Saad Shafqat May 15, 2010

Defeated but not disgraced

Pakistani teams are known to squander head starts, fritter away advantages, and give up easily

Saeed Ajmal's moment of despair © AFP

It is not often that Pakistan’s supporters feel like hugging their team in defeat, but you can sense this mood rippling across the fan base on the day after. Pakistan is traditionally vilified for its inconsistency, but at the core of Pakistan’s approach there is actually a great economy of effort. Pakistani teams are known to squander head starts, fritter away advantages, and give up easily. Yet every now and then, motivated by the big occasion or a whiff of blood, they will give it everything and make it count.

These evidently contrasting behaviours are just two faces of the same coin. Pakistani cricketers abhor nothing more than wasted endeavour. They do not invest their effort lightly, but on the sporadic occasion when they do, they are more determined than anyone to see that their labour amounts to something.

Pakistan’s nail-biting (quite literally, as camera shots of the Australian dug-out confirmed) defeat in the 2010 World Twenty20 semi-final to Australia is therefore new territory for Pakistan and its supporters. The team fought all the way with everything it had, grabbing the initiative right away and dominating the game completely – until the final over, when it came up short. As an old Indian friend, referring to the Australasia Cup final from 1986, pointed out to me by text message afterwards: now we know what Indians felt like after Sharjah.

Entry into the semi-finals was regarded as something of a miracle for Pakistan, who had managed only one good victory from five tournament games. The rematch with Australia was anticipated with apprehension, trepidation and resignation. Not only had Australia made short of work of Pakistan in the group match, they had also mowed through everything else in their path with merciless efficiency. Complicating the picture were haunting memories of previous torment – a disastrous Australian summer most recently, but other embarrassments too, going back to the World Cup final in 1999.

As always, there are decisions to rue, and events that perhaps could have turned out differently in hindsight. The way Saeed Ajmal was taken apart in the final over by Michael Hussey, that responsibility might have been better entrusted to Mohammad Aamer. Had Umar Akmal thrown his bat with greater abandon in the final over, perhaps Australia’s target might have gone past 200. These and related thoughts naturally keep coming to mind, but they are not associated with value judgments. You can’t find fault with an offspinner who strained every sinew, with a batsman who cut like Sachin Tendulkar and pulled like Viv Richards, with a team that played its heart out.

Of course, Australia were awesome. It is galling that they made good on their arrogance and boastfulness, but they did so fair and square. Hats off to them. Once Pakistani teams have crossed their cornered-tigers threshold, they never give up. They did not give up this time either. They just went down fighting. And when you go die fighting, you die with honour intact.

Moments like these create a parallax view, which can make you realize that perhaps life after all is not so bleak. As many observers have noted, Pakistan is the only country to have made the semi-final of every ICC tournament since the 2007 World Cup. This vaguely sounds like consistency – although Pakistani players and supporters alike will be loath to admit it. In Test cricket, Pakistan went without playing in 2008 but since then have won a Test in Wellington and all but won a Test in Sydney. Sure, the nation is in turmoil and the PCB is corrupt and misguided, but it was ever thus. The ground reality is that there have been no suicide bombings for a while now, and if peace returns, then international cricket at home cannot be far behind.

As the team heads back, it can be assured of a reception full of admiration, affection and warmth. Pakistani fans are notoriously unforgiving of their team in defeat, but losses such as these have the power to educate the public into taking defeats in stride. Pakistan could not defend their title but they were able to give history’s best team the memory of a lifetime. As consolation prizes go, this one’s not too bad.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi