Cricket. It is a veritable microcosm of Pakistan.

On the one hand, it embodies the nation’s successes (who will ever forget the World Cup triumph of 1992, or the more recent victory across the border?). On the other hand, it reflects Pakistan’s failings (recall those ugly scandals).

It is also a rare unifying force in a deeply divided country, and even a potential catalyst for peace with a long-time nemesis.

In other words, cricket is a game that any credible Pakistan analyst should strive to understand.

And yet I confess I’m completely clueless about how it’s played. When it comes to cricket, I’m the quintessential ugly American.

Certainly I’m familiar with the broad contours. Years ago, while living in Brussels, I spent hours scrutinising game coverage on Eurosport. An Australian friend even convinced me to play several times (I quickly learned that the necessary skill set is quite different from that of baseball, a game I began playing at a young age).

Yet, these experiences have done little to make me conversant in cricket parlance. It’s easy enough for me to know when a match is underway; I log on to Twitter and am barraged by 140-character staccato bursts of Urdu utterances punctuated by English profanity and exuberant (or angry) references to Misbah, Hafeez and friends. Yet that’s about all I can follow.

The other day I decided enough was enough; it was time to learn more. So I did as any resourceful 21st century scholar would do: I turned to Google and Wikipedia. This research was somewhat helpful. I learned, for example, that Shahid Afridi is not the doctor who helped the CIA find Osama Bin Laden — though he appears to be nearly as controversial.

I then consulted an article called “A Beginner’s Guide to Cricket” described by its author, Justine Larbalestier, as a “pared-down, embarrassingly easy introduction to the world’s holiest game.” Well, perhaps for her it is; I came away from the article thoroughly befuddled. I found Larbalestier’s trenchant talk about “sundries” and “double centuries” more confusing than the speculation surrounding Tahirul Qadri’s Long March.

My next — and much wiser — step was to reach out to Afia Salam. The Pakistani cricket journalist extraordinaire minced no words. “There is consensus,” she told me, “that any attempt to understand cricket by an American would be futile.”

Initially, I wasn’t sure how to respond. But then she said something that prompted me to nod in grudging agreement. Test cricket lasts five days and often ends in a draw, Salam explained. “Now show me an American who can understand [that] and I shall show you an imposter deserving of deportation!”

Indeed, the notion of baseball’s World Series or the National Basketball Association Finals — American equivalents of marquee-level, multi-day sports competition — ending with such an inconclusive outcome does seem utterly unfathomable to me.

Yet as I reflected on all this, trying to make sense of the sport’s intricacies and how they fit in with the realities of today’s Pakistan, I had a revelation. I was falling into a trap that so often ensnares analysts: I was thinking too much. I was gazing at too many trees without realising the supreme significance of the forest. And the forest is epitomised by the Pakistan Super League.

The facts are well known. This new Twenty20 league, scheduled to begin play in March, hopes to showcase cricket’s premier talents, both domestic and foreign. However, the Federation of International Cricketers Associations has warned foreign players not to participate because of security concerns.

In an effort to lure international participants, Pakistan’s Cricket Board has taken the extraordinary step of offering insurance policies valued at up to $2 million.

That’s a lot of value. If 11 foreign players accept that offer (enough to field a full team, I’ve learned), Pakistan would be insuring as much money as the World Bank recently committed to spending on polio eradication efforts in the country.

Yet the PCB’s generous gesture is instructive. The Super League provides a special opportunity for Pakistan to alter the most-dangerous-nation-in-the-world global narrative — and the country is willing to take bold measures to benefit from this opportunity. If foreigners come to play in Pakistan, and all goes smoothly, then a major victory will be scored not just for cricket, but for Pakistan’s bruised and battered image abroad.

It’s a great risk, both for foreign cricketers and for Pakistan itself. Yet as Salam told me, the Twenty20 league is the “life blood” of Pakistani cricket: It draws the crowds, sponsors, and money needed to sustain the country’s unifying, wildly popular national treasure. There’s clearly much riding on the Super League, and Pakistan is keen to infuse it with as much prestige as possible.

