Ode to Team Green

21 Jun 2017


AS an American, my mind is hardwired not to understand cricket — neither its intricacies nor even its most basic facets.

The terminology — from tailenders to yorkers — is befuddling. The multi-day duration of Test matches is unfathomable. And the strategies — more complex than those of baseball, America’s closest analogue — are impenetrable.

And yet the wild popularity cricket enjoys across South Asia is well known to even the most casual observer of the region. So as an analyst of South Asia, I’m always trying to bone up on the essentials and read up on the rudimentaries.

Last Sunday, I took the full plunge.

I closely followed the Pakistan-India cricket final and took to Twitter — while shamelessly coining a new hashtag, #KugelmanKiCricket — to offer real-time commentary that likely provided more entertainment than analytical value. Twitter, after all, is a bastion for insta-expertise.

And yet, after Pakistan’s euphoric victory, even this cricket neophyte could understand the mesmerising effects that the sport, and its championship squad, has on a cricket-crazed country. It unifies a nation wracked by all manner of divides. It brings out the best type of patriotism — unadulterated national pride devoid of chauvinism and jingoism. And, when it produces victory, it generates a pure euphoria like nothing else. In the aftermath of Sunday’s triumph, it was particularly touching to see the exuberant reaction of younger Pakistanis who weren’t around to witness or appreciate the dizzying exploits of 1992.

Pakistan is often down but never out.

Still, what struck me the most was this: the team that triumphed on Sunday is an admirable microcosm of Pakistan on the whole: young and unpredictable, but also odds-defying and resilient. Few expected it to defeat England in the semi finals, much less take out the mighty Indians in the final. This team, like the nation it represents, is often counted out, but still manages to persevere.

Recall all the times Pakistan has been counted out. In March 2009, the US military adviser David Kilkullen famously predicted that the Pakistani state could collapse within one to six months. Nearly 100 months later, the state has yet to fall.

In 2008, financial distress brought on by plummeting foreign reserves sparked concerns that Pakistan could experience an economic meltdown. Nearly a decade later, Pakistan would never be mistaken for the next Asian tiger, but its economy is in a much better place. According to Pakistan government figures, GDP growth has hit its highest level in eight years. Foreign exchange reserves have shot up to nearly $22 billion.

Between 2007 and 2014, the Pakistani Taliban and its allies waged a relentless, nationwide campaign of terrorist violence that appeared unstoppable. Today, Pakistan still experiences terrorism and must grapple with extremist entities, but terrorist violence has fallen significantly, thanks in great part to Operation Zarb-i-Azb.

Most recently, Pakistan has faced the prospect of a diplomatic isolation campaign by India. New Delhi may have successfully orchestrated a boycott of a Saarc conference in Islamabad and railed against ‘Pakistani terrorism’ in global forums, but Pakistan, through CPEC, has become a lynchpin for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. In the process it has further cemented its close relationship with the world’s likely next superpower, and strengthened relations with key states like Russia. Let’s be clear: Pakistan may not be the world’s top power broker, but it is not diplomatically isolated.

To be sure, Pakistan faces challenges in the coming months and years far graver than anything that will be thrown at (or should I say bowled to?) its national cricket squad. Pakistan’s proliferation of policy problems — radicalisation and extremist sentiment in society, millions of kids out of school, malnutrition and stunted growth among children, structural corruption, and, in my view, the only true existential crisis that confronts Pakistan, outright water scarcity — are as daunting as they are diverse.

And yet if there is one teachable moment from Sunday’s victory, it is that Pakistan is often down but never out. Just as a young batsman named Fakhar Zaman seemingly came out of nowhere (at least I’d never heard of him) to produce a performance for the ages and help avert a defeat predicted by even the most learned of observers, there’s reason to believe Pakistan will find a way to defy the odds and overcome, or at least manage, challenges that appear to be insurmountable.

After all, if an ignorant American like me could follow Sunday’s match, with all its machinations and maneuvers, then surely anything is possible, no matter how daunting.

The writer is deputy director for the Asia Programme and senior associate for South Asia with the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington, DC.


Twitter: @michaelkugelman

Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2017