Unique, extraordinary, and surreal – clichéd, but truly the only accurate words to describe an event I was fortunate to witness: leaders from across the world meeting on the cricket pitch in Harare, Zimbabwe.
(A disclaimer before I go on – the leaders mentioned in this article may evoke strong opinions among readers. This is not a political article, so please read it only in the spirit in which it is intended – a narration from an apolitical perspective.)
My father, Rafat Mahdi, now a retired career diplomat, began his career in 1970, and in January 1990 he took on his first ambassadorial assignment as Pakistan’s high commissioner to Zimbabwe. In the middle of 1991, Abba and his team started preparations for a visit by a Pakistan delegation, led by the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to attend a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in October in Harare.
The commonwealth is an organisation mainly of former colonies and territories of the British empire. As such, cricket is popular in many commonwealth countries. Sharif, a huge cricket enthusiast and an established club player, sent a peculiar request to Abba a few months before the summit. He wanted my father to organise a cricket match with other world leaders attending the summit. As if the stress of managing a prime minister’s visit was not enough!
Abba gauged interest from other commonwealth ambassadors stationed in Harare. There was strong interest from prime ministers John Major (UK), Bob Hawke (Australia) and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (Maldives) to take part. India would not participate, not for political reasons, but because their prime minister, Narasimha Rao, was skipping the retreat portion of the summit at Victoria Falls. Abba found a strong partner in Mark Williams of the British High Commission in organising the event, and received logistical support from various officials in the Zimbabwe government and the Zimbabwe Cricket Union.
The world leaders were paired: Hawke and Major, Gayoom and Sharif. Each pair would bat for three overs. After the world leaders had played their innings, some famous cricketing names would continue the entertainment, including West Indies legend Clive Lloyd, Zimbabwe’s Dave Houghton, and Zimbabwe-born Graeme Hick, who had qualified and debuted for England earlier that year. Prince Edward School, where the likes of Duncan Fletcher, Hick, Houghton and Eddo Brandes were educated, was chosen over multiple contenders including my school, St John’s College, as the bowling team.
The event was confirmed for the afternoon of Friday, October the 18th, and announced to the public. Outlets began hyping the event, adults and schoolchildren alike excitedly talked about it, and sponsors threw in their support for charitable purposes – each six was a Z$1000 donation, and each four a Z$500 donation (keep in mind, this was when US$ 1 was exchanged for around Z$ 4).
The CHOGM began the week of October 14. As with any large gathering of world leaders, the week was packed with various events focused on global events, relationships and initiatives. The Friday afternoon match was on a tight schedule because all the leaders were flying in the evening to Victoria Falls.
For Sharif, the afternoon began with the Friday prayer at a mosque. From the mosque, he, my father, and the delegation headed to the Pakistan High Commission to meet the officers and staff there. My brother, Asad, and I excitedly hitched a ride in the motorcade as well. After this meeting, Sharif changed into his cricket kit and we all headed to the Harare Sports Club.
It was a typical Harare early summer afternoon. The full crowd at the Harare Sports Club was giddy in anticipation. When the motorcade arrived at the venue, Abba led Sharif to the enclosure for dignitaries where the other leaders were waiting. Sharif, though, had other plans. “I need some net practice,” he said. So off we went to the nets!
The nets were open to all to watch. A crowd of attendees left their seats to watch Sharif warm up for the main event. After a few of Sharif’s staff took their turn at bowling, my father handed a ball to me. I was definitely not known for my bowling skills (and neither really for batting or fielding), and naturally I was very nervous, given the situation. I threw a beamer straight at Sharif’s head. It was one of the most agonising split seconds of my life. Thankfully Sharif was able to use his skill to comfortably defend it. That was a huge relief for me and for Abba, who politely asked me not to bowl any further.
I saw a couple of my school friends and handed them the ball. Random members of the crowd also bowled. Sharif impressed in the nets. My brother was the only one who managed to bowl him out, with a ripper that went around his legs. Word soon came that Major, Hawke and Gayoom were ready to get the show started. Among other political dignitaries in attendance were Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe and Bangladesh prime minister Khaleda Zia.
Before I go further, a moment of reflection to capture how surreal the event was. There were no security checks that day. No barricades, no metal detectors, no bag checks, nothing. There was some crowd control where the dignitaries were seated, but people could still move around with ease. Case in point, I wandered into the area and ended up, not out of choice, sitting between Mugabe and Zia for a portion of the match.
Back to the main event. Major and Hawke walked towards the pitch amid tremendous applause. The Prince Edward bowlers were instructed to bowl dollies to ensure entertainment. I cannot recall ball by ball what happened, but at least a couple of fours were hit in those three overs. They also managed a few twos and some singles, and neither was dismissed. The crowd applauded them back into the pavilion when their three overs were up.
Sharif and Gayoom walked out to even greater applause, as the substantial Pakistani community in attendance cheered for their representative. Sharif confided to Abba before walking in that he was nervous about the first ball. Abba tried to calm him down, and encouraged him to unremarkably defend it, after which he would gain his confidence. Defend the first ball is exactly what Sharif did, a good omen.
A few balls later, he made great use of his feet, charging down the pitch and launching the ball over the boundary for a huge six, throwing the crowd into a frenzy. A couple of fours soon followed, then another six, and another a few balls later. No one expected this level of entertainment, and it was pure exhilaration for a responsive and supportive crowd. For good measure, there were some singles and doubles too, and Gayoom gave able support for whatever little of the strike he had. The pair walked back in after their three overs to a raucous ovation.
There was a presentation ceremony – I do not recall whether it was before the cricket started or after – recognising the participation of the world leaders, thanking the organisers and the sponsors, and reflecting on the purpose of the event. Hands were shaken, pleasantries exchanged, and the leaders headed off to the airport.
The on-pitch festivities continued into the evening. Hick walked in and subjected the bowlers – now bowling at full strength – to an endless barrage of fours and sixes. Lloyd, Houghton and others also batted, as well as Pakistani diplomat Shaharyar Khan, who later became the head of the PCB. The participants entertained, the crowd enjoyed themselves, and money was raised for charity.
Coverage of the event was, unfortunately, somewhat limited. Pakistan Television (PTV) did capture footage and broadcast it on the news in Pakistan. There must certainly be a VHS tape in some PTV storage room with extended footage. What I have with me from the event are a few photos – memories of that joyous Harare afternoon etched in my mind. And a hope, perhaps too optimistic, that we will see a repeat one day.
Masud Mahdi is a cricket enthusiast who lives in New York with his wife and daughter
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