KOLKATA: The palpable support for the Pakistan team at the Eden Gardens on Wednesday was not a knee-jerk reaction to the furore over Shahid Afridi’s much-debated comment on being more loved by Indians.
Eden has done it before — 36 years ago — when it rose in a body to give a standing ovation to a man that had just played his last Test, and had chosen this iconic field to do so — Asif Iqbal.
When he decided to hang up his boots at age 37 in 1980, Asif was the Pakistan captain, had accumulated 3,575 Test runs at an average of 38.85, and taken 53 wickets from 58 games.
In the ten One-day Internationals that he played for Pakistan, the Indian-born Asif also took up 16 wickets.
Wisden India calls the farewell Test at the Eden Gardens “as memorable as they come”.
“For an Indian to migrate to Pakistan and then going back to the country I was born in, as captain, the remarkable ovation I was given while leaving the field still lingers with me,” Asif told Wisden.
Asif, who played for the South Zone team before his family migrated, says even as a child, the Eden Gardens mesmerised him, and he dreamt of playing there for India.
“I was representing Hyderabad schools in the Inter-Schools Tournament and remember visiting the Eden Gardens, and was overawed by the lush green ground,” he told this reporter in an email.
“After that visit I started dreaming of playing Test cricket on this ground but never thought 23 years later I will not only be playing Test cricket there but leading Pakistan against India.”
In an email that covered a gamut of issues, Asif says his memories of Kolkata of those days are confined to visiting the Eden Gardens and seeing the trams.
“The only reason of my visit to Calcutta was representing Hyderabad schools and my next visit was representing Pakistan in 1980, when my dream was fulfilled,” he says.
“Good enough a reason to retire.”
‘Hold Your Nerves’
Against this backdrop, it is perhaps fitting that the India-Pakistan, that created so much bad blood at the government and board levels, should be played in Kolkata. The question is, “Will they at last break the no-win jinx against their rivals in a World Cup this time?”
India come to Eden Gardens considerably chastened by the Nagpur blow; Pakistan do so with a spring in their step. This is perhaps the best time to shake the monkey off their back.
The former Pakistan captain has no doubt that everything percolates down to which of the two teams hold their nerve; talent and recent wins count for nothing if Shahid Afridi’s boys panic.
“I believe that the actual performing on the field is in the hands of the players,” he said.
“It depends on the mental strength of the player performing under pressure as we saw Sami cracking down bowling no-balls at the crucial stage against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup.”
Commitment is Key
Asif played at a time when cricketers turned out on the pitch in whites for ODIs. The game was more sedate, but the principles remain the same.
“What I learnt was that if I play to entertain, I do need to be good enough and committed to be always giving my best, so that those who are paying to come and watch are properly entertained.”
When he played, Asif says the teams went on tours with just an elderly board official and another person accompanying the touring teams as manager.
These days, there are coaches, trainers, dieticians, psychologists and analysts with the teams, and it is “a huge transformation”.
But the core value remains the same: Commitment.
“Professionalism is not just earning money, but it is committing yourself to whatever you are selected to be. Playing county cricket for Kent made me a professional cricketer,” he says.
Are Shahid Afridi’s men committed enough? We will know today.
Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2016