Thursday, February 15, 2018

Meeting Richard Heller, a British journalist in love with Pakistan cricket

Of all the cricket-playing countries in the world, a US-born British author chooses Pakistan as his focus

Richard Heller at Karachi Literature Festival 2018

'Famous writer and an authority on Pakistan cricket, Richard Heller was in Karachi for the recently concluded Literary Festival. On day two of the event, he shared the panel with former Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman Shahryar Khan and renowned cricket journalist Sohaib Alvi – (of course, related to me) – for his book ‘White on Green: A Portrait of Pakistan Cricket’.

The book has unusual stories relating to cricket in Pakistan, and is a must-read for anyone who loves the game. Heller co-authored the book with Peter Oborne, who had been to Pakistan on various occasions before. Heller earlier assisted Oborne with the world-famous book ‘Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan,’ which is itself a masterpiece.

Richard Heller

I knew about the arrival of Richard Heller in Pakistan, but as there was a rare chance of meeting him at the festival, I skipped the event. I had been his fan since reading these two books, which changed my perception of the game, the style of writing and the way of thinking. I so desperately wanted to meet him and ask why a US-born writer selected Pakistan cricket as a topic.

Hours after the festival concluded, I received a call from my uncle Sohaib who asked me join ‘them’ for lunch. Sohaib Alvi has always been an inspiration for me. He has been writing since I did not even know how to grab a pen. It won’t be an exaggeration if I say I decided to write on cricket because of him. When I asked him who would be ‘them’, the familiar voice replied, ‘You, some friends and Richard Heller.”

On that bright Wednesday, I reached the venue before time, as excited as if I were opening the innings of a World Cup final. Mr. Heller arrived at the gathering where several senior Karachi-based cricket writers were also present. When I told him that I had read his book ‘White on Green’ in a day, his answer was short but precise, “I am honoured”. For someone who has written two cricket novels, ‘A Tale of Ten Wickets’ and ‘The Network’, picking Pakistan of all the cricket-playing countries in the world was a question on everyone’s lips.

“The Library at MCC has very limited stuff available on Pakistan cricket. They had statistics available, but as far as ‘books’ are concerned, there is none,” Heller said.

The presence of renowned cricket writer Mr Qamar Ahmed made the lunch even more memorable, as both he and Heller started talking about the past. Qamar sahab has lived most of his life in the UK, while working for BBC, and with Heller, they shared jokes, anecdotes and incidents from cricket grounds. I felt like a dwarf in the presence of such big names, but ‘cunningly’ gathered a lot of info from their memories.

A book on Pakistan cricket and its passionate followers 

This is surely not the last time Richard Heller is in Pakistan. He would be coming again as he is in talks with Pakistan’s most successful captain Misbah-ul-Haq, who plans to write his autobiography. Heller would help him compile his book, but as he puts it, it’s not certain yet.

“I have told Misbah that a book is like a Test match, not a T20,” he explained, and everyone on the dining table understood what he meant. The retired captain had been a champion of both. He took Pakistan to the finals of the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, and retired in 2017 after bringing Pakistan to the No. 1 Test ranking the year before.

Personally, I had been a fan of Misbah for years.. from the moment he smashed consecutive sixes off Shane Warne in a one-day match, to when he became the first Pakistani skipper to win a Test series in West Indies. His career highs and lows are perfect for a screenplay. He was criticised for his slow batting in Mohali semi-final, yet he managed to silence everyone when he equaled the record of the fastest Test hundred. He came to the rescue of the Pakistan team many a times and became the first batsman from the country to score a hundred in his maiden appearance at Lord’s.

Misbah volunteered to field close to the batsman in his last ODI, when a junior player refused to ‘obey’, and retired after phenomenal limited-over series victories in India, South Africa and West Indies. Imagining a Misbah-ul-Haq book with an input from Richard Heller could be no less than a dream come true.

For someone who is very much into cricket and movies, Heller’s departing quote was alarming. “I plan to return in October for shooting of the screenplay of an upcoming film, which has a plot linking cricket and movies.”

With two published solo novels to his credit, two books which I usually use for reference and two excellent projects in the pipeline, Richard Heller is definitely someone to meet.