Saturday, January 10, 2009

When World Leaders Met on the Cricket Pitch

This is going to be a slightly long post. It's a recount of a unique event that hardly anyone talks about. I was lucky to be an up-close and personal witness to it, and would like to share my experience with the readers of Well Pitched.

In October 1991, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was held in Harare, Zimbabwe. My father was stationed as the High Commissioner for Pakistan to Zimbabwe at the time and was responsible for handling the visit of Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif, being a huge cricket enthusiast, and a regular and serious club cricketer, sent a message to my father a few months before the conference indicating his desire to play cricket with other world leaders during the conference.

Negotiations began with Sharif's counterparts to gauge the interest level. Prime Ministers John Major (UK) and Bob Hawke (Australia) responded with great enthusiasm. The President of Maldives (Mamoon Abdul Gayoom) also indicated his interest in playing, though he admitted he had limited exposure to the game. Unfortunately, India declined participation. Not because of any political reasons, but because Prime Minister Narsimha Rao was 70 at the time and not in great shape (I'm not even sure if he was much of a cricket player/fan himself).

Cut forward a few months and we arrive at Friday October 18th, 1991. It was a typically flawless Zimbabwe early summer afternoon. And the full crowd at the Harare Sports Club was giddy in anticipation for this historic occasion. All proceeds were earmarked for charities. The sponsors agreed to contribute ZIM$ 1000 for each six, and ZIM$ 500 for each four, and various other amounts (just for clarification, this was when the ZIM$ was about 5ish to the USD! Hard to believe, isn't it??? The "official" current rate is now about ZIM$ 10 million to the USD! Unofficial rate is much, much more than that.)

When the motorcade arrived, my father was leading Sharif to the dignitaries enclosure where other leaders were waiting. But Sharif refused to go there! "Why?," my father asked nervously. Sharif put it very simply - "I need some net practice!"

So off we went to the nets! A crowd gathered around to see Sharif warm up for the main event. The ground provided us with a half-dozen or so balls, and it was pretty much open to anyone to bowl to him. After a few of Sharif's staff took their turn at bowling, my father (regrettably) handed a ball to me. Now, I'm definitely not known for my bowling skills, and naturally I was very nervous. Sure enough, I threw a beamer straight for Sharif's head! That split second was one of the most agonizing of my life. All I was thinking about was the headline in the Zimbabwe Herald the next day - "Young idiot knocks out Pakistani PM and cancels historic charity match!"

Thankfully, Sharif was able to use his skill to comfortably defend it down. A huge relief for me, and my father (who politely suggested I didn't bowl anymore!). My brother had better success as he was the only one who managed to bowl Sharif out (a ripper that went around Sharif's legs). I saw a couple of my school friends and handed them the ball and they took part as well. Random members of the crowd also participated. Overall, Sharif impressed in the nets.

Sharif completed his stint at the nets as word came that Major, Hawke, and Gayoom were ready to get the show started. Among other political dignitaries in attendance were President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and PM Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh. I can not recall if PM Rao was in attendance (if anyone has this info, please share in the comments).

Sidenote before I proceed: Looking back at it, the most amazing part was the low security of the event. There were no security checks in the entire ground that day. There were no barricades set up. Nothing. No one even really questioned me as I walked into the dignitaries area and got stuck between Mugabe and Khaleda Zia for a portion of the match. That's how great Zimbabwe was in those days. A calm, peaceful place, where people lived to enjoy. And I guess the world wasn't as crazy back then as it is now, so you could afford to be a bit lax on security.

Anyway, moving on. Here's how the game worked. Hawke and Major were the first pair, and Sharif and Gayoom were the second pair. Each pair would face three overs from the Prince Edward School team - the school where the likes of Fletcher, Hick, Houghton, Brandes, etc. were educated. (I have to admit I was a little miffed that my school, St. Johns College, was not selected as the fielding side, but oh well!) The bowlers were instructed to bowl dollies, and each pair would face a full three overs regardless of whether they got out.

So Major and Hawke walked toward the pitch amidst tremendous applause. Obviously I can not recall ball by ball what happened, but at least a couple of fours were hit in those three overs. Whether they were hit by Major or Hawke, I'm not sure. They also managed a few twos and some singles. I don't think either of them got out.

Before you knew it, three overs were up. The crowd cheered them back, and cheered in the pair of Sharif and Gayoom. As is the norm on any cricket ground in the world, Pakistani supporters showed up in good numbers to cheer on their representative!

Sharif seemed a bit nervous, and he confided to my father just before going onto the field that all he needed to do was survive the first ball, and then he would be ok. And he easily defended the first ball back to the bowler - a good omen!

