A True Gentleman in a Gentleman’s Game

April 14, 2024

Very occasionally it is a pleasant surprise to find someone who seamlessly blends professional proficiency with old word charm and grace. Shaharyar Khan was such a man

A True Gentleman in a Gentleman’s Game

Cricket has often been called a gentleman’s game. Though it started on the grazing fields of the English countryside where shepherds, using improvised equipment, played a crude version of it, by the 18th century it had become a prominent sport among the English upper class and aristocracy. With the advent of these affluent influences came a code of conduct on the cricket fields that insisted on a pattern of behavior that the upper crust claimed to personify a ‘gentleman’. It was enshrined in the game’s rules after the MCC became the official custodian of the sport in 1787. The distinction between gentlemen and players was strictly maintained and celebrated in annual matches at Lords between these two classes until the abolition of this tradition in 1963.

As cricket spread through the British Empire it attracted nobles and princes from the colonies into its fold and became a popular sport among the landed gentry of these domains. With time this culture of elitism in cricket has been diluted and today it is a sport that attracts its support and practitioners from all strata of society.

The game has become more combative and intense, losing much of its gentlemanly lustre in the process. This practice extends to players, planners and administrators alike where professionalism is the new buzz word. Very occasionally it is a pleasant surprise to find someone who seamlessly blends professional proficiency with old word charm and grace. Shaharyar Khan was such a man.

Shaharyar was born on the 29th of March 1934 in the house of the ruling family of the princely state of Bhopal. His maternal grandfather, Hafiz Hamidullah Khan was the ruling nawab, and his mother, the eldest of four daughters, was the crown princess and heiress apparent. His father, Mohammad Sarwar Ali Khan, was the Nawab of Kurwai, another princely state.

He grew up in the Noor us Sabah palace in Bhopal, which had over 50 rooms and provided accommodation to around 200 people, including the royal family, workers and security staff. Shaharyar’s grandmother, Shahzadi Memoona Sultan was a very accomplished lady, who was well ahead of her times in many respects. A direct descendant of Ahmed Shah Abdali and the Afghan king Shah Shuja Durrani, she spoke many languages including French, was a skillful pianist and violinist and was fond of playing tennis. Shaharyar’s mother, Princess Abida Sultan, inherited many of her mother’s characteristics. Fiercely independent she excelled in a man’s world. She had a pilot license, was an expert horseback rider, skilled at rifle shooting and big game hunting and highly adept in the games of polo, hockey and squash. In fact, she was the All India Ladies squash champion in 1948-49. She also had a penchant for mechanics and could repair and service her own car engines.

Shaharyar’s parents separated a few years after his birth and he was raised under his mother’s supervision. Two English governesses and a governor were assigned to look after him. Since Shaharyar was an only child his mother also took the unusual and novel step of adopting two boys, Sultan Mal from a Hindu family and Syed Farooq Ali from a Muslim family, to provide companionship to Shaharyar. They were all taught by the same tutors and went to the same school until Shaharyar’s departure for England. All three were enrolled at the Royal Indian Military College in Dehradun as boarding students and spent three happy years there. In the wake of anti-Muslim riots before partition his mother withdrew Shaharyar and his younger foster brother Farooq Ali from the RIMC and got them admitted to Daly College in Indore, while his elder foster brother, Sultan, stayed on at the military academy.

In the summer of 1948 Shaharyar’s mother decided to migrate to Pakistan. She got Shaharyar admitted to Oundle Public School in Britain and applied for a Pakistani visa which was initially refused. In 1950, Liaquat Ali Khan requested her father to settle in Pakistan and become either the Defense Minister of the country or the Governor of East Pakistan. Though her father declined the offer, Shaharyar’s mother used the occasion to seek Liaquat Ali’s help in finally getting a visa for Pakistan.

Though she had given up her heirship to one of the leading princely states, Shaharyar’s mother, Princess Abida, was given only a meagre sum in compensation. She bought land in Malir in Karachi and built a house from her own personal savings. Despite her regal background she put up with living for eight years without an electricity connection to the residence.

