The first memory I have of praying, for anything, was as a young child on a summer’s day in London. After playing in the garden, I had come across my father, poised anxiously in front of the television, edgy and excited. “Pakistan khel raha hai”! Two men stood in the middle of a green lawn surrounded by other men, all dressed in white. It meant nothing to me until the indelible words that would precipitate a lifetime ritual: “Dua karo kay Pakistan jeet jaye! Buchon ki dua puri hoti hai.” I rushed off to my room, stood near the window, face tilted towards the sky, eyes shut in the earnest concentration that only the very young can display, infant hands raised: “Allah mian! Pakistan jeet jaye!”— 10 times. I ran back, confident the job was done: “Abboo – Pakistan jeet gaya?” The look on my father’s face was one I would become very familiar with over the years, such a confluence of emotions, flickering between sadness, resignation, annoyance, frustration and deep disappointment.
Such is the passion for cricket, particularly in Britain, where colonialism and cricket collide in the psyche of British Pakistanis. Following Pakistan’s fortunes, especially when they play on English soil, is almost a cathartic exercise. The Pakistan team represents much more to British Pakistanis, than just a sports team. In the early 1980s, in a Britain scarred by race riots and bitter racial divides, for young British Pakistanis, especially boys, a Pakistan versus England match was the only outlet for the anger, frustration and deprivation wrought by the racism they faced. Every big hit by our batsmen was a retort against racial slurs on the high-street, each English wicket demolished, a proclamation of physical prowess otherwise trampled by thugs, each Pakistan victory, an affirmation of pride in an identity that was otherwise denigrated.
The summer of 1987 was the turning point. Imran Khan led the Pakistan team to their first Test series victory in England. For the first time, British Pakistanis experienced pride in their identity — a pride that was endorsed as legitimate, by the usually caustic British press. Imran was a bona fide hero, an icon, on the cover of magazines, his talent and charisma lauded by the cream of English society. Smashed was the media stereotype of shopkeepers, taxi drivers and doctors with weird accents. Finally, there was something to be admired for: cricket.
For Pakistanis, cricket is their first love. We oscillate between giddiness and joy in good times, fervent prayers at each twist and turn and inconsolable grief in bad times. We argue, analyse and pour over each detail, staying up all night to yell encouragement at the television. The 1992 World Cup win is our national “JFK moment”. We know where we were when it happened. VCR machines stave off obsolescence just to replay the video “Imran’s Tigers”, highlights of the journey to cup-winning glory. We are hurt and angry, swearing never to care again, when our team loses. Yet at the very next win, all is forgiven, all is forgotten. We fall in love afresh, rejoicing in the streets, showering rose petals and adoringly kissing posters.
So the allegations of spot-fixing, made by a sleazy British tabloid, have been like a stab in the heart for Pakistanis, especially for British Pakistanis. Apart from the distress, they will also have to face the litany of snide remarks at the office, be the butt of jokes in school, seethe silently at brutal headlines and feel conflicted and confused, embarrassed and uncomfortable. In Pakistan, even more is at stake, as cricket is one of the few elements that unite Pakistanis from all provinces, social classes, sects and generations. Given the depressed state of the nation, there is little capacity to bear more loss, should these awful allegations ring true. As we wait anxiously for the outcome of the investigation, the child in me is still praying for Pakistan to win – not on the field this time – but in the courts of law and officialdom, for its very future in world cricket and because, no matter what, you never forget your first love.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2010.