I'm not sure whether it was the next ball, or the one after that, but Sharif made great use of his feet by charging down the pitch and smacking the ball way over the boundary for a huge six. The entire crowd went wild! And no, he was not done. He hit another two massive sixes, and at least two fours in his innings! It was phenomenal. No one expected this level of entertainment, so it was pure exhilaration for the responsive and supportive crowd. Gayoom gave able support for whatever little of the strike he had, but I think he did get out on one occasion.

The pair walked back in after their three overs to a raucous ovation. The crowd did express their desire to see more of the explosive Sharif. But the leaders had to fly off to Victoria Falls later that evening for the conference retreat, so there wasn't much flexibility in the schedule.

I think there was some small presentation after Sharif and Gayoom walked back into the dignitaries area. And then they were off. But the on-pitch festivities continued. Graeme Hick took to the field. The bowlers were now bowling at full strength, but Hick (naturally) crucified them! It was a savage barrage of boundaries. A few other greats also batted, including Clive Lloyd. I seem to recall Dave Houghton and/or one of the Flowers batting as well, but maybe not. A Pakistani diplomat (and accomplished cricketer), Shahryar Khan, also batted for a bit.

Overall, a very memorable experience. Not too many people remember it, perhaps because coverage was limited. Pakistan TV did tape the entire event and sent a condensed report to Pakistan. I have a copy of the unedited tape (including the beamer!), but it is in storage somewhere in Pakistan. If I ever get my hands on it, it will be on Youtube in a heartbeat. Till then, the match remains in my mind as a great memory, and now documented on Well Pitched for posterity!

On a sobering note, I can't even imagine anything like this taking place ever again. With the amount of security required these days, and the heightened political tensions, it's practically impossible. A sad direction the world has taken. And even sadder is how Zimbabwe, such a beautiful and wonderful place, has suffered so much since those happy days.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. And especially from anyone who attended the match as well. My memory is a bit hazy so I may have some of the details wrong. Please feel free to correct me. Also, please try to avoid any divisive political comments if possible. I know this post mentions lots of world leaders, and a lot of you would have strong opinions about them (as do I). But I respectfully request you keep those for another blog.

Thanks for reading, and apologies for the length of the post. It became much longer than I thought it would be!

Make your pitch on this post...

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10 Pitched:

  1. Q said...


    U bowled at Nawaz Sharif and almost hit him! Hahaha.. thats quite some story for the grand kids Sledge! Ofcourse the kids as well ;-)

    I wasn't aware of this event. Never heard or read about it but it definitely is a great story to tell in context of the current security situations around the world and that of Zimbabwe.


  2. Gaurav Sethi said...

    Absolute cracker Sledgehammer. Dig the videos out, forget youtube, post them here.

  3. Anonymous said...


    You could have become a national hero/savior if you had got him with your beamer:))

    Jokes apart thanks for sharing your amazing story with us.

  4. SledgeHammer said...

    @All - thanks for the comments!

    @Q: damn, jumping ahead there with the grandkids! I know I'm old, but c'mon!!! ;)

    @Naked Cricket - it's practically impossible to dig out the videos considering none of my immediate family lives in Pak anymore, and everything is locked up in some random warehouse. If I ever do, I'll follow your advice and put them on wellpitched before anywhere else!

    @Wasim: LOL! I think my dad's career would have suffered badly though! So I'm pretty thankful NS had good reflexes and solid defense techniques.

  5. Q said...

    Sledge, its just that in this day and age I doubt we'd have the time to tell our kids any stories ;-)

  6. SledgeHammer said...

    @Q: nice comeback!

  7. Usman said...

    Thanks for sharing this event with us. i was not aware of this. it will be great if you can find and share video.

  8. SledgeHammer said...

    Usman - thanks for your comment, and for the link in pkpolitics.

    It was indeed a rare experience. I am very fortunate to have been part of it.

    If I ever extract the videos, I will share them. But the chance of getting the tapes out of storage is pretty slim!

    Thanks again.

  9. Unknown said...

    Just came across this article... great read
    A couple of things i read about this game elsewhere:
    - In his autobiography, John Major relates how Bob Hawke very cunningly used to take a single at the end of every three overs. Major apparently didn't know they were out there for only three overs.
    - The Pakistani diplomat Shahryar Khan in his book "Cricket - A Bridge of Peace" mentions that Nawaz Sharif hit five sixes off successive deliveries

  10. MM said...

    I remember the day very well. I was a student at PE at the time and was asked to play that day. Yep, I was one of those asked to bowl the dollies. It was an enjoyable day.

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