And that, unlike discussions of, say, stumps and tailenders, is something I can truly understand.


The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments are closed.

Comments (14)

February 1, 2013 4:55 pm
Sam, very ture. You forget to mention one incident "Pakistan blind cricket team captain was offered bleach." No action have been taken against that incident. FICA president Tim May should say "something" on that incident; how safe is India for foreign teams. Other cricketing nations should protest on that incident. Whenever Pakistani team visit India, Shiv Sehna threatened Pakistani players nobody labelled Shiv Sehna as a terrorist organisation and a threat to any sports in India.
February 1, 2013 6:33 pm
lovely article with a lovely mix of humour and reality.
February 1, 2013 4:14 am
enjoyed it!
February 1, 2013 4:21 am
One guy tries to send the ball thrown at him out of the ground and eleven guys tries to stop that. Embarrassingly simple Eh?
January 31, 2013 10:49 am
I just like the way this guy writes. :D keep it up homes.
January 31, 2013 2:43 pm
Cricket is a passion in Pakistan,sad thing is that we are deprived of this passion for so long now at home due to dirty politics.Continue wrting about Pakistan and its cricket Positively.Regards
January 31, 2013 4:05 pm
Nice read bro, keep it up !
January 31, 2013 11:20 am
writer analysis on Pakistan cricket is valuable and shows his inclination towards this game. Pakistan is going to start that super league as he mentioned. Its a very very bold step to restore the international game. The insurance money is a piece of incentive for the players. About security Pakistan is facing the worse security situation ever it had. What about India? Pakistan women team is living in the stadium Government authority hands up to provide security to the team. No Hotel is able to accommodate few ladies and coach. Wish international players and cricket authority consider the situation. Please come to the land of cricket and help us remove the stain of attacking cricketers in Pakistan
January 31, 2013 12:16 pm
Well, many people learn the game when they actually play it. By the way, I like his writing.
January 31, 2013 12:14 pm
Really enjoyed this article, keep it up Mr.Kugelman ! One day you'll understand this beautiful sport and once you do, you'll find nothing like it.
January 31, 2013 1:02 pm
Why do you fixate on India? In India there are teams from various other countries. None of them have complained. If they feel so threatened, unhappy about the situation they have a free will to walk away. NO ONE is forcing them to come to India and play.
Sam Veet
January 31, 2013 8:10 pm
HNY2013... there is no question of anyone forcing anyone to come and play in India. The world cup is not India's father's property, it's an international event which India must have lobbied tooth and nail to get and providing the right and condusive environment to host the teams is the host country's fundamental responsibility. It's quite shameful that India can't even provide security to a visiting team because of the fear and hate of her country people for anything Pakistani. The Pakistan team has no choice as they have to compete in an ICC event, not an Indian event. I was at the recent T20 WC in Sri Lanka, it was the most wonderful event staged ever, maybe India should learn a few lessons in hospitality from SL. Speaking of hospitality, I wanna know when was the last time you heard that an Indian was picked up in Pakistan by a mob and shown the way to the airport. India should be ashamed with the way it has treated Pakistanis visiting there, be it the hockey players, cricket players, artists, businessmen or the currently visiting Pak womens team. Perhaps you should ask all Indians who have visited Pakistan how well they are treated and welcomed and they will give you enough heartwarming stories. The last time Indian cricket team visited Pak they were given a standing ovation at the stadium even after they beat Pakistan. An Indian can happily walk around in Pakistan without any fear but a Pakistani would be better of concealing his nationality in India, that is if he is allowed in to begin with. No wonder India is on the verge of cultural and moral bankruptcy.
Avishek Roy
January 31, 2013 5:37 pm
Nice writing...
February 1, 2013 5:32 am
What has India got to do with this article?
Explore: Indian elections 2014
Explore: Indian elections 2014
How much do you know about Indian Elections?
How much do you know about Indian Elections?