Saad Shafqat September 21, 2010

The thing about Pakistan

Those of us used to lulling ourselves to sleep with thoughts of great Pakistani cricket feats have been having a hard time lately

Those of us used to lulling ourselves to sleep with thoughts of great Pakistani cricket feats have been having a hard time lately. Even as recently as a few weeks ago, a silken Mohammad Yousuf late cut between gully and point, a Mohammad Asif in-cutter through bat and pad, or a bludgeoned pull into the stands by Shahid Afridi – or, for the nostalgic-minded, Imran Khan merely turning at the top of his bowling mark, Javed Miandad doing little more than taking guard, or Wasim Akram simply flashing a smile – would have been enough to sink even the most resistant insomniac fan into gentle stupor and a blissful night’s sleep.

As of the last three weeks, these images have not been coming as readily to mind as they once did. In their place, thoughts of misguided fast bowlers delivering suspicious no-balls and sleazy bookies counting a tableful of money have invaded the senses. Not that the betting scandal has been something particularly unusual. After all, off-the-record talk of match-fixing and spot-fixing has been going on in Pakistan cricket for a while. And as far as crises go, for the last few years Pakistan cricket has been going through one monster turn of events after another.

But the August 29 newsflash was spiced with enough salacious detail to take over the conversation completely. Still, any storm is expected to die down after a few days, and by now you would have thought the headlines would move on to an expectant wait, as the ICC appoints a tribunal and fact-finding begins. But a scandal-mongering British tabloid press is refusing to let go, and the sleaze and muck just keeps coming.

In Pakistan, most of us have learned that the most effective means of redirecting a cricket conversation is to play hard and play well. This lesson may have been lost on PCB chairman Ijaz Butt, who keeps talking in public as if he is holding forth with cronies in a drawing room in Lahore, but the coach-captain combination of Waqar Younis and Shahid Afridi, scarred veterans of multiple wars, knows it well.

Wounds were too fresh for any kind of fight back in the two-match Twenty20 series, but in the opening ODI in Durham the team walked out with purpose. That contest may have been lost by 24 runs, but it was clear that Pakistan had hit their stride. The next match at Headingley was stretched to the final over, but it was a 320-330 pitch and a target of 295 for a formidable English side led by an in-form Andrew Strauss was never going to be enough. Then came the victory at The Oval, one of Pakistan’s most reliable hunting grounds, and with it dreams of a victory to follow at Lord’s, and a decider at the Rose Bowl.

I’ll be honest. When the boundaries were coming thick and fast for Andrew Strauss and Steve Davies as they chased down 266 with a century opening stand last night, I had given up. Several other comrades, judging by the despondency of their text messages, had given up too. It was approaching midnight in Pakistan and a warm bed seemed far more inviting than fuming and stewing in frustration.

Then a wicket fell, and another. Sleep vanished. The ball began to reverse, boundaries dried up, and text messages began flying furiously. Eventually, Eoin Morgan stood between Pakistan and victory. Afridi had already dropped him, and this “little Irish genius” – as Osman Samiuddin described him in an urgent missive – was determined to cash in.

When Morgan top edged Shoaib Akhtar, I switched my television off. The ball rose alarmingly into the night sky, triggering a long-hidden reflex in my right thumb, which clamped down on the clicker. Even in the best of times, the idea of Pakistani fielders catching a skier is riddled with anxiety. On this occasion, it unleashed sheer panic.

After a few seconds, I turned the TV back on, but muted the sound and shielded my eyes from the screen. Holding my breath, I moved my hand just enough to allow a peek at the score line. From 211 for 7, it had changed to 211 for 8. Morgan was walking back and England were as good as gone. I realised I hadn’t indulged in these antics for many years, not since I was 15, which was thirty years ago.

That’s the deal with Pakistan. It may be a team that from time to time punches its fans in the stomach and kicks them in the face, but it is also a team that even in middle-age can make you feel like a teenager once again. Take that, forces of evil, whoever you are, wherever you are.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi