On cricket bonds and fearful neglect Shafqat Mahmood Friday, April 01, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=39299&Cat=9

Winning and losing is part of the game but let’s face it – it felt awful. Particularly so because, despite the cliché, it was not the best team that won at Mohali; it was the worse team that was beaten. In other words, Pakistan lost the match. India did not win it.

Enough of tribalism, although to be honest, the camaraderie generated by jointly rooting for the team felt great. I was fortunate enough to be in Sri Lanka to watch our team beat Australia. There are many vignettes of this trip but two stand out.

As the Sri Lankan airline plane landed in Colombo a day before the match, the plane full of Pakistanis burst into cheer and some started singing the national anthem. In the stadium itself that had a sizeable contingent from Pakistan, perfect strangers hugged and slapped each other on the back, when the Australian wickets fell. And at the end, when we won, it seemed as if Colombo belonged to the green shirts thronging its alleys and byways.

Call it tribalism or love for the country; the last four to six weeks have brought the nation together like no other event in recent memory. One could argue that it is the well-off who had the luxury to indulge in this raw patriotism whereas the poor were still busy trying to eke out a living. Fair enough, but the way the country came to a standstill on the day of the Mohali match suggests something deeper.

It is as if the reservoir of feeling good about the country that had seemingly dried up with bad news all the time, had an outlet of joy with the performance of our cricket team. People across the country, in every province, every city, across the class, wealth, and ethnic divide were waiting for something good to cheer about.

The loss at Mohali has been a downer but again, it is the collective sigh across the land that holds one’s attention. It suggests that all those stories of our death are vastly exaggerated. Our systems may be failing, and we may have the worst possible leadership, but underneath these visible signs of sickness, we have a strength that largely goes unnoticed.

It is the young people that give hope. And considering that a huge proportion of our population is under twenty five, there is much to look forward to in terms of national spirit. It also reminds us how much we have neglected this amazingly strong reservoir of our strength.

It is not just education, although lack of investment in it is keeping this generation of the future, largely semi-literate. It is the disinterest in this massive youth bulge across all policy areas. One that comes readily to mind is the lack of open spaces and facilities to channel the energies of the youth into sport.

It was interesting following one discussion on TV about the reason for our poor fielding in cricket. This was a reference not just to Mohali, where Tendulkar was dropped four times, but to this particular weakness in our cricket over the years. The question was – historically, why have we been such poor fielders?

The answer was obvious. Most of our kids start playing cricket on roads or in grassless open areas. They can also seldom afford proper cricket balls and play with tennis balls instead. This hones their bowling skills tremendously and to an extent their batting, but certainly not fielding. Who would like to dive on concrete roads or muddy unkempt open spaces?

No wonder our fielding skills are abysmal. It is only when these youngsters reach senior levels that they get proper grounds to play in but even these surfaces are hard and are not conducive to the kind of fielding acrobatics that other teams display. The result of these peculiar playing conditions is great bowling, average batting, and very poor fielding skills.

While this explains the weakness in our cricket, the larger question is – why we are not thinking about providing a healthy outlet to our youth. We can spend billions of dollars on improving the driving experience of a small proportion of our population through motorways and ring roads. But, virtually nothing on channelling the energies of our youngsters, who are a significant proportion of our population, into sports.

These poor development priorities are part of the reason why some of the frustrated youth find an outlet in negative activities. After nearly five years of fighting militancy, we repeatedly find that the terrorists have little problem in finding recruits.

No one is suggesting that by providing better grounds and sporting facilities the problem of terrorism will come to an end. It has many causes, among them poverty and the fracture between elite and poor systems of education. But, providing the youth some healthy outlet is a no brainer.

Our development priorities have to be people-centred rather than elite driven. Gleaming and shining airports and wide roads are good, but only cater to a few. It is the many that are suffering in our country.

A classic example of this is the railway, a mass carrier that serves the ordinary man. While we have spent huge amounts on roads and fancy buildings, not to mention serious weapons of destruction, we are allowing this resource of the masses to die.

This neglect of people-centred development is visible in every sphere, but most manifestly in education. During this visit to Sri Lanka, I was struck by the fact that while it has nearly 100 percent literacy, its road network is nothing compared to ours. Even to its principal tourist centre, Kandy, there is a single road with two-way traffic.

Instead of feeling smug about how far ahead we are, the message to me was that they have concentrated their precious resources on education rather than on a few motorists. This feeling was bolstered upon driving by the campuses of their colleges. While the roads were narrow, their educational institutions looked prosperous and cared for.

It may appear that this is too narrow a view and that a good road network has its place, the simple point is that nations with meagre resources have to make a careful choice. Their priorities have to be determined with a great deal of thought and to me, education, sporting facilities, railway, public parks, water, sanitation, and health have to take precedence over fancy projects because they cater to a majority of our people.

If we do that, the bonding that temporary events such as the Cricket World Cup bring about across the country would become permanent. Everybody would have a greater stake in the system and all efforts would be geared towards defending it.

We should be grateful for the sense of nationalism visible across every divide over the last six weeks. This, despite the neglect and lack of care for a vast majority of the people. Let this remind us to get our national direction right.

Email: shafqatmd@gmail.com 

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