It came; it conquered, and it united people. It became a household name, took to the streets and filled the fields. It found its warmth under the sun and shone with the floodlights. It evolved into a passion; it became life. We call it tape ball cricket.
Tape ball cricket is the Pakistani spin on street cricket. Unlike mainstream cricket, it is played with a tennis ball tightly wrapped in electrical tape. The craft is not hard to master but still entrusted upon “tape specialists” – every team has one or two – just in case. Finally, a seam is added, an extra layer of electrical tape along the circumference of the ball, to provide a better grip and swing.
What makes tape ball so special in Pakistan? Firstly, playing cricket is expensive, every player needs to invest in a personal kit, most commonly a helmet, pads and gloves that make it out of reach for the commoner. For the country with the sixth-largest population and hockey in its heart, cricket needed to evolve, and tape ball cricket was born.
Tape ball was an antidote to the colonial and posh spirit of the gentleman’s game, however, giving back in multitudes to the conventional form. Tape ball catalysed cricket’s popularity in general around the country. It was invented in Karachi, the capital of Pakistan at the time, also the country’s largest in area and population. The lack of proper Infrastructure and affordability were two major concerns, they still are, but that was the original inspiration behind tape ball. It has enabled cricket to be played on any surface and it spread like wildfire, quickly consuming every street and corner.
The youth lead the revolution and it did not need the same commitment but had all the elements of excitement as its pro counterpart. It was also an easy introduction to the game, of course, no one likes the idea of playing with a hard ball that can fracture their bones.
Since its inception, tape ball cricket has branched into many forms owing to its flexibility and fluidity as a street sport. Local tournaments and matches are hosted in mid-to-large sized grounds mimicking conventional cricket environments, played for 5 to 20 overs. Coming down to the grassroots, there is a narrow street format, still the most popular, as kids gather in front of their homes to enjoy.
Then there are several ways it is played within home bounds, in backyards, lawns and garages which only needs 2 people. This is how kids are first exposed to cricket and how I began playing cricket with dad, great memories. Additionally, the tape ball’s speed and bounce are exciting for any aspiring fast bowler. Umar Gul, who represented Pakistan in all formats, admits that tape ball helped him increase his pace. It gets more exciting though, Rana Naveed ul Hassan learnt the art of reverse swing with a tape ball.
This is consistent with Pakistan’s image of producing genuine quicks at the global stage and one of the reasons why it is the only country to produce generations after generations of fast bowlers with the ability to reverse swing: Sarfraz Nawaz, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and how can we forget the fastest of all time, Shoaib Akhtar.
This is not to ascertain that Pakistan is the only country with a street cricket culture, it’s just that other balls do not behave the same way as tape ball. Look at India, where rubber balls are more common, the country takes a different approach to the game with its technically sound batsmen, Tendulkar and Kohli get honourable mentions here, of course. The ICC may not recognise tape ball, but it may have borrowed a few ideas from it. Hong Kong Sixes and T20 cricket aim to renew cricket’s reputation as an exciting and fast-paced sport.
Both incorporate the pinch-hitting and high scoring traits of tape ball. Therefore, it is not a surprise that Pakistan won the inaugural Hong Kong Sixes tournament in 1992, the win was inevitable, due to their expertise in tape ball cricket, until others figured it out!
Before T20 was even in discussions, Shahid Afridi launched his aggressive slogging displays to the mainstream. He instantly became a fan favourite all over the world, of course, for his entertaining flair. Unquestionably it was the likes of Afridi and similar batsmen like Gayle and McCullum who expedited ICC’s decision to sanction T20.
Despite the recent wave of growing popularity through the Pakistani diaspora in the UK, US and Australia, tape ball remains largely unpopular because there is no institution to formalise its development.
Albeit, lessons can be taken from Indoor Cricket’s development. Prior to the internationalisation of Indoor Cricket in the UK, English & Wales Cricket was integral in recognition of the sport within the country. The Pakistan Cricket Board must seize the opportunity to appoint a governing body for tape ball. Like the World Indoor Cricket Federation, it can promote the sport by organising leagues and local tournaments before making a case for internationalisation.
Perhaps the PCB feels that a step in support of tape ball may hamper conventional cricket in the country, however, similar concerns were there when T20 arrived. Should PCB choose to change its stance, it may not need to invest much time and effort. There are existing leagues and tournament, for example, the Depalpur Premier League (DPL), who are already halfway there. Last year, the final of DPL attracted 10,000 spectators.
The positives may outweigh the negatives, Mohammad Amir was scouted at a tape ball tournament at the age of 13. There are also the economic benefits, local brands that manufacture tennis balls and electrical tapes, and specifically, target tape ball will thrive. Also, the country and the PCB will be acknowledged internationally for revolutionising cricket much like the ECB has been for T20.
But to everyone’s surprise, ECB may find itself, once again, spearheading another form of cricket that it did not invent. A South Asia Action Plan is already underway with tape ball as its focal point. The backstory is that the Essex County Cricket Club and Leyton Orient FC have been working together on a number of tape ball events including the Tornado Tape Ball World Cup, not quite a world cup, not yet anyway.
Waltham Forest Council and Natwest are also getting behind the tape ball movement as they view it as a healthy and entertaining alternative that will benefit the disadvantaged community. Tape ball, although growing, is still very different from T20. It is challenging the cricketing status quo, but we may already have the next big thing in Cricket and it may not need to go down the ICC path for success. It echoes the same spirit of accessibility once seen in football that led to its global success.
One thing is for sure, it is not a hobby anymore. A user-friendly form of cricket – anyone can play, everywhere; just bring a bat, tennis bowl and of course, electrical tape.The question this leads to is, will we ever see a tape ball World Cup?