 109 against India in 1989 and often proved a ‘big’ wicket for the opposition as his batting 523 runs @ 58.11 suggests. As a captain, he would prove an inspirational figure and stood up to the accusation of favouritism towards Punjab players, whenever he turned up at NSK.

Sri Lanka’s first overseas Test in March 1982 was at NSK as it faced Pakistan line-up with four new faces – Rashid Khan, Salim Malik, Salim Yousuf, and Tahir Naqqash – after a number of leading players had refused to play under Miandad’s captaincy. Later in the year with Imran now leading the side, Pakistan beat both Australia and India to underline a new era of positive and winning culture. 

In 1984 Pakistan, led by Zaheer Abbas, recorded its first victory at home against England, not before they had stumbled whilst chasing a 65-run target to win by 3 wickets. At one stage it seemed left-arm spinner Nick Cook who claimed match figures of 11-83 would win the game for England only for Anil Dalpat, the first Hindu cricketer to represent Pakistan, to take his side to the finish line, with a top score of 16 not out. 

The three Pakistan slow bowlers – Iqbal Qasim, Abdul Qadir, and Tauseef Ahmed – were the match-winners at Karachi in the 1980s. Qadir the wrist-spinner had both patience and stamina to bowl long spells, which he often was asked to do at NSK. Even with his left hand in plaster, he bowled 75.1 overs to claim seven West Indies wickets in 1986. Against England in 1987, he toiled for 103.4 overs to claim ten wickets and his final tally of 59 wickets @ 26.62 in 13 Test matches was evidence of his success at the venue.

In 1989 against India, it was at NSK when pacemen Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis paired as Test bowlers, for the first time. For the next decade, their aggressive, skilful fast bowling, coupled with extraordinary self-belief, took Pakistan cricket to great heights. In the 1990 Test against New Zealand at NSK, Wasim-Waqar partnership accounted for 15 wickets, in an innings and 43 runs win. A month later they were at it again with another haul of 15 wickets to lead their side to an eight-wicket win against West Indies. Keeping fuller length and having mastered the art to reverse swing an old ball, they could run through any side in the world and were very appropriately dubbed as Imran’s inheritors. 

In 1994, NSK hosted a Test match after a gap of four years and very nearly Pakistan came close to losing for the first time in Karachi. An unbeaten 57-run last-wicket stand between Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mushtaq Ahmed, guiding the home side to snatch an unlikely win against Australia. For the third time running at Karachi, Wasim-Waqar combination accounted for 15 wickets, to bring the opposition to its knees. The pair’s combined harvest, in 13 Tests at NSK, would amount to 79 wickets. 

In 1997 off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq claimed nine wickets and Pakistan won the match by 10 wickets, to complete its first, Test whitewash against West Indies. A 298-run stand between Aamir Sohail (160) and his make-shift partner Ijaz Ahmed Sr. (151), remains the highest opening stand in Tests for Pakistan. 

In 1998, Shahid Afridi took 5-52 on his Test debut against Australia, who secured the series 1-0 and have not set foot on Pakistan soil since, due to their security concerns in the region. Appearing in the last of his 13th appearance at NSK, match-winning stroke maker Saleem Malik, failed to score in either innings on the ground he hit a Test debut hundred against Sri Lanka in 1982 and claimed a fine record of 855 runs @ 57.00. 

At the outset of the 21st century, Younis Khan kicked off with a Test debut hundred and despite a number of setbacks, ended with a number of national batting records to his name. In the same generation Danish Kaneria, Faisal Iqbal, Mohammad Sami, Asim Kamal, Khurram Manzoor, Sarfraz Ahmed, and Asad Shafiq, came to the fore. In the seven decades since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, Karachi has produced some great ‘thinking cricketers’ in batsmen, slow bowlers and wicket-keepers, to rise to the top whereas its climate and playing conditions have not proved to be a breeding ground for the quick bowlers.

In 2000, Pakistan no longer the force of the old, managed to beat Sri Lanka by 222 runs but a last day batting collapse saw them lose to England by 6 wickets. Not many sides have lost a Test match after putting up a first-innings total of 405 as captain Moin Khan and head coach Javed Miandad were left to rue their defensive approach. In the post 9/11 phase, New Zealand twice pulled out of tours with security concerns and each time Karachi missed out on a Test match. In 2003 Pakistan beat Bangladesh by 7 wickets with Yasir Hameed making a name for himself with scores of 170 and 105 on his Test debut.

In 2004, leg-spinner Danish Kaneria’s 10 wicket match haul, earned Pakistan a 6-wicket win and level the two-match series against Sri Lanka. In 2006, India playing its first Test at NSK since 1989, had reduced the home side to 39-6 (with Irfan Pathan’s sensational hat-trick in the first over of the Test) on the first morning but allowed Pakistan, not only to recover but also win the game by a margin of 341 runs. 

Pakistan had a number of heroes in its great comeback but two individuals stood out more than the rest. Almost oblivious to the crisis, Kamran Akmal, the wicket-keeper, batting at No.8, counter-attacked on his way to a sublime 113 off just 148 balls with 18 fours. Mohammad Asif, with that lazy somewhat reluctant run-up to the wicket and a rare ability with those floppy wrists to produce lethal deliveries, almost at will, claimed seven Indian wickets.

Mohammad Yousuf, a right-hand middle-order batsman of classic mould, was at very his most prolific in 2006, on his way to beating Vivian Richards’ long-standing record of 1710 Test runs in a calendar year. Against West Indies, he hammered 102 and 124 in Pakistan’s comfortable 191-run win. In 2007, it was Jacques Kallis’ twin hundreds - 155 and 100 not out - that tilted the balance in South Africa’s favour, who were overwhelmingly better equipped to beat Pakistan by 160 runs. 

The crowd incursions in 1969 caused the abandonment of the Test match against MCC and set a precedent of unruly behaviour and demonstrations by spectators in Karachi. Pelting the boundary fielders with fruit and stone and rushing in exuberance to congratulate players reaching batting milestones were some of the common irritants at all cricket grounds in Pakistan, including NSK. 

Till the late 1980s, with the venue filled to its capacity hardly any day’s cricket at NSK passed without any unsavoury incident involving the crowd. Minor scuffles, often politically motivated, lead to full-scale riots in the stands thus posing serious threat to players’ security, in addition to considerable time loss. In the days of defensive tactics, lifeless wickets, slow over-rate and slow-scoring passages, it became a challenge to keep the crowd amused. By the time crowd-control measures came into place in line with ICC regulations, the crowd number had dropped considerably for Test matches, with many opting to watch on TV.

In the first-ever Test at NSK in 1955, the estimated number of the crowd was 30,000 and the grounds official capacity now stands at 34,228. The first time weather caused the whole day’s loss of play at NSK was in 1980 against the West Indies for usually, one has to play under a cloudless sky, in the heat of Karachi. The NSK underwent major renovation prior to the 1996 World Cup jointly held by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. 

The present Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is doing its utmost best to ensure there is regular international cricket at NSK which to date has hosted most Test matches than any other ground in Pakistan. If Bangladesh, perhaps influenced by India, is reluctant to play Test cricket in Pakistan in 2020, the cricket Board should consider West Indies, Zimbabwe or Ireland.