In Khuda Kay Liye, when Shaan runs into Jenny for the first time, he
finds it very difficult to explain where he is from. She doesn’t recognise Pakistan by its name, so Shaan grabs a few fries from his meal and arranges them on the table. He describes Pakistan as the space in the middle of Iran, Afghanistan, China and India. “So you’re India’s neighbour,” replies Jenny.
Quetta’s position in Pakistani pop culture has been quite similar to that space; it has a name but unlike all other major cities of the country, nothing that the public can associate it with, apart from Hazara killings and the winds that give Karachi the chills.
But now they have been recognised as the mighty Gladiators, and slowly but surely, the locals have melted their egos in favour of the cricketing giants that their namesake has turned into.
“I have never seen such fervent support for any team in Quetta, save for when Younus Khan’s Men in Green brought home the World T20,” said 35-year-old Noman Ahmed, a native of Quetta.
For the people of Quetta, their team is taking up the fight against the much more celebrated cities of Pakistan. “We were quite disappointed when we lost to Lahore,” added Noman. “It was like losing to India.”
The city of Quetta took its time to warm up to the Gladatiors; initially looked at as yet another franchise that was capitalising on its name and yet sidelining its people at the same time.
25-year-old Bismillah Khan was the only player from the entire province of Balochistan to be selected in the Quetta side. “Balochistan, along with its people, is being neglected once again. I am wondering what they selected Bismillah Khan for? Just so that they can come to Quetta and fool around using his face,” Rehan Khosa, another local from Quetta, wrote on Facebook.
Khosa’s argument resonated throughout Quetta and struck a rather sensitive chord. It touched upon its deep-rooted yearning for recognition, a void that has developed further as a result of a lack of opportunities and in many cases, a lack of basic human rights for its population.
These are very pressing issues that require political interference and it would be unfair to put them on the shoulders of a private franchise that never vowed to support local talent in the first place.
But then the Gladiators — written off as underdogs right from the start —started defeating the more popular teams. In its David and Goliath story, the people of Balochistan found common ground. Suddenly, the Gladiators were being welcomed by Quetta as one of their own.
A few matches after Khosa’s post, Bismillah Khan was given a chance in the final group match. It may have been a dead rubber for the Gladiators but it was the gesture that counted. Bismillah made 55 on his debut and helped the Gladiators defeat arch-rivals Lahore Qalandars. And on the streets of Quetta, they sung the names of Bismillah and the Gladiators — their Gladiators — throughout that fateful night.
In Bismillah, the kids who gather at the famous Ayub Stadium with a bat and a ball now had a physical manifestation of their dreams. In the Gladiators, they had the franchise that made it possible for a small town kid to rub shoulders with the very likes of Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen.
Mentor Sir Vivian Richards, old and wise as he is, is its new chieftain —memes christening him ‘Sardar Vivian Richards Bugti’ have gone viral on social media.
The West Indian batsman has become the animated father figure of a team that few cared about in the beginning but has quickly become the neutral’s favourite. As a unit that started out alone and now has a bandwagon chasing it, the journey of Gladiators is perhaps the wishful journey of Quetta and Balochistan.
On February 23, the entire town will come to a standstill as — more than a 1,000 kilometres away — the Gladiators fight it out for the trophy. Whatever the outcome, Sarfraz Ahmed’s men have already won the hearts of the people whose city’s name they wear so proudly across their chest. The Gladiators have already won the ultimate prize; Quetta has been put on the world map, and its people shall never forget.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2016.