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SOMEONE has used a picture from the cricket field to highlight the need for the various Pakistans to reconcile and coexist. The picture flashed in the social media shows Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq posing with their families after the conclusion of the West Indies series. It marks the eminent players’ retirement from international cricket after two extraordinary careers that are comparable for their purpose and intensity.

Given all the enduring pain and perseverance, this is a happy image that blends in with some standard Pakistani appearances moored in tradition and inspired by the moving times, and capped ultimately by the beaming faces of children standing by their country. The question is asked why can’t Pakistanis representing various shades come together like they have in this moment of shared pride? Indeed, why can’t this happen?

This is a happy moment captured by the camera particularly because the journey leading to it has been really grim. The two cricketers, who are being hailed as worthy of being placed in the company of the greatest that this country has produced, played in times that required a special kind of resilience.

The last eight years of their careers fully captured the Pakistani frustrations of the times. In this, they played for a country that was barred from holding any top-level international games — just as fellow Pakistanis strived in their own spaces to stay afloat, not necessarily caring for finesse and style. The realities forced extra responsibilities on those representing and pursuing the ‘national interests’ of Pakistan.

Misbah and Younis, who are being hailed as worthy of being placed among the greatest, played in times that required a special resilience.

The extraordinary situation brought out the most remarkable, and often unusual responses from people here. This was a period during which cricket officials sometimes appeared more like diplomats assigned the task of negotiating a — respectable, the best possible — deal for their country. It was often very much a case for Pakistani cricket staying relevant and avoiding complete isolation.

There were the occasional chants about how ‘they’ could not do without ‘us’ and how ‘we’ had enriched the game with our own brand over time, and denying us credit for it would amount to a betrayal. But these boasts could do little to lift the grimness hanging over everything here. It was not just the cricketing officials who were fighting this battle for survival. The years following the launch of the war against terrorism threw up realities that left little room for anyone standing under the crescent and the star to take things lightly.

Pakistani cricketers are known for not taking things lightly. There have been players here who have taken up the challenge with a vow to beating ‘them at their own game’. There have been those who have taken it as a commando mission, as some kind of guerrilla activity culminating in ambush or as a street fight where the underdogs are out to floor the privileged. All these analogies have been used for the Pakistani variations of the game of cricket and some of them have been celebrated over and over again, to a point where they eclipsed many other worthy aspects of the proceedings on the field. But rarely if ever has the situation been considered as drastic as when Misbah and Younis, originally two small-town boys, were at the crease.

Quite honestly, often it was not fun watching these two most consistent Pakistani warriors slug it out there — unless a display of resilience, dead-bat resistance, was all that you were looking for. Not infrequently, the results were good but that didn’t stop the old promoters of a bit of cheekiness here and there from longing for the days when the Pakistanis could openly offend the otherwise more settled souls on the international circuit. There was no more space for the pranks and tricks that those before Misbah and Younis had come to be known for, earning a certain kind of reputation.

This was in contrast to the push-ups and all. The flourish was contained, the swag was put on hold and the outburst, when it became unavoidable, was saved for cricket board officials accused of not treating the players and their leader with due care. There was undoubtedly seething anger, reflected more in the case of Younis of these two earnest workmen, until Misbah finally lost his patience and gave it to the PCB at a press conference in Faisalabad before this successful tour of the West Indies.

Younis was found fuming when he declared he was not ready to captain a side he was not fully in charge of. That did give him a bad image amongst media men who are far too taken up by their own grand work to allow an easy stay to anyone. But then he doggedly took his place back as someone who couldn’t be easily dislodged He had made idioms essential to the cause of survival, which was all Pakistan was looking for, whereas some others who tried to take the old, cheeky and confrontational role were sidelined along the way.

Along with Misbah, Younis set an example that others such as Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq could not but follow. This might not be the most attractive way of playing the game and could upset those linking pride more with flair than with numbers on a scorecard. Many would find it too defensive and result-oriented and against the basic objective which is to entertain and enjoy and exhibit skills. That may be true but the efficacy of the obduracy, the defiance has been vindicated in times when the sole goal was survival , national cricket providing just one manifestation for how hard the 21st century has been for a country and a people in the thick of war and terror. It’s been quite like Misbah- ul-Haq and Younis Khan for so many Pakistanis working in trenches away from public focus.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2017