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It’s been quite a while since I read a novel that threw me into such a disarray of emotion. Had this book been a televised cricket match, I’d be alternating between euphoric whoops and tearing my hair out in anguish. Kudos to Omar Shahid Hamid, because his latest novel The Fix — set in the world of cricket with the women’s team as its focal point — is intense, to say the least.

Pakistan’s women’s cricket team has been around for a while, but for the longest time they were on nobody’s radar — other than perhaps misogynistic men because, well, duh. On the sporting front, they lost practically every match. It’s only recently that they’ve come into the spotlight, notching up wins and being seen as an inspirational bunch by social commentators and cricket fans alike.

I thought The Fix would be reflective of that scenario — a Pakistani Chak De India, if you will — of ragtag underdogs winning the hearts of all. But no. The novel begins at the point where the underdogs win. It’s an exhilarating triumph. Sheer joy. Ladies, you rule! And that’s when the ugly starts.

In Omar Shahid Hamid’s latest potboiler, games are being played, and not just on the cricket pitch

Fresh from their Asia Cup victory against traditional archrivals India, captain Sanam Khan and her right-hand woman Fatima Shah are tasting the sweet fruit of success, which the men’s team has been taking for granted for years. The two women are already the face of a soft drink brand and there are more sponsorships in the offing. Sanam can see how this will change the future of her beloved team. It is much more personal for Fatima, because maybe now her father — a cricket coach who emotionally and financially neglects his family for his players — will see her worth. More importantly, it will let her pull her family out of the depths of poverty.

However, it is not only the big global corporations showing interest in the girls. Shady underworld sharks who have amassed millions through betting, spot-fixing and match-fixing realise the women’s potential as stars in the face of years of the men’s team’s consistently disappointing antics both on and off the field. The Asia Cup win has earned the ladies plenty of adoring fans and where the crowds go, the punters are sure to follow.

The team flies to England to play in the Women’s World Cup and there, the shadiest shark of all sends his henchman, Saleem Euro, to force the women to play by his rules. Sanam and Fatima are stunned by his audacity and his offers, which include services provided “discreetly”, just as he does for the men. For well-educated, sensible and driven Sanam, it comes — and I found this scene hilarious — in the form of a vacant-eyed, chiselled-cheekboned “boy band reject.”

By this point in the novel, Hamid has already spun a masterful web of deceit and intrigue thanks to the friends and allies of the women who may not have their best interests at heart. Or they may. It’s very hard to tell. Shoring up the reader’s mistrust of these friends and allies are flashbacks to one of the ugliest scandals surrounding the Pakistani men’s team — those gods of the game who failed their legions of worshippers just when victory was imminent.

Twenty years ago, Pakistan had made it to the World Cup final. It was meant to be “Skipper” Tariq Zaman’s last great match, a glorious end to a remarkable innings. After that he would focus on the hospital he was building for the poor and on his political career. But Pakistan lost. Nobody could believe it. Not the fans, not the media, not Skipper. The players were accused of throwing the match, of selling their country and their honour for a few thousand dollars. Skipper retired a bitter, disillusioned man and when his erstwhile vice-captain Faisal Qureshi, aka FQ, took charge of the team, matters went from bad to worse.

The other players of that ill-fated team spent years denying their involvement in fixing, grew older, retired and went their different ways. One became secretary of the sports board and a mentor to the women’s team. Another became a maulvi. Yet another became an alcoholic working in a tobacco shop in London.

It was never proven that these men fixed the match, but the scandal had tainted them for life and they still suffered the consequences. Here, it is interesting to see how a situation appears from two different perspectives. On the one side is the exhaustive media and public analyses and the players’ own explanations for a job done badly: unfamiliar pitch, rain, injury, whatever. Such debates are familiar to anyone living in a cricket-mad country. People have built entire careers out of simply talking about a dropped catch. But the more one learns about how a match can be fixed — even in the tiniest, seemingly most insignificant way — the harder it becomes to not accept that the real reason could well have been the bag full of cold, hard cash delivered to a hotel room in the dead of the night.

But although we may be outraged to see how easy it is to sell one’s national pride, the players’ backstories humanise the novel’s (probable) bad guys. Often suffocated by poverty, many of these wide-eyed kids are barely out of their teens when they fall under the influence of teammates just a hair worldlier. Having given in to temptation, with time they find themselves trapped in a dangerous world from which escaping alive and intact is pretty much impossible.

Hamid details the incidents where each player sold himself and it is tempting to draw parallels between fictional and real matches, but one must resist doing so, especially if one is not hugely knowledgeable about cricket and just wants to enjoy a well-written thriller. However, we can safely draw parallels from what happens within the narrative itself.

Skipper and Sanam, for example, are exactly how we expect a person leading a national sports team to be. It is repeatedly pointed out that the bookies never dared approach Skipper and they’re finding it hard to entice Sanam as well. But Sanam and Skipper’s moral fortitude is easier to uphold; both come from affluent families where money is never an issue. Fatima — and to a lesser extent, FQ — grew up impoverished. The allure of deliberately fudging just one run for enough money to buy the family a decent house is understandable.

Thus, poverty is the rationale used by the players who succumb to the fixers, and it is an uncomfortable implication that money trumps loyalty. But isn’t that how the real world works? Do we have a right to judge when, for the majority, survival is possible only by bending the rules? So when Ethics says, ‘Do the job you’re paid to do with honesty and integrity’, it’s hardly surprising that Reality replies, ‘Bite me’.

From 20 years ago when the men’s team (allegedly) succumbed — first to need, then to greed — to the present when the women are experiencing the same, it seems the cycle will just never end. Plus, it’s hard to fight the crowd. Sanam and Fatima are holding tight to their integrity, but are the others? To the morally upright warrior, a victory counts only if it’s a fair battle, so imagine the two women’s state of mind when they see Saleem Euro chumming it up with the captains of the Indian and English teams.

Which brings us full circle, too. As soon as I finished reading The Fix, I flipped back to re-read the opening pages where the Pakistani women won big. It was such an uplifting chapter and I needed my spirits boosted after the nerve-wracking ride I’d just been on with the novel. But ignorance really is bliss, because now — having learned all that I had learned — I could see how the match had truly played out. I could see the exact moments where the meaning of everything changed, and no cricket-commentating pundit would ever be able to convince me otherwise.

The reviewer is a member of staff

The Fix
By Omar Shahid Hamid
PanMacmillan, India
ISBN: 978-9389109016
252pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 14th, 2019