Every now and then a sporting event transcends the world of sport. A Test match at the Oval, 50 years ago this week, did just that.
It was the final Test of a rain-splattered four-match series between England and the new country of Pakistan, which had been formed by partition from India in 1947. England were one up, having won the second Test at Trent Bridge, sandwiched by draws at Lord's and Old Trafford.
Before coming to England, Pakistan's Test cricketers had played only one series outside their own country, losing in India in 1952. Back home, a youthful nation listened on the radio, bewildered by the long rain delays (at Lord's the match didn't start until after lunch on the fourth day), but captivated by the brave deeds of the dashing teenage opening batsman Hanif Mohammad, and the brilliant pace bowler Fazal Mahmood, against such colossi as Len Hutton, Peter May, Denis Compton, Brian Statham and Frank Tyson.
At the Oval, where again the heavens opened, Pakistan mustered a first-innings total of just 133, but bowled England out for 130. Fazal Mahmood, considered by some to have been the true pioneer of reverse swing, accounted for Hutton, May, Compton, Tom Graveney, Johnny Wardle and Tyson. In the second innings, Pakistan reached 164, recovering from 82 for eight.
In reply, England were 109 for two, yet 143 all out. Fazal took another six wickets: Hutton, May, Compton, Wardle and Tyson again, plus Godfrey Evans. Pakistan had won by 24 runs, the first team ever to win a Test match on their inaugural visit to England.
So the series was drawn, but never was a draw greeted with such jubilation. There was pandemonium in Pakistan, where a Test victory in England was considered to symbolise an entire nation's coming-of-age.
On Saturday I spoke by telephone to two of the Pakistani heroes of that series. I stood in a narrow lane in Cornwall, where my family and I were on holiday, and on my mobile phone dialled the number in Karachi of Hanif Mohammad. His voice came through as clear as a bell, which shows what extraordinary advances have been made these last 50 years.
Hanif told me that after the last English wicket fell (to his own dazzling run-out from extra cover), the home supporters crowded around the pavilion at the Oval cheering him and his team-mates to the skies. Which shows, perhaps, that the last half-century's technological progress has been matched by a similarly-paced regression in manners and sportsmanship. We are as remote now from the days when English crowds were that magnanimous in defeat, as they were then from mobile-phone calls to Karachi from just outside Padstow.
Hanif is 69 now, but his imperious charm is undiminished. He told me that at Trent Bridge, where Compton scored 278, he was so tired after hours in the field that it was a relief to put his pads on. "It felt good to do up the buckles, giving my legs some support," he said.
He then scored 51 in double-quick time, hitting both Statham and Alec Bedser for three fours in an over. However, it was Bedser who got him out, with the considerable help of the England wicket-keeper. "Godfrey Evans was standing up to Bedser. I edged the ball, it hit him on the chest, and he dived like a swimmer to catch it almost at silly mid-off." Even after 50 years, there was incredulity in his voice.
England, added Hanif, were strong favourites to wrap up the series at the Oval. "And probably they would have done, except that the forecast was for more rain - it was the wettest summer in England for 40 years - so they tried to play aggressively. In Pakistan people could hardly believe that we won. It was a very important victory. All over the world, there were still people who didn't realise Pakistan was a separate country. They thought it was still part of India. But after that Test match, they knew."
Hanif was at pains to emphasise that Fazal Mahmood's brilliant bowling was the decisive influence, so it was a pleasure then to talk, from my country lane, to Fazal himself. He told me proudly that he is 78 now but can still bowl, although not, he grudgingly conceded, quite so fast. Years later Hutton told him that he was still haunted by the memory of what he had done with the ball in 1954. "That was the greatest compliment I ever received," he said.
On the eve of the Test, Fazal received a telegram from the great Australian all-rounder Keith Miller. "You can beat them," it read. Another telegram, saying simply "Keep it up", arrived after the first innings. And then a third: "Congratulations, you have done it!" I suppose it's reassuring to know that some things never change, such as the pleasure derived in Australia from English defeats.
After a rapturous welcome for the entire team in Karachi, Fazal proceeded home to Lahore on his own, by train. He told me that the train was repeatedly stopped, so that people in villages might get a glimpse of him. And that when it drew into the station in Lahore, there were 30,000 people waiting to cheer him.
He was driven home in an open-top Pontiac, and by the time it reached his house, the car was full of flowers. There, he asked his father, Professor Ghulam Hussain, why he had not turned up at the station. "And my father said: 'I would not have been able to bear the powerful emotional experience'."
In my Cornish lane, 4,000 miles and five decades away, I confess that I blinked back a tear.Reuse content