Faith in the World Cup

May 28, 2019

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The writer is a freelance columnist and has previously worked with ESPNcricinfo, Islamabad United and the PSL.
The writer is a freelance columnist and has previously worked with ESPNcricinfo, Islamabad United and the PSL.

IF you are a Pakistan cricket fan, the last few months have made for painful viewing. After being whitewashed by Australia, the team was recently decimated by England in a series meant to prepare it for the upcoming World Cup.

Since the last World Cup, England have emerged as the most explosive side in the sport, having blown past scores of old records as well as expectations of what is possible in cricket. By contrast, Pakistan has spent 16 of the last 18 years with a losing record against the top six sides, and, despite the miraculous Champions’ Trophy win two years ago, remain one of the weakest sides in the game.

Indeed, Pakistan cricket is in a slump that has been a decade in the making, ever since terrorist attacks in Mumbai and then Lahore turned its players into pariahs. This slump is itself a dip from a steady, inexorable decline that some would trace back to the turn of the century, while others might well trace back a decade earlier as a talented side fell prey to fixing.

But you wouldn’t guess that from the visceral, agonised reactions of the team’s supporters. Somehow, despite the fact that Pakistan has crossed the first knockout stage only once in the last 20 years in World Cups, the fans remain resolutely expectant. They still expect nothing less than a glorious victory, and they still find ways to get shocked when the team performs exactly as its ranking suggests it will.

In the face of despair, why wouldn’t we seek to create hope and meaning in our cricket team’s chances?

Ever since I crossed over to writing on the sport instead of being just a fan, I’ve often wondered how and why we continue to remain so entitled to expectations of victory. I find myself surprised at how we still look forward to World Cups and expect the impossible. I find myself asking how we keep having hope when there is little reason to have any.

It’s been two weeks since the first death anniversary of someone beloved to me. It feels crass to bring up death in the trivial matter of sports, but growing up as a man in this patriarchal society, cricket was one of the only ways I learnt how to relate to my emotions. It was how I learnt to process the bewilderment that emotions can cause, and it is why I still find it as a pathway to process what I feel.

Death brings up a lot of emotions. Death is also perhaps the greatest reminder of the limits of control, the limits of comprehension, the limits of meaning. When you lose someone close to you, you lose so much of your ability to hope, to believe, to feel complete. And yet, perhaps the cruellest thing about death is that even though your world feels like it’s over, the world doesn’t actually end. And as you sit through the moments after tragedy, slowly but surely, you start creating meaning yourself. You make meaning in the way you choose to remember, and in every moment that you remember.

As the days pass, you use meaning to try and build around your pain — some make a buffer, others make a bridge. But despite the inherent unknowingness of death, you still choose to create meaning. Even as you know deep down that all this meaning is a sandcastle that the waves of time will eventually swallow, you create meaning nonetheless.

Creating meaning, finding hope, telling yourself you’ve found an answer — all this feels almost ridiculous in the face of death’s finality, and yet it is also the only response to it. Our lives are but an incomprehensibly tiny moment in the infinite vastness of this universe, and the meaning we create today won’t outlast us. But that doesn’t stop us from creating meaning anyway, because finding meaning in the blank nature of death is perhaps what living is.

Life is already cruel, but in our country and society, it finds ways to be crueller. We are a country that has been at war with itself for over a decade, and in many ways for much longer than that. We are a society whose inequity is entrenched deeper and deeper each day. We are a people who struggle to find our own identity. We are a nation that often hates itself and feeds on its own citizens.

In the face of such despair, why wouldn’t we seek to create hope and meaning in our cricket team’s chances? In the face of constant instability and insecurity, why wouldn’t we choose to embrace the comforting binary of victory/defeat? In the face of a life that often seems to offer such little meaning, why wouldn’t we choose to find meaning in the random actions of 11 men playing a sport that they might not be good at?

Most experts would agree that Pakistan qualifying for the knockouts would be a surprise. But such predictions based on rationality also miss the point. The fans aren’t looking to analyse this experience. They are looking to create meaning, to create hope, to create a paradigm where things make sense, even when they know they don’t.

And so, let me wish good luck to our team — a team on which we project our own needs, our own insecurities, our own meanings and our own ways of finding hope. And even (or especially) if it doesn’t do well, it would have given us a way to briefly make sense of the incomprehensible. Ultimately, in moments big or small, finding meaning in what seems meaningless is all we can do.

In loving memory of Emad Syed Naqvi (1993-2018).

The writer is a freelance columnist and has previously worked with ESPNcricinfo, Islamabad United and the PSL.

Twitter: @karachikhatmal

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2019