Cricket before dawn

June 22, 2019

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I’M currently visiting my son Shakir in California, and given the eight-hour time difference, World Cup matches being played in the UK start at 2.30 am.

Shakir has paid for a channel showing cricket, and we watch the second half at a more reasonable hour. As far as he was concerned, having defeated England, all our team had to do was to beat India and then fly home.

Last Sunday, I woke up before four and checked the score in bed on Cricinfo, the cricket website. When I saw that India were batting at over 80 without loss, I turned the light off and went back to sleep, knowing that we were heading for a thrashing.

When we turned on the TV at around eight, Pakistan seemed to be doing well, but as so often in the past, a collapse was just around the corner. Soon, the wickets began to tumble like ninepins.

Much has been written and said about the disgraceful manner of our defeat, so I’ll spare readers my take on the match. But it’s a fact that India was the far superior side, and thoroughly deserved their comprehensive victory. In an embarrassingly one-sided match, it was as though a club side of amateurs had been asked to play against a Test team.

In any sport, one side has to lose.

Why has India improved, while we have declined?

But seven World Cup losses to India indicate a trend, and not just a bad patch. Compared to the agile, athletic Indian team, our boys came across as unfit and lacking focus and intensity. Our captain was all paunch and no punch.

Although the Pakistan team has been cursed and reviled across the social media, consider why such a big gap has opened up between the two teams. After all, there was a time, not that long ago, when our team regularly beat their traditional rivals. Why has India improved, while we have declined?

The causes lie beyond the boundary rope. The last 40 years or so have witnessed a steady fall in games played at school and college level. Street cricket has replaced the organised version. And while some talent has come through, by and large we no longer produce world-class batsmen and bowlers as we once did.

Imran Khan has advocated a restructuring of domestic cricket for decades. And it’s true that for corporations and government departments to have their own teams is an anomaly that exists nowhere else as far as I know. However, if the current setup is replaced by teams representing districts and provinces, funding would be a big concern.

Presently, selected cricketers are put on departmental payrolls. And the launch of the PSL T20 competition has injected more money into domestic cricket than ever before.

But expecting excellence in cricket while so much else is crumbling around us is unreasonable. While we were once world champions in hockey and squash, we no longer figure anywhere in the rankings. Organisations charged with raising standards are caught up in internal rivalries.

The Pakistan Football Federation, for example, was alleged to have become the launch pad for dozens of foreign junkets. Not much has been done for the sport, and there is little to show for all the FIFA funds that flow in to raise standards. And did the prime minister have to make wholesale changes in the cricket board shortly before the World Cup? Couldn’t he have waited a few months to settle scores with Najam Sethi, the successful ex-chairman?

In a sense, cricket is a metaphor for much that is wrong with the country. Constant squabbling between institutions, a tendency to centralise power, and a need to seek personal benefits at the cost of the common good have become the norm.

In such an environment, talent has little chance to break through. A lack of facilities and coaching ensures that we will seldom rise above mediocrity. But again, this only reflects what’s happening in just about every other area from PIA to the railways.

Connecting the dots, at the heart of this developing crisis is the disaster our educational system has become. Since the nationalisation of private schools and colleges by the PPP government in the early 1970s, two generations of Pakistanis have graduated from failing state institutions. Gen Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ has added to the mess.

This is not to suggest that the lack of a good education excludes youth from sports. However, the mental discipline gained in a rigorous course of studies prepares people for work and sports at the highest level. Just compare Virat Kohli’s self-confident manner with Sarfraz Ahmed’s cringe-making press conferences, and you will get my point.

Our dire educational system is having a similar impact on every aspect of national life. Madressahs don’t equip young people to contribute to either personal or public well-being. And the less said about state education the better.

To top it all, I had bet £10 on Pakistan to win…!

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2019