Magnificent obsession - Aijaz Zaka Syed - Friday, March 25, 2011

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The writer is a columnist based in the Gulf and has written extensively on Muslim world affairs.

Despite being from the subcontinent, I belong to the rare species that isn’t crazy about cricket. In a region where cricket is like religion and modest men like Sachin Tendulkar are worshipped like gods, one could never quite understand the basics of the wretched game, let alone get hooked to it.

Yes, there have been times when one couldn’t resist the temptation to join the excitement of an India-Pakistan clash, which is like ages ago. As a teen, it was exhilarating to watch Imran Khan bowl and bat like a dream. And when he wasn’t doing that, he would stand there on the field like a rock, the lord of all he surveyed. The majestic Pathan went on to win the World Cup for Pakistan. One only wishes he had been as successful in the cesspool of Pakistani politics.

One also often found oneself cheering for the fellow Hyderabadi, Muhammad Azharuddin, the stylish batsman and one of the great skippers India has had. And yes, like the rest of India, I must confess to being a big fan of the Little Master and the way the magician with the willow casts a spell on a billion people.

Notwithstanding these exceptions, I still find it hard to see people spend an entire day glued to their television sets, or worse, skip work to suffer the heat and dust of a South Asian stadium for a cricket match. It’s even more vexing when it comes to Test cricket. How can anyone, for God’s sake, spend four to five days chasing a ball?

A gift from our colonial masters, cricket has become a magnificent obsession across South Asia – and wherever South Asians have gone. When cricket fever grips the region – which is now like all through the year – you find just about everyone, from stuffy television pundits to men in the street, forever discussing the finer points and nuances of the game.

It’s never just a game, especially when India and Pakistan are playing. It becomes a virtual war, a reflection of the many real ones that the twins have fought since they parted ways 64 years ago. Indeed, more than the Indians, it’s Pakistanis who go all hyper when they take on the bigger neighbour, turning it into a do-or-die battle and often emerging victorious.

In doing so, Pakistan seems to make up for all the areas in which it can’t match the big brother – in sheer size and numbers and in other ways.

In the past few years though, Pakistani cricket has been steadily going down the hill, clearly in sync with the general state of affairs in the country. From one leadership crisis to another and from one controversy to the next, the former champs have been going through the worst phase in their history.

That has changed with this World Cup. It’s been an absolute treat to watch the Pakistani team take on the mightiest of opponents and take them to pieces. What a comeback it’s been for Pakistan. Even for someone like me whose ignorance of the game is infinite, it’s been fascinating to watch them demolish one world class side after another. From ravaging the gutsy Lankans to savaging the West Indies, this World Cup has been all about Pakistan’s thumping march to glory, a team that was nowhere in the reckoning when the whole affair began.

The last two encounters have seen team green at their boldest and brightest. Earlier this week, they dismissed the Australians, the reigning world champions, at 176 beating a side that hasn’t lost a single match since 1999. Then it was the turn of the West Indies, another legendary team, to be thrashed in a one-sided contest that Pakistan won by 10 wickets in Dhaka. The match against the Caribbean team marking the last lap of the ICC Cup coincided with the Pakistan Day on March 23. The team couldn’t have offered a better gift to the folks back home.

As I write these lines, I don’t know what’s in store for Pakistan in the days ahead. But like all cricket fanatics – although I am not one – I am desperately hoping and praying to see India and Pakistan in the final battle. If that happens, what a thriller it would be – the ultimate fantasy of the aficionados of the sport. Because of the zero sum game between the neighbours and security situation in Pakistan, the two sides haven’t played each other in years, especially on each other’s territory.

For now though, it’s the Pakistani team’s stellar performance and how it’s being seen back home that is an endless source of fascination for distant observers like me. Given the mess on all fronts, it hasn’t been the best of times to be a Pakistani.

Fighting the monsters from the past and repeatedly betrayed by their politicians, coupled with the breakdown of national institutions and constant humiliation and persecution by so-called allies, Pakistanis have been fast losing hope and faith in their future as a nation.

I’ve seen close friends – fiercely proud Pakistani and proud Muslims – desperately look for their children’s future in faraway lands like Canada, America and Australia.

What do you do when your country is daily ravaged by mindless violence and drone attacks and you’re accused of being the sponsors of global terror and secret hosts of Osama bin Laden? What do you do when those who should be behind the bars for plundering the nation’s coffers have taken over the reins of power?

Last week, a day after Raymond Davis, the American who shot dead two Pakistanis in cold blood from the comfort of his car and claimed diplomatic immunity, was released, 46 people were killed in yet another drone strike by the folks who call themselves Pakistan’s friends.

No wonder cynicism has become the second nature of most Pakistanis today. Open the opinion pages of any Pakistani newspaper or tune in to a television network and you are overwhelmed by the all-pervasive despair and the talk of doom and gloom of all those eggheads. And to think this nation is just 64 years old, not to mention the epic sacrifices offered to earn this promised land!

Amid this deepening sense of desolation and all-round hopelessness comes the brilliant and breathtaking performance of Pakistani cricket squad. With their endless feats on the field, they have lifted the dark blanket of despondency off Pakistan.

Following the stunning victory over Australia, delirious crowds burst out on the streets across Pakistan to rejoice and celebrate like there’s no tomorrow. After all, they haven’t had much to celebrate in the past many years. Perhaps, never before anywhere in the world has a sport got so entwined and identified with the prestige and well-being of a nation.

The game of cricket has become a metaphor for a nation’s quest for dignity and journey of self-discovery. By consistently winning on cricket pitches across the region over the past couple of weeks, Pakistan’s dangerous 11 have nearly made up for all the failures on other fronts. They have revived and resurrected the fighting spirit of a beleaguered nation, rediscovering its self-belief and self-respect.


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