CRICKET: A FORCE OF NATURE

Jun 25 2017

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Mohammad Amir’s three wickets in the final against India sealed the deal for Pakistan
Mohammad Amir’s three wickets in the final against India sealed the deal for Pakistan

There’s a video making the rounds on social media of a sandstorm in Sudan. It’s like a computer generated imagery effect from Mad Max: Fury Road, the power of nature in such a short span of time. Ninety seconds is all it takes for a day to become night, for everything you see to become something completely different. It reminded me of the Pakistan cricket team.

That’s not the Pakistan cricket team in the sense of the 11 men who take the field, but the idea of it. The idea of it as representing the best qualities of Pakistan, a bunch of world beaters who could be ambassadors for the country while being the sort of individuals you could live vicariously through. That idea of Pakistan that is best encapsulated in everything Imran Khan did, and was, before his political life. The idea of the Pakistan team as a force of nature, as a caricature of a fairy tale beast, of it as the sleeping giant, or quite simply of it as the cornered tiger.

Front-running is not something Pakistanis appreciate — maybe because of how unfamiliar it is to them. You require strife to be overcome and setbacks to counter. The tiger must be cornered for it to truly reveal itself.

Explaining Pakistan’s win at the ICC Champions Trophy — against all expectations — requires recourse to faith

But these aren’t tigers; the 1992 team were. They had three world class players in Salim Malik, Wasim Akram and Javed Miandad, surrounded by the best young players in the world, and a captain whose body may have been past it but whose mind carried him through even at that stage of his career. Imran’s team truly were tigers — only Australia had a better win-loss ratio than Pakistan between the 1987 and 1992 World Cups.

The same is true of the 1999 team —which went into the tournaments as joint favourites, and played the first half of the tournament as such. Or the 2009 team, which had faced its setbacks but could still consider itself to be more suited to the new format than anyone else. They had had a decade or so of a head-start over the rest of the world as far as the 20-over game was concerned. Pakistan were playing T20 cricket when T20 wasn’t even a thing. No team had won more T20 internationals or had a better win-loss record than Pakistan had leading up to the 2009 World T20. Thus they may have been cornered, but it was quite clear that they were tigers.

But this team? Sarfraz’s boys? To have called them that a fortnight ago would have been considered an insult to all that came before them. Pakistan cricket needs moments to survive, for its haal to be delivered. Those moments had become exceedingly rare; increasingly restricted to white clothing, to the second-greatest Test team the country has had. But even they dealt in moments, or spells. From Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2012 to Lord’s and Oval in 2016 their greatness was defined by sessions, not by days. Sarfraz’s team hasn’t been restricted to sessions, they have dominated days, they have owned weeks. With the exception of a middle-order collapse against Sri Lanka they have controlled and dominated every game in a way they had no right to.

Two weeks. That’s all it took. The first Sunday of June Pakistan were being humiliated by India, an expected result. The third Sunday of June, the roles were reversed.

And very little of it makes sense. Pakistan have been a mediocre one-day team for a long time. Against the top six (excluding West Indies, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and the associate nations) they have not won more than they’ve lost in 14 off the last 15 years. Fourteen of the last 15 years could be considered below par for Pakistan. That’s not a trend, that’s an era. There are college undergraduates who only ever remember one year in which Pakistan were a quality ODI team. We have lived with the delusion of the unpredictable Pakistan, but beyond the odd major win in the World Cups of 2011 or 2015, the national team has been depressingly predictable.

Thus with that background that first loss to India makes sense. This piece was originally commissioned after that loss — it was to be about a failing domestic system which produced half-finished products. It was to be about a cricket board that has no vision for itself and a selection committee that unwittingly sabotaged whatever it is that Pakistan wanted to achieve. After all, they had believed that an opening pair of Kamran Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad was what they would take to the Champions Trophy. It was they who thought that Rumman Raees, who kept the fabled England batting unit in check in the semi-final, wasn’t good enough for the 50-over game. But unlike Theresa May, Sarfraz Ahmed could rise above the saboteurs.

This piece was to be about how the PSL could only bridge the gap between the domestic and the international game so much. And yet everything fell into place, the Pakistan Super League products ended up playing better than they did even in the PSL. Little that happened was expected, but nearly all of it was believable.

That’s because there is something to fandom which we ignore. It is perhaps more prevalent in the Pakistani psyche than elsewhere, but it is everywhere here, even in the Pakistan dressing room. It’s the concept of faith. It even encompasses the irreligious parts of the fan base. The fact that the tournament was in Ramazan was pointed to by everyone, from shouting heads on TV to the fans on social media and the players in public and private utterances. Sure, God might not really care who wins the second biggest competition in the third biggest format of probably the third biggest sport in the world, but faith can cover up so much doubt. The idea of Divine help exists as long as you believe in it.

And once you are in that zone, once the snowball had started rolling, there is little that can stop it. From the zeniths to the nadirs, the one thing that has always been true is that, much like Jesus Quintana, you don’t mess with a Pakistan team on a roll.

This lot may not have been tigers, but they ended up being so much more. They were expected to be the dying embers of a flame. Instead they ended up being a phoenix rising from the ashes, absolved of all past sins, ready to take flight and overcome everything that came in their paths.

None of it solves the deeper problems of Pakistan cricket, but this is just the latest reminder of why — for all their faults — nothing captures the imagination of the nation quite like the cricket team. And if there’s anything in this country that can be saved it’ll be the cricket, and at the forefront of this turnaround will be the men in green themselves.

The writer tweets @mediagag

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 25th, 2017