The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is an imposing stadium.
As a native of Melbourne, I have watched more sport here than I can remember. Cricket, rugby, soccer, athletics. Even a U2 concert back in the ’90s.
Today, I’m at an Australian Rules Football match between suburban rivals. They have been playing each other for more than 150 years. Australian Rules Football has a long history. The MCG has a long history. There are 65,000 people yelling and screaming and cheering. But my mind is elsewhere.
The Aussie writer meets up with a bunch of Pakistanis, including cricketers now proving their mettle in Australia, to discuss cricket and life in Pakistan
Tonight I have been invited to dine with a group of Pakistani men at a private house.
The host heard of my plans to visit Pakistan later this year to make a movie that will delve into the symbiotic relationship between Pakistani culture and cricket. As a westerner, I have little understanding about Pakistan except for the cricket I see played and the alarmist news reports about extremism and corruption in what is conveyed to be a backward country.
I theorise that Pakistan must be more than that, and that cricket surely plays an important part.
Given this, my host suggested I break bread with him and some of his closest friends as a way to kick-start my exploration.
What should this gora expect when he arrives in Pakistan? How does cricket permeate into the average Pakistani’s daily life? Is it safe to travel? Should international cricket return? Do you guys really hate India?
Ask questions. Listen. Learn. Debate.
The twist is that my dinner host has been bowling leg spin on the MCG wicket for many years. A Pakistani by birth from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Now an Australian citizen.
His name is Fawad Ahmed
I drove from the MCG to Fawad’s recently purchased house in a western suburb of Melbourne. A unit on a shared block with one other. It is demure and modest. Nothing flash. Nothing extravagant. In fact, the other unit on the block is owned by the state and let as public housing.
I had spoken to Fawad on the phone only once before, but we had never met in person. He graciously agreed to let me interview him on Australian radio, and we spent a good 20 minutes jovially poking fun at the international cricket affairs of the day. Most notably, he had recently walked out to bat in a Sheffield Shield game between Victoria and Western Australia, but forgotten to take his bat with him. We laughed about it together.
The perceptions I formed of Fawad after that discussion were one of a cheeky soul. A man with a sense of humour and a bloke who knew what he wanted, but accepted that life wasn’t perfect.
Australian custom dictates that you never appear as a dinner guest without bringing something to share. Usually, it is a bottle of wine. But Fawad, a Muslim, does not drink. So I settled on a box of chocolates. In retrospect, this was an error, as Fawad is also an elite athlete who is training for the upcoming summer season. The chocolates were not opened. I doubt they will ever be opened.
After removing my boots and entering the house, I am greeted by five or six of his closest friends. There is another ex first-class cricketer from Pakistan who is now playing suburban cricket in Melbourne. Originally, he comes from Multan. He is a batsman who tells me that Pakistani pitches are easier to play on than here in Australia. They keep lower, it’s easier to hit through the ball.
His cheeky smile and outrageous good looks are balanced by his shyness and lack of confidence in his English skills.
There is a Masters of IT student whose wife is still in Pakistan. They are expecting their first child. He hasn’t seen his wife in five months. It appears as though he has made a large personal sacrifice in coming to Australia in an attempt to better his family’s life.
The most vocal character of the evening is a married man whose vocation I did not capture. He is originally from Balochistan.
A late arrival is a truck driver who spent time in the outback Queensland town of Mount Isa. In fact, he drove road trains — these are container trucks that are three or four carriages long. An archetypal Aussie profession. One for hardened men. One that this Pakistani native has taken ownership of. It was something I didn’t expect.
Fawad introduces me to his mates and explains to them about my upcoming mission to Pakistan. We discuss that in length, and I sense that Fawad feels obliged to assist in my schooling to ensure I travel prepared and with an open mind.
In 2010, Fawad commenced a journey of his own. He came to Australia as a sportsman, looking to play domestic cricket. It’s not as though this was a highly speculative move. He had played first-class cricket for Abbottabad.
In his debut match for them, Fawad made a duck. His leg-spinners took a single wicket. Abbottabad lost.
He tells me that when he arrived in Australia, he spoke some English, but not much. It is hard to tell that he once struggled with this. His grasp of the local vernacular flows through naturally.
But as we discuss this, it is obvious that he is also distracted. He is the host, and his intensity is focused on cooking beef biryani and a chicken curry for his guests.