At school in a new country Shaharyar initially felt unhappy and alone. However, his skill at cricket made him a sort of school hero and he quickly made new friends. His performance on the cricket field at Oundle won him a mention in both the 1952 and 1953 editions of the Wisden Almanac in its Public Schools Cricket section, as well as selection for the local county colts team. After completing his A levels he applied for admission to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. He passed the entrance examination and was granted admission with the proviso that he would need to clear a test in one of the classical languages, Latin, Arabic, Persian or Sanskrit. Shaharyar took a gap year and came home to Malir for a year in 1952 to learn Arabic, which he did under the tutelage of a special teacher from Bhopal appointed by his mother. During his stay in Malir he also took official lessons in playing the tabla from Ustad Mahboob Ali Khan. Shaharyar had inherited this love of music from his mother who was an accomplished harmonium and sitar player herself and was taught by Master Ziauddin.

A True Gentleman in a Gentleman’s Game

Shaharyar obtained an Honours degree in Law (Jurisprudence) from Cambridge University. During his student years he also became fluent in Spanish and French and acquired a great fondness for their poetry and literature. While at University Shaharyar met Najma, the daughter of Ambassador and Begum Akhtar Hussain, who was studying in St.Mary’s College at Oxford University. They were married in July 1958. Mian and Minnal, as they were known to their families and friends, apparently first met at the home of cricket, the Lords cricket ground. Incidentally, through Minnal would emerge another cricket connection, as her sister Salma would marry Pakistan’s famous Test cricketer Saeed Ahmed.

While at university Shaharyar retained his interest in cricket and would spend his summers playing for local teams like the Wimbledon Cricket Club and also played regularly for the Cambridge Crusader’s Club, the name given to the University’s second eleven. After graduation in 1956 he returned to Pakistan and worked briefly with Burma Shell, before sitting the Central Superior Services examination in which he secured the fourth position in the country. He joined the Foreign Service in 1957 and was soon sent to The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston where he obtained a Master’s degree in International Affairs. After further training in London and Paris, Shaharyar was posted as a third secretary at Pakistan’s High Commission in London from 1960-62, and subsequently as the second secretary in the embassy at Tunis from 1962-66. After a stint at the Foreign office in Islamabad, Shaharyar was again posted abroad, this time to Pakistan’s Permanent Mission at The United Nations Office in Geneva. After a year he was back at the High Commission in London where he served for four years, ending up as the Deputy High Commissioner to the UK.

Shaharyar served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Jordan from 1976-82, where he developed a personal friendship with Prince Hasan with whom he shared a common interest in sports. The two would regularly play squash together at Amman’s newly opened sports center. The Pakistan embassy also became a venue for regular cricket practice between Shaharyar and his youngest son Ali.

After a happy and successful tenure in Jordan, Shaharyar was appointed as the Additional Foreign Secretary in Islamabad, a role that he performed with his usual distinction and class. In 1987 he was appointed as his country’s High Commissioner to the UK. In this role he successfully negotiated Pakistan’s return to the Commonwealth with finesse and skill and strengthened Pakistan’s relationship with Britain. In 1990 he reached the pinnacle of his profession when he was nominated as the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, a post he occupied till his retirement in 1994.

Shaharyar’s skills in negotiations and diplomacy were well acknowledged in the international arena. On his retirement from active government service, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Ghali appointed him as his special representative in war ravaged Rwanda, which had just witnessed an ethnic genocide in which almost a million people perished and another two million became refugees. Shaharyar was given the difficult task of bringing peace to this conflict torn country and to organize and coordinate relief and rehabilitation efforts for the refugees. He has described this experience in his book “The Shallow Graves of Rwanda.”

Shaharyar’s skills and experience were also used by the Government of Pakistan when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked him to chair a Committee on Foreign Service Reforms from 1997-1999. The year 1999 also saw his arrival on Pakistan’s cricket scene in a major role. He was asked to be the manager of the national team on its tour of India, which heralded resumption of cricketing ties between the two neighbors after a hiatus of almost ten years. Under Shaharyar’s polished guidance and charm the tour was a big success and helped to promote goodwill between the two countries. Shaharyar has provided a wonderful, insightful account of this tour in his book “Cricket : A Bridge of Peace.”

On his return from the Indian tour Shaharyar was appointed as the country’s Ambassador to France, a posting from which he returned early in 2001 to look after his ailing mother. Princess Abida Sultan had been the major, dominant influence in Shaharyar’s life. She had been both a mother and a father to him and had dedicated her entire life to fostering his well being.

