Disclaimer: This article isn’t for those too weak, or too passionate, of heart. Those who seek catharsis in sports, who only love her for the joys she brings, should look away now. If you are still reading this, you are one of the few who love sports not only for the elation, but for the suffering she inflicts too. She is a harsh mistress, admittedly all the harsher for Pakistani cricket fans, but harsh nonetheless for one and all. That is what makes her so beautiful.
On Wednesday, Pakistan’s five-wicket loss to hosts Bangladesh meant they were knocked out of the Asia Cup. The all-too-familiar nature of the loss — calamitous fielding, poor top-order performance, slow run-rate earlier in the innings, batting first on a pitch where letting the other side put up a total may have been the smarter choice — has left the country understandably fuming.
What incensed them the most was not the loss but the déjà vu it caused. The feeling that we have been here before, that running in circles in these dark alleys is way more frustrating than the darkness itself.
Why can’t we be like arch-rivals India, the eternal yardstick, who have a never-ending production line of world-class batsmen, they ask? Why can’t we be like those Australian or South African teams that deliver such efficient performances, especially in the field? Why can’t we even be like Bangladesh, a young plucky team on the up with a future bright and filled with endless hope?
Because, for better or for worse, we are not them. We are Pakistan; hopelessly mercurial and permanently tainted, precariously talented yet forever raw, always charismatic but regularly frustrating.
We are not flawed because we have the potential to be the ultimate entertainers; we are the ultimate entertainers because we are flawed. And while so many of us would swap this for a lean mean winning machine, the side isn’t changing any time soon.
Mohammad Sami will be blamed for his part in the loss against Bangladesh; his two no-balls and a telling misfield turned the game on its head when all momentum was with Pakistan.
Had he been born on the other side of the border, Sami may have gone on to become one of the greatest bowlers to don India’s blue. As things stand, he may not even be in Pakistan’s top five right now.
But Sami was not born on that side of the border, and so he is the archetypal Pakistan player. A seemingly unexplainable phenomenon that can still somehow manage to cross the giddy pace heights of over 150kmph at the age of 35 and produce unplayable outswinging yorkers out of the blue. Those yorkers, when they do arrive, are all the more wonderful to watch because every Pakistani fan knows they could so very easily have been half-volleys — as was the case with the two no-ball — or full-tosses.
On Wednesday, had he been a couple of inches behind the line on the first no-ball, his over could well have been hailed as the match-winning one. Had any of the steps in his run-up been just a few centimetres smaller, had he not jumped that far before delivering the ball, had he not stretched his front foot so much. But he did, and on such small margins does sport crown her heroes and condemn her villains.
No set of fans pray as hard as Pakistan’s when the ball is skied into the night sky by an opposition batsman — no set of fans has seen so many matches decided by dropped chances. But then no set of fans will ever know what it was like to watch Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis bowl in tandem, nor know the fool’s hope that Shahid Afridi carries every time he comes out to bat or what Mohammad Amir meant, and still means, to this nation.
Every Pakistani fan dreams of promised days when the Men in Green will be better winners, but at what cost? How big a loss it would be for cricket if they became more predictable and less frustrating, how horrible it would be for the neutrals if Pakistan stopped being Pakistan. They lose many matches that they shouldn’t, and they will continue to do that, but won’t they be terribly boring if they didn’t. Isn’t this so much more fun?
Published in The Express Tribune, March 4th, 2016.