Pakistan April 8, 2013

Losing our religion

The Pakistan cricket team has transfixed the world and given succour to a nation for more than half a century - but the scandals and snubs are beginning to take their toll on the coming generation

How long will young Pakistanis be inspired by cricket when they cannot watch internationals in their own country? © AFP

It is a matter of a bat and ball. Eleven men each side, two umpires, three stumps and the second-highest fan following of any sport in the world. Cricket is a sport for the patriots, the dramatic, those hunting for faith and hungry for battle. In 1952, the Pakistan cricket team was established but nobody could have fathomed the antics, hysteria and mayhem that would envelope this team in years to come.

This was a country built on emotion; this is a team built on moments. We have Shahid Afridi with his fastest century, Saqlain Mushtaq with his doosra, Shoaib Akthar's speed, Umar Gul's T20 record and the stats just keep coming. We live for our seconds of glory, that spark of brilliance that brings us to our knees, believing again. In 2013, we are a team with cracked walls and several leakages, a spot-fixing scandal that haunts us and a ban from international cricket at home, which begs me to question: what will be the fate of Pakistan cricket?

It is hard to convince a generation of teenage boys that cricket is relevant to the country. They haven't witnessed matches at home, they cannot relate to the intensity and passion; they have not felt the unity of 30,000 strong intently praying for a win. Little in this world can compete with watching a match live. Walking through the stadium gates, you can feel the energy and mutual respect of cricket lovers who believe in their team. Nothing is impossible on this sacred ground. Miracles have happened, prayers have been answered and ignored, hearts beat, pulses race, and there is a feeling, a connection thousands of people share in that moment that makes you realize just how much this game means to its followers. That is the moment you fall in love with cricket.

Lack of international cricket in Pakistan has meant that the younger generation has been deprived of these moments. They cannot witness their heroes in the flesh. Sachin Tendulkar's talent and Dale Steyn's bowling are lost on them. Cricket is simply a sport for these teenage boys. They long for the day Pakistan is granted hosting rights again but, until then, the interest is beginning to ebb away, other sports are beginning to break ground to fill this void.

Slowly, very silently, a gap is beginning to grow and the obsession is losing its grip. Cricket is a sport that emits hope and can bring light to a situation through moments of glory. It would be a pity to let it go

The spot-fixing scandal of 2010 broke the hearts of cricket lovers the world over. The fact that three Pakistanis were involved in it shattered the nation. It is hard to describe the toll this has taken on the youth of Pakistan. With money becoming such a central part of the game, suspicions run high and match outcomes are often questioned. In the recent past, books and movies have focused on the extent to which gambling has a hold on the sport. How, then, can a 12-year-old boy believe that the collapse or victory of his team wasn't in fact fabricated?

With Pakistanis ousted from the IPL, players ignored for ICC awards, participation questioned in the Champions League and the World Cup taken away, there is a general feeling that we are being left out, excluded from the international arena. Why would we watch a sport and emotionally invest ourselves, only to be shunned time and again? For many in Pakistan, cricket has lost meaning, fans have detached themselves and the once-common blind faith cannot be found.

For as long as I can remember, cricket has been a religion for Pakistanis the world over. The erratic brilliance of the team has us believing that any match can be won no matter how hopeless the situation may seem. This is what has kept millions of dreams alive. There are painted faces and collective screenings and ad campaigns. There are boys and girls of every age desperate to keep the spirit and fervour of the sport alive. In every nook and cranny we have boys playing cricket. In every college there is a cricket team. Every Pakistan and India game has a nation torn by sectarianism suddenly united. But how long can this go on for until we finally lose faith? There is only so long that the younger generation can wistfully view old videos of live matches at the national stadium. It is only a matter of time before these stories get old. Slowly, very silently, a gap is beginning to grow and the obsession that once was is losing its grip. This is a sport that emits hope and can bring light to a situation through moments of glory. It would be a pity to let it go.

Cricket is irreplaceable. It breaks boundaries, builds relationships and for several years now has been the glue for a broken nation. It is a matter of national pride. It is a way to reassure the country's relevance. It is a strategy to re-establish political ties. Such is the power of cricket in Pakistan and few should underestimate it.

I see ragged clothes, dusty plots, and battered balls and makeshift stumps. I see heroic dives and desperate appeals. I see strategies, spectators and young boys scampering on empty roads. I see the culture of night cricket. I see balls being taped and friendships being made. I see an abundance of fast bowlers and a dearth of good batsman. I see the epic collapses and the horror of a loss. I see the impact of a victory. I see a love for cricket.

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