One keeps hearing about how the state of Pakistan’s cricket reflects the state of the country. According to this theory, the condition of cricket in the country and its team mirrors the economic and political situation in Pakistan.
This theory is popular in other countries as well. For example, Brazil’s dismal performance in 2014’s Football World Cup impelled many Brazilians to propose that the economic woes being faced by the country and the rise of corruption in Brazil’s political institutions were reflected in the way the Brazilian football team performed in the mega event.
In 1974, when the Indian cricket team was battered by England (3-0) in a Test series, some Indian commentators suggested that the political upheaval being faced at the time by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had left the Indian society feeling agitated and cynical.
They suggested that it was this mind-set that was then also exhibited by the lethargic performance of the Indian cricket team on its tour of England that year.
There are numerous such examples involving various countries. But in the last decade or so, the way Pakistan’s economy and politics have suffered due to the rise of religious and sectarian violence, economic mismanagement, and a startling rise in crime, the Pakistan cricket team’s wildly unpredictable performances have often been described by many to be reflective of whatever bad that is going on in the country.
I am sure a lot of what goes wrong does rub off on how a country’s sporting culture takes its contemporary shape, but there is no hard and fast rule that this is always the case.
For example, in 1971, when Pakistan was being ripped apart by a vicious civil war in its eastern wing, the Pakistan hockey team actually went on to win hockey’s first ever World Cup (held in Barcelona, Spain).
Then, when Pakistan was being harshly criticised for employing violent methods against separatists in East Pakistan, its hockey squad was pushed to play out of its skin to produce results that would contradict the negative perception of a country on the brink of a political and economic collapse.
The team was expected to work as a balm for the people caught in the depression and agony of civil strife.
In the context of cricket, two most vivid examples come to mind in which teams from countries caught in political, social and economic strife, actually used the predicament to inspire themselves to achieve something on the cricket field that was in stark contrast to what was happening in their respective countries.
In the 1970s, almost all of the island-states in the Caribbean that make up the West Indies (WI) cricket team, were in the grip of radical political upheaval, so much so that some of the larger Islands were even on the brink of a revolution, as supporters of political parties often fought running battles against each other and the police.
The economy was suffering, the politics was shaky and society often faced rising incidents of crime and violence. This is when a batsman from Guyana, Clive Lloyd, was made the captain of the West Indies cricket team (1975).
But compared to what was going on in the Island states, Lloyd’s team reacted in an opposite manner.
The team negated the political disunity and turmoil on the Islands and replaced it with cricketing unity and a determination to change (through cricket) the perception of the Islands being shaky banana republics.
Also read: Trouble-hit Fata cricket team make history
Turmoil on the Islands remained till the early 1980s, but from 1975 onward, the West Indies cricket team began its climb to eventually become the number one Test and ODI side in the world, a status it would continue to enjoy throughout the decade.
And the irony is, the team’s performances actually began to decline when (in the 1990s), political stability began to return to the Islands and the economy started to exhibit signs of improvement!
It was as if the WI team lost its purpose to display extraordinary feats of cricketing talent and achievements to the world once stability returned back home.
Another cricket side saw itself rising as a cricketing power in the late 1970s. England had been a strong Test side but it had fallen on the wayside in the mid-1970s.
However, between 1977 and 1979, England toppled, the time’s, top two teams, WI and Australia (under the captaincy of Mike Brearley who was considered to be more of an intellectual than a batsman!).
This happened when England was facing some of its worst post-War economic and political crises and race riots between West Indian and South Asian immigrants on the one side and White supremacists on the other.
As unemployment, strikes and riots were bringing England to a halt, the England cricket squad was emerging to become the world’s leading team.
This supremacy was lost after 1979, but when even worse race riots erupted again in 1981, Brearley (now in his 40s) was reappointed as captain after England lost the first Test of the 1981 Ashes series against Australia.
Brearley came in after the second Test of the six-Test-series, and as various cities in England (and Northern Ireland) burned, England went on to defeat a strong Australian side 3-1 (after being 1-0 down).
Like the WI, England’s captain had turned political and economic turmoil into an inspiration to do (on the cricket field) the opposite of what was happening on the streets.
In Pakistan, it is only now that men such as Misbah-ul-Haq have begun to receive acclaim and appreciation for captaining the Pakistan cricket team to success in an era when the country was being ripped apart by extremists and (ever since 2009), no Test playing side was willing to tour Pakistan.
The country was falling apart, but did Pakistan cricket?
Not quite. On the contrary, in the year international cricket came to a halt in Pakistan (2009), the team won that year’s T20 World Cup in England.
And, when three Pakistani cricketers were caught spot-fixing during a Test match in England in 2010; and consequently, the Pakistan cricket team became the scene of a vicious power struggle between opposing groups of players, many observers stated that the team was reflecting the state of the country, which at the time, was in shambles.
Such a state would continue to haunt Pakistan till the launch of the military operation against extreme militants in 2014.
Also read: Misbah-ul-Haq — Rewriting Pakistan's story
But ironically, under Misbah (who was appointed captain in 2011), the Pakistan cricket team performed quite brilliantly. Especially considering the fact that all Pakistan matches were now being played abroad and in foreign conditions.
Also, Misbah had been given a team suffering from severe infighting and of a country in the grip of a grave existentialist crisis.
This year’s inauguration of the ambitious Pakistan Super League (PSL), masterminded by Pakistan Cricket Board’s Najam Sethi, is yet another example negating the theory that a country’s political and social health is always reflected in the way its sporting entities perform.
There are no such hard and fast rules.