On April Fool’s day, well before Shahid Afridi had arranged subcontinental hearts in order of size and cleanliness, a video interview of his went viral on the Internet. It wasn’t a prank. Friends passed it on to me as a model of what sensible cricketers should say as they bear the burden of national disappointment.
The source was SibteinTV, a channel that generally uploads entertainment-related content. This video was more a press conference at Afridi’s doorstep than an interview. He answered a series of questions, on the performance of teammates; Rehman Malik’s mistimed warning on match-fixing (apparently Malik called Afridi “char dafa” to clarify, but the Pakistan captain couldn’t really understand what the minister was saying). Inevitably, there was also the matter of losing to India.
It was this part that seemed to provoke the most hostile response from the Pakistan captain: “I don’t understand why people here are against India. Why is there so much hatred against them? Aren’t there other teams?”
He advised a reality check: Indian ‘dramas’ were on TV in every household; marriages were taking place with ‘Indian taur tariqa’; there was a huge appetite for Indian movies. “So why this hatred only for India? Everything has a place. This is a sport, take it as a sport.”
Most Indians regard Afridi as a mercurial fellow who they would rather watch than hear. When he opens his mouth, we think it is for one of two reasons: Either to bite the seam off a ball, or to fire fast-medium expletives. His association with common sense is considered either limited or non-existent, so his comments were refreshing. As part of the same conversation, Afridi also said that he wanted to rest for a couple of days.
Unfortunately, he didn’t rest his mouth. Over the next few days, he put his foot in it on national television: “In my opinion, if I have to tell the truth, they (Indians) will never have hearts like Muslims and Pakistanis. I don’t think they have the large and clean hearts that Allah has given us.” In the same show, he also said that India and Pakistan could never be friends.
Then, he took the foot out (partially). He told an Indian channel that everyone was equal according to him. That what he “meant to say” was that Indians should extend the same kind of hospitality that they receive when in Pakistan. That these “chhoti, chhoti batein” shouldn’t be blown up and we should live happily ever after.
I am confused about where his foot is at the moment, but if the pattern is followed, it should be on its way to his mouth. The point of interest here isn’t Afridi’s limited skills as an ambassador or diplomat. It is his apprenticeship as a politician.
Two weeks ago, I had written a piece where I suggested that public figures like a Pakistan cricket captain, need to say and do things because they have to serve a constituency.
For me, Afridi had tested that constituency with his initial remark outside his home: “Aren’t there any other teams to hate?” No one clapped.
In the TV studio, the audience applauded heartily when he as good as confirmed that there weren’t. Well, perhaps there was one, but they don’t play cricket.
On the other side of the line of control, there was Gautam Gambhir. He has several things in common with Afridi: Both wanted to join the army; both can edit an authoritative thesaurus of profanity; and both serve constituencies.
Gambhir dedicated the World Cup win to the victims of 26/11. His constituency is a commercial one. The cricketer as patriot can sell anything from pain relievers to insurance in India — at least that is the way the advertiser sees it.
Although he is probably the man with the most endorsement deals in the Pakistan team, Afridi’s real contracts are different and far more complicated than Gambhir’s. They are unwritten, dynamic, entered into with ‘peoples’ rather than corporations. They always pose the question, “Are you with us, or against us?” This is easy to answer on a cricket field. Not in life, no matter how large or pure your heart is.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2011.