A True Gentleman in a Gentleman’s Game

Shaharyar was also deeply devoted to his mother and as her health failed he was constantly at her side. She had a habit of writing a daily diary and now Shaharyar went through trunks loaded with over seventy years of her daily entries. He helped her with collecting these memories into a riveting autobiography “Memoirs of a Rebel Princess”, a book which provides a wonderful window into a bygone age, of a world inhabited by princes and princesses. It charts the story of a remarkable woman who rebelled against the norms of her time, outshone the men in a man’s world, a single parent who took the incredibly brave decision to sacrifice a life of privilege and the royal seat of a princely state, put up with hardships, represented her country in international forums and as its ambassador to Brazil and Peru, someone who was at ease in meetings with kings and queens and yet would also be at home playing games with her domestic staff and their families. Princess Abida Sultan passed away in 2002, marking the close of a different age and era.

Cricket had now become a prominent feature on Shaharyar’s radar. He was asked to manage the national side on its campaign in the 2003 World Cup. Later that year in December 2003, he was appointed as the Chairman, Pakistan Cricket Board. Shaharyar set about making some fundamental changes in our cricketing structure. He brought in Bob Woolmer as the coach, introduced the system of central contracts for leading players and initiated a national T20 tournament. Two visits by India helped to boost the PCB’s earnings and brought much needed financial stability. His tenure however ended on a sad note. The saga of the forfeited Test match at the Oval in 2006 weighed heavily on him and he resigned a few months after it. He felt that Inzamam’s “petulance” was instrumental in the matter for he refused to listen to him, or to Bob Woolmer the coach, or even to the team manager Zaheer Abbas.

Woolmer called Shaharyar the best chairman, CEO or head of the board that he had worked with in his twenty years as a coach. During Shaharyar’s tenure Pakistan rose to become number two in the ICC rankings for both Tests and ODIs respectively.

Shaharyar was once again elected as the Chairman of the PCB in August 2014. In September 2015 he launched the Pakistan Super League and the following year brought in Mickey Arthur as the coach to replace Waqar Younis. During Shaharyar’s second stint Pakistan won the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy, having earlier claimed the top spot in the ICC Test rankings in the summer of 2016. He also served as the President of the Asian Cricket Council in 2016.

Shaharyar’s vast experience and expertise in statecraft was utilized by the government for track 2 diplomacy. In 2013, in the capacity of a special envoy of Pakistan’s prime minister, Shaharyar met with the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh to convey Pakistan’s sincere desire to move ahead on improving relations with India.

In his retirement Shaharyar also conducted highly popular courses at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) on Pakistan’s foreign relations. He also functioned as the patron of the LUMS Model UN Society (LUMUN), serving as a guide and a mentor to the many students who sought his counsel.

He authored some more books including “Cricket Cauldron : the turbulent politics of sport in Pakistan, which was written in conjunction with his son Ali, “Shadows Across the Playing Field”, co-authored with Shashi Tharoor and “The Begums of Bhopal”.

Shaharyar passed away on 23rd March 2024, leaving behind his wife Minnal, three sons, Faiz , Omar and Ali and a daughter Faiza.

Shaharyar’s background was steeped in the history and tradition of the subcontinent. He had multiple connections through lineage with the royal houses of the land. An heir and direct descendant of the ruling family of Bhopal from his mother’s side, an heir of the ruling family of Kurwai from his father’s side, linked to the princely state of Pataudi through the marriage of his maternal aunt to Iftikhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, and through the Pataudis linked to the family of the Nawab of Rampur, Shaharyar’s ancestry was truly aristocratic. Yet he was unpretentious and humble in his demeanor, urbane and dignified in his manner and bearing, a kind man, the son of a fearless mother, who both gave up a life of privilege and riches for a country and a vision they believed in. Their commitment to Pakistan and the turbulence that came in its wake is best epitomized in his mother’s words, “I believe that morally there are no degrees for measuring sacrifice”. When Shaharyar himself was asked about all that he had given up he replied dismissively, “it was just a palace”.

A true gentleman in a gentleman’s game. RIP

Dr Salman Faridi is a senior surgeon, poet, sports aficionado and an avid reader with a private collection of over 7000 books.


A True Gentleman in a Gentleman’s Game