COMMENT: Fallible idols —Saroop Ijaz - Wednesday, April 06, 2011

A Pakistan-India game is indeed warfare, but without the angels and missiles, without grand narratives and fictitious historical accounts at the back of the warriors. Loss is still devastating, but not shameful. These are the wars we want

The country has recently returned from an almost five week long vacation. The wounds of the semi-final loss have mitigated to an extent, but by no means healed. The pervasive consolation is that it is just a game, not war. In any event you cannot win them all. The match has also resulted in some progress on the diplomatic front, with Pakistan extending an invitation to India for a round of talks. All of the above seems accurate except for the trivialisation of the game itself. Pakistan versus India in a cricket match is never ‘just a game’, and, hopefully, it will not be just a game long after India and Pakistan would have discarded the malignant state and media propaganda maintaining an utterly absurd hostility. Many of us cheered for India in the final, though that still would not make a Pakistan-India match just another game.

The Dutch beat the Germans in Hamburg in the semi-final of the football European Championships in 1988. Back in Amsterdam, crowds threw their bicycles into the air shouting, “We have got our bikes back!” The Germans around five decades ago had confiscated all Dutch bicycles during the Second World War. Unlike Pakistan and India, the Dutch and the Germans have not ever maintained any serious hostility; however, Holland versus Germany was never just a game for the next 50 years. Barcelona FC versus Real Madrid is no longer about Catalonia’s struggle for independence from Spanish oppression. AC Milan versus Inter is not the battle of the migrant working class against the local middle class of Milan that it used to be. Celtic versus Rangers is no longer the confrontation between Protestantism and Catholicism that it once was. Yet these matches are never ‘just a game’. It is war in the most fierce, puritanical sense. A Pakistan and India cricket match is warfare not because of Kargil, Kashmir, Mumbai or any other diabolical, artificially manufactured excuse for hostility; it is war because of cricket itself. It was war because of Bangalore; next time it will be for Mohali. Some wounds are best left unhealed. For the Indians and the Pakistanis, the feelings for their own cricket team are more overwhelming than any sectarian, parochial sentiments that they brought to the game.

The visit of the Dynamo football team to England in 1945 prompted Orwell to write his infamous essay ‘The Sporting Spirit’. Orwell believed that competitive international sports lead to ill will and goes on to categorise it as “...war minus the shooting”. As for sports diplomacy, Orwell writes, “ do make things worse by sending forth a team of 11 men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will ‘lose face’.” For once, Orwell was wrong, and the reason for his error is obvious: he never went to watch the Arsenal versus Dynamo game, and had never supported a sports team. I admit I find the term ‘cricket diplomacy’ inane since there is nothing diplomatic about most competitive sports, let alone a Pakistan-India cricket match. But if it brings peace, the semantic indiscretion can be forgiven.

The rational basis for supporting a team devoutly and assuming a partisan deity having a special interest in the temporal happenings of a sports event and hoping that divine help somehow orchestrates the result in your team’s favour is very flimsy. Similarly, the use of the term ‘World Cup’ for an event in which fourteen (mostly former English colonies) teams participate is narcissistic and megalomaniac, only to be outdone by the Americans who call one domestic competition a ‘World Series’. Yet, rationally, all of this is as irrational as any notions of patriotism, nationalism and religion. If one were allowed to pick the kind of irrationality that one suffers from, this most certainly would be it. There is admittedly escapism in this, yet it is not our usual outlandish ignorance, rather it has child-like innocence to it. A Pakistan-India game is indeed warfare, but without the angels and missiles, without grand narratives and fictitious historical accounts at the back of the warriors. Loss is still devastating, but not shameful. These are the wars we want.

Fortunately, the customary conspiracy theory mongering has been relatively subdued after the recent loss. Unfortunately, it has partially been replaced by another kind of claptrap like, “everybody has been a winner at Mohali”, etc. Although driven by the best of intentions, it is just absurd. In the knockout stage of sports competition, everybody cannot be a winner, it is factually impossible. Additionally, attempts to mollycoddle are just plainly insulting to the tenacity of our players, and more significantly to the game itself. Defeat defines the sportsman at least as much as victory. The Pakistan team lost a decisive match fair and square, but lost graciously.

The idolisation of cricket players at first glance seems identical to the deification of religious and political leaders. The first glance is deceptive; the two kinds of heroes are worlds apart. The protagonist in the school history books, party manifestoes, mantlepieces and government office walls is a flawless figure, with no chink in the armour, no sign of a weakness, in short having nothing in common with us. Too perfect for our completely unworthy affection, fit only for our distant awe and fear. The cricketer on the other hand elicits qualitatively different sentiments, oscillating between love and hate, worthy of unmerited praise and at the same time subjected to undeserved loathing. His brilliance alienates us, yet his sloppiness is reconciling. The cricketer can be adored without the fear of recklessness and can be cursed without committing sacrilege. There is no compulsory reverence, no mandatory hate. They are the heroes that we forgive on their failure, and who forgive us on the subsequent success. These are the heroes that we need.

The billionaire politician paying 5,000 rupees as taxes while being defended by an army of minions for it has nothing in common with the captain apologising sincerely for a bad day at office. The semi-final performance was very ordinary, but what made it bearable was the fact that no feeble excuses were made. Catches dropped, power play not taken at the right time, crunch match lost, apologies made and accepted. The Pakistan team has been unbelievably brilliant. Afridi and the team, take a bow for being humanly silly, yet majestically, fantastically, fabulous.

The writer is a lawyer based at Lahore and can be reached at

Source :\04\06\story_6-4-2011_pg3_5

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