How cricket brings out the best of Pakistan
Imran Khan's tweet didn't just make me happy. I felt proud of being a Pakistani.
- Total Shares
On March 30, 2011, along with my best friend, I watched, on a big screen at the Polo Lounge of the Lahore Polo Club, the second semi-final of the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup. A semi-final that would qualify a team to play the final of the World Cup had immense importance as a match, this one was seen as that once-in-a-decade hyped game between the conventional 'rivals', Pakistan and India, that had the power to hook the entire cricket-viewing world to their television screens.
Played in the Punjab Cricket Association IS Bindra Stadium Mohali, Chandigarh, India, in a gesture of 'cricket diplomacy' — yes, once upon a not-so-distant time, Pakistan and India had civilised bilateral relations to keep the idea of a 'dialogue' in process between the two neighbours that didn't see eye to eye on many things — in attendance with 35,000 spectators were the prime ministers of Pakistan and India, Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani and Manmohan Singh.
Good old days: When cricket diplomacy was not nerve-wracking. (Photo: Reuters)
I remember feeling several emotions during the match. And thinking MS Dhoni-led Indian team's score of 260-9 was not an impossible target, I watched every shot of Shahid Afridi-led Pakistan's Kamran Akmal (19), Mohammad Hafeez (43), Asad Shafiq (30), Younis Khan (13), Misbah-ul-Haq (56), and Umar Akmal (29), losing the game after scoring 231 runs. What I also remember is a feeling of dejection as the by-now familiar collapse of Pakistan team began its eerie dance.
Having been a cricket fan my entire childhood, teens and early 20s, my almost religious following of Pakistan cricket ended with the Imran Khan-led team winning the World Cup in 1992. But what I continued to watch were the big matches of all international tournaments, and the Mohali match was the one made of sports dreams where anything was possible. Despite Pakistan's many international victories since 1992, there has been one constant: the collapse of Pakistan's batting order after early important dismissals. Having been used to watching cricket under captains who ensured a systematic and focused fight of the team even after early mishaps, I always felt uneasy watching a Pakistan game after wickets fell in the first ten overs of the innings, and the rest of the team instead of fighting back as a united force fell like dominoes.
Going through the detailed history of Pakistan cricket, or talking to a cricket expert, I'm sure I'll discover that there are matches where Pakistan fought well after a disappointing start. But I had this persistent feeling of unease during many important matches of Pakistan. The continuation of that feeling took me to a point where I stopped watching cricket altogether. My nerves were more important to me than watching cricket. I'd think so.
Fast forward to June 2019, and not much has changed in my world. Since I stopped watching television in 2013, and the television in my room on which I watched movies decided to stop working one day in 2016, now my viewing of Pakistan's important matches is via Twitter. Indescribable is the relief of not having to watch each good delivery, each precise shot, each dropped catch, each misfielded run, each dot ball, each 4 and 6 of the opposing side, each careless out of Pakistan team, each unstoppable shot, each stoppable shot.
The good thing about these games is the sense of unity that appears for a few hours. (Photo: Reuters)
Millions of Pakistanis and Indians who follow cricket, and treat every big match as if cricket is the most important sport in the world have enhanced the importance of Pakistan-India matches to the extent that there is no suitable word to describe it. The good thing about these games is the sense of unity that appears for a few hours. It happens in Pakistan, and I'm sure it happens in India. For the duration of the match, personal, political, ideological, intellectual, literal, and nonsensical differences are pushed to the side, and a collective cheering for the team resonates across the country. Pakistan, for the duration of a match of the Pakistan cricket team, becomes one. That, to me, is the singular most important aspect of cricket's exaggerated importance in a country like mine where issues are many, differences too wide, and occasions of happiness too few. Cricket unites Pakistan in a way not many other things have ever been able to do.
And then there is the other side. Being so emotionally invested in a game, very soon, lines are blurred. Each ball and a shot of a 50-over World Cup match becomes a big deal. The outcome of a match is taken very personally, and the outrage, even when justified, very quickly, becomes obnoxious and out of proportion. The latest example is Pakistan's reaction to our team's resounding defeat against India. The over-the-top anger rang loud and unsavoury wherever Pakistan cricket fans exist. The ugliness of that reaction is not something any decent Pakistani is proud of.
The 2019 ICC World Cup is no different. Pakistan, in its spectacular "unpredictability", is doing a dance that has becomes its hallmark now. One step here, two steps there, one huge defeat one day, a terrific win in the next game, having a debacle of a game against India, playing a solid winning game against the unbeatable New Zealand, and choking in a reachable target against Afghanistan that has not won a single World Cup game so far, Pakistan is all over the place. And yet it is marching forward, albeit in a manner that is giving millions of Pakistanis panic attacks, mini cardiac arrests, and nervous breakdowns. Amidst cheers, groans, exclamations of what-the-hell, bleepable one-liners, expletives of all kinds, and prayers of all types, Pakistan cricket team is right in the middle of its World Cup journey, showing with every game that it is a team that never say die even when afore-written eulogies of its performance seem to haunt its every game.
All's well that ends well. (Photo: Reuters)
On June 29, 2019, I twitter-watched the Pakistan versus Afghanistan match in Headingley, Leeds, England, and man, it was not good for my already-frayed-with-stress nerves, and a mind and body half alive after a day of excruciating food poisoning. I don't remember the last time I followed each ball of the last few overs with so much concentration, and a non-stop come-on-Pakistan-you-can-do-it silent chant. Call me crazy, but I get this gut feeling about the outcome of a match, continuing from my years of cricket TV viewing. I don't know the individual stats of any player, and I wonder if I'd be able to recognise by face the entire current Pakistani squad. But I somehow knew Pakistan would win the match. Chasing Afghanistan's 227-9, Pakistan scored 230-7. What I didn't anticipate at all was the ball-to-ball, run-to-run, nail-biting, typos-making anxiety of the last 20 overs. Then Imad Wasim and Wahab Riaz happened. And as the wise say, all's well that ends well, and never is it truer than in the case of Pakistan playing a crucial World Cup match.
The icing on Pakistan's victory that was almost a defeat until the last shot was the tweet of Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan. He tweeted: "Congratulations to the Pakistan team for keeping their nerve under pressure and in the end winning against Afghanistan. I also especially want to congratulate Afghanistan for the grit and determination with which they played against Pakistan today & against India earlier."
Congratulations to the Pakistan team for keeping their nerve under pressure and in the end winning against Afghanistan. I also especially want to congratulate Afghanistan for the grit and determination with which they played against Pakistan today & against India earlier.— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) June 29, 2019
On the day when news of some acts of hooliganism by some Afghans against Pakistanis in Headingley, Leeds made headlines, countless vitriolic anti-Pakistan tweets by Afghan fans and India supporters of Afghanistan, a tasteless hashtag against Afghans by Pakistanis in reaction to all that, and Shoaib Akhtar's distasteful video, Pakistan's victory and Prime Minister Khan's reaction to that made me not just happy but proud of being a Pakistani. I'm happy that Pakistan won. And I'm proud to live in a Pakistan whose prime minister places a high value on Pakistan's relationship with Afghanistan, and who considers Afghans neighbours, friends and brothers of Pakistan.
Cricket unites Pakistan. And cricket brings out the best in Pakistan. Yes.