“Is it safe for me to travel to Pakistan?” I ask.
A logical question in my eyes. A naive one if you ask the people in the room.
I am told that the major cities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad will be no problem. Peshawar used to be bad but the government has done a good job of cleaning up the crime there.
The truck driver from Waziristan wished he could tell me to visit his home province, but he feels it best that I don’t.
“You really should go to Gilgit.” There is consensus on that one from everyone. “It is a beautiful place.”
Fawad used to work with an NGO in Pakistan that promoted education for women. He claims that this link led to threats against his safety by extremists. Perhaps this Western perception of Pakistan is a correct one?
The result for Fawad was a claim for asylum. The Melbourne University cricket club vouched for him. Ricky Ponting vouched for him. Ultimately, the Australian government vouched for him, granting him permanent residency in 2012 and citizenship some years later.
Fawad explains, his country is suffering from the lack of home international cricket. Its psyche dictates that it must celebrate local heroes. It needs to see them perform. Touch them. Breathe them in. We all saw the large crowd outside of Sarfraz Ahmed’s home when he returned victorious with the Champions Trophy. If roles were reversed and that was Steve Smith, the only thing outside his house would have been the neighbour’s cat.Perhaps it is on the back of cricketing success that Pakistan’s national pride swells?
The conversation turns to other quintessential Pakistani perceptions that we in the West usually hold.
Corruption. Extremism. Fast bowlers. Misbah and Imran. Test cricket. The Champions Trophy. Was Sachin really that good?
Through it all, Fawad remains rather intense. A side of him that differs from what I expected. Although I primarily laugh and joke with his mates, he shares a considered and worldly view on many matters.
Whether it be geopolitics, what it means to be a Muslim, his experience in living in Australia or the current players strike. You can tell that strong intelligent debate is something he craves. It’s almost a part of him. It is a part of his guests as well. Perhaps this is the most important part of Pakistani culture that I need to explore.
Fawad hands me some homemade chai.
It is creamy and the cinnamon flavour is nicely balanced.
“I was doing my certificate in coaching. Part of the course meant I had to watch the Victorian Bushrangers train. I asked to have a bowl. Robert Quiney [ex-Australian Test cricketer] was batting in the nets. I didn’t know who he was. My first ball bowled him through the gate. My next ball to him was a googly. He had no idea. When I turned around, a whole crowd had gathered to watch me bowl.”
On the back of this, Fawad was invited to join the Victorian squad. He would quickly become Australia’s most dominant domestic spin bowler. In fact, in the Shield season of 2014/15, he led the wickets table with 48 scalps.
“I was at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. They tested me and measured me using that biomechanics stuff. They discovered I put the same revolutions on the ball as Shane Warne.”
But as Fawad tells his stories, he and his countrymen bestow on me a feeling of both frustration and excitement.
Frustration that the Western world has an opinion of Pakistan that in the latter’s eyes is not the truth.
Excitement that this white middle class Australian has been somehow drawn into wanting to experience their home country. I sense that they mourn the lack of Pakistani advocates. I sense that Fawad feels that my trip will help him and his people in some way.
This is humbling. Extremely so.
But as Fawad explains, his country is suffering from the lack of home international cricket. Its psyche dictates that it must celebrate local heroes. It needs to see them perform. Touch them. Breathe them in.
We all saw the large crowd outside of Sarfraz Ahmed’s home when he returned victorious with the Champions Trophy. If roles were reversed and that was Steve Smith, the only thing outside his house would have been the neighbour’s cat.
Perhaps it is on the back of cricketing success that Pakistan’s national pride swells?
Later in the year I will ascertain the answers for myself.
But for now, via the medium of a simple plate of biryani and the conversation of grown men, I have come to know that this journey of discovery is not just for me.
Fawad tells me that he learned to cook from his mother. But that until he came to Australia and had to fend for himself, he wasn’t very good.
“My first attempt at biryani was a disaster. The rice was runny and not dry.” Fortunately for me, it is not the case tonight as we all sit on the floor and share food off the same plates.
“Sachin was a good cricketer you know. But he didn’t win many Test matches for India did he?”
Cricket and Pakistan.Inseperable.
Dennis Freedman is an Australian cricket journalist and host of the popular Can’t Bowl Can’t Throw cricket podcast and is a regular contributor to Dawn.
He tweets @DennisCricket_
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 23rd, 2017