Saad Shafqat March 25, 2010

Pakistan's moment of glory

The final images are a blur

"As far as Pakistanis were concerned, all was well with the world" © Getty Images

Eighteen years ago today Pakistan scaled one of cricket's grand peaks when it lifted the World Cup trophy in Melbourne. It was the tournament's fifth edition and the first to be held in Australia and New Zealand. Pakistan's previous best showing had been the semi-finals, which they had reached in each of the previous three World Cups.

In 1992, the United States was a cricket wilderness and there were no easy opportunities for a cricket nut like me to follow the international game. Internet, satellite television, and even Cricinfo were in their infancy. I was a graduate student at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and quickly formed a support group with fellow fanatics. At a crisis meeting, it was concluded that our only real hope was a shortwave radio. We tested a few models but the background static left us unimpressed.

The tournament was fast approaching and emergency measures were required. I took the plunge and ran up my credit card debt purchasing a plane ticket to Karachi. School was in full session and my PhD advisor was aghast that I would be taking two weeks off in the middle of the spring semester. I made my excuses. He was a midwestern workaholic and didn't know cricket at all, but understood the pull of passion.

At Karachi airport, on the other hand, everyone was talking cricket. I told the immigration officer I had come to follow the World Cup and he told me not to get my hopes up. This is the Pakistani way of cheering on your team, and I felt at home right away. At baggage claim I overheard two porters talking about selection and couldn't help butting in. They were excited that Javed Miandad, who hadn't made the initial touring party, had been recalled and would be flying out to Australia.

Pakistan were one of the favorites leading up to the tournament but had suffered a string of round-robin losses and were facing elimination. Everybody was perplexed. With the exception of Waqar Younis, who was injured, it was a full-strength team led by Imran Khan. Wasim Akram was opening the bowling and Mushtaq Ahmed was there with his wrist-spin. Miandad and Saleem Malik were the batting anchors, supported by a newcomer named Inzamam-ul-Haq. We were in the middle of Ramadan, Islam's holy month of fasting, and the team's lackluster performance triggered profuse prayers and supplication.

We did not know it at the time, but something crucial had clicked into place. Perhaps it was all the prayer and meditation; perhaps it was Imran’s exhortation that his team should play like “cornered tigers,” which is now part of folklore. Regardless, a do-or-die game against Australia was won, and the national mood lifted.

One thing led to another. Inzamam found his form and Akram found his inner focus. The gods of cricket also pitched in. Pakistan’s entry into the semi-finals depended on Zimbabwe defending 140-odd against England, which miraculously they did.

We had organized a family get-together to watch that semi-final, beamed live from Eden Park. New Zealand racked up 262. Then Pakistan slumped to four-down for not too many and we were all shattered. Nobody had heard of Inzamam then. Even Miandad had no faith in him, signaling for Akram to come in instead as he anxiously waited at the non-striker’s end. But Imran gave the order, Inzamam stepped out, and a great career was launched.

By the time the final came, everyone in Pakistan was walking around in a fog of disbelief. This was utterly unfamiliar territory. At 24 for 2, Miandad walked out to join Imran. Derek Pringle was bowling lively swing and seam. Nerves were overwrought and a batting disaster seemed imminent.

But these two were riding the crest of Pakistan’s golden age and did not let anything get in the way. The final images are a blur. Akram bowled those two impossible deliveries, Mushy dismissed Hick and Gooch, Ramiz took the last catch, and Imran lifted the prize. As the players walked back to the pavilion, Miandad embraced Imran. As far as Pakistanis were concerned, all was well with the world.

I had left the US having made boastful predictions about Pakistan’s inevitable success. Our group of expatriates in the Durham area, which included self-appointed cricket pundits from all corners of the cricket world, had not taken to this lightly. To their credit, they received me with warmth.

It is easy to romanticise these events but we forget the reality of toil and conflict on which such extraordinary moments are founded. Years later, when I was interviewing Miandad for his autobiography, I asked him if he had batted in the final with a sense of destiny. “No, it was nothing like that” he said.

I wanted to probe. “You and Imran had unfinished business left over from the 1987 World Cup semi-finals,” I told him. “Surely your mind was focussed on this god-gifted second opportunity in Melbourne and the backdrop of what you and Imran had done to transform Pakistan cricket.”

“No, you fool,” he said, finally erupting with irritation. “The score was 24 for 2. I was defending my wicket. There was no room in my head for anything else.”

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi