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November 1, 2013

The existential dread of the Pakistani fan

Ahmer Naqvi
And still they keep watching  © AFP
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Stephen Fry is perhaps the most intellectually admirable person to contribute to the popular sports-fan superstition that sometimes you need to move away from the TV (or whatever you are using to follow the match) because your presence is harming your side's chances. Fry claims to have spent the agonising climax of Edgbaston 2005 hiding out in his backyard for this very reason.

The implication of such beliefs (which can include not moving from your seat, and closely coordinating jinxing rituals over intercontinental phone calls) is that the fate of your team's performance depends on your actions. This is fabulously irrational, but intriguingly it has never been disproven in any clinical trial.

When I woke up on Thursday morning and checked the score (having gone to bed with Pakistan needing 30-odd, with six wickets in hand), I felt as if I had been jackbooted in the nether regions. The reaction to this sort of a Pakistan loss isn't a pain felt in the heart but one felt by the body. Tears, vomit and blood coalesced around my throat in a macabre cocktail.

As I sought to make sense of my emotions, I was reminded of how American sitcoms have perfected a particular scene, which riffs on the Kubler-Ross model, popularly known as the "five stages of grief".

Character A, often a smooth Lothario, receives some upsetting news and reacts by uttering short phrases expressing his emotions. Meanwhile character B, a sharp yet moderately attractive sidekick, sardonically ticks off the successive stages of grief-response.

A: "This can't be!"

B: "Classic denial."

A: "I'm gonna kill someone!"

B: "The anger descends..."

A: "Oh God. I'll be better if she'd take me back!"

B: "Commence bargaining!"

A: "I feel so miserable"

B: "Oh good, here's the grief"

A: "I guess it was for the best."

B: "Aaaaand acceptance - we're done here, people."

Unfortunately, not only does life fail to offer psychological resolutions as readily as TV shows, the five stages of grief are inapplicable to the emotions of dealing with a Pakistani loss anyway. This is because rather than mere grief, the Pakistani fan feels a terrifying existential dread.

Now despite being prone to lazinesss, I am not channeling Sartre here, but rather referring to a more basic meaning of the term. To put it simply, Pakistani cricket fans genuinely fear the death of Pakistani cricket; the very end of its existence.

Part of the reason we feel this way could be that the Pakistani establishment has harboured such fears ever since the country was created. It can be argued that this fear was the reason why the US and its military might was courted from the start; it is why militants were nurtured by the state as counterbalances to apparently hostile forces on both borders; it is why the military is the most powerful economic and political force in the country. The grotesque and bloody dismemberment of the country in 1971 also set a precedent, even if that event proved how this fear could be a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Today, fears that multiple forces are attempting to break up the country and sell off its nukes are considered legitimate political concerns.

But more than that, Pakistan also has previous within the world of sport and culture itself. The release of three films this year has left everyone hoarse, shouting about the revival of cinema in Pakistan, which had been declared clinically dead for a few decades now.

An even more anxiety-inducing example is that of hockey, Pakistan's national sport, where we descended within roughly a decade from being multiple world championship and Olympic winners to struggling to qualify for these tournaments.

And then there is cricket itself. Most of us watched Pakistan's game while flipping to India's match, where Virat Kohli was painting a dystopian future in an obscene chase. In a sport where Pakistan has traditionally been a bowling powerhouse, India is playing a series where bowling feels redundant, an appendage on a team of batsmen. Shorter boundaries, bigger bats, changing rules and all that jazz means that the one strength Pakistan has is increasingly becoming obsolete, and looks set to continue doing so.

This would be bad enough as it is, but it is happening at a time when Pakistan has entered fifth year without hosting international cricket and its players have been (effectively) barred from the most influential and lucrative tournament in the world, the IPL.

Yet paradoxically, despite all this, Pakistan cricket doesn't seem to die. In the time I have followed the sport, every single one of cricket's scandals and terminal problems has had Pakistan at the centre - match-fixing, ball- tampering, spot-fixing, terrorism, political fallouts, dwindling crowds, administrative tussles, legal disasters, bankruptcy - yet Pakistan somehow keeps coming through.

This constant cycle of death and resurrection plays out in our team's results too. We have now gone a month or so in which Pakistan have lost to the world's worst Test side, beaten the best side, and then handed them two of the most farcical victories ever. For every dozen despair-inducing defeats, there is a moment of redemption, or so it seems.

Ultimately, watching Pakistan play cricket is like watching a man who wakes up every morning and is marched to the gallows. On some days, the fear of death grips him so closely that he collapses before the noose is brought out. On other days, he lives in defiance of his impending death, relishing the freedom of being alive for a few moments.

The more cricket tries to become a simple form of entertainment, the more Pakistan keeps injecting it with tragedy, farce and pathos.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

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Posted by Malret on (November 3, 2013, 2:25 GMT)

Remember when Pakistan and India played and it used to mean something. During the nineties? I saw the India Pakistan test in Chennai in 1999 and just thinking about the quality of cricket and the implications of the match to the two teams still bring goose bumps. Someone must have some sense and resume normality in cricket between the two teams. I hope Pakistan come out stronger from this and regain their past glory.

Posted by Longmemory on (November 2, 2013, 6:02 GMT)

I feel your pain, brother! (And I am from across the border!) Despite all superficial differences, the soul of the Indian cricket fan is not very different from what you've brilliantly outlined here. Our cricketers do just enough to tease us into believing - and then bring it crashing down around our ears. I have no idea what it must feel like to be an Aussie fan - accustomed to year after year of winning. Its all about plumbing the depths and occasionally, just occasionally, surprising everyone with an improbable win.

Posted by   on (November 1, 2013, 16:43 GMT)

@Rohit,

Obscene was with reference to the massive target being chased..Don't have to take it literally !

Posted by   on (November 1, 2013, 16:40 GMT)

AAH Rohit if only you knew the implication of the word obscene in this context .

Posted by TestsRDaBest on (November 1, 2013, 15:23 GMT)

Very nice and funny article bro, you hit the nail on the head with the description of the feelings of Pakistani fans all over the world, only Pakistan can do this, not a quality that we are proud of but one we have to live with and suffer the unbearable pain over and over again.

Posted by   on (November 1, 2013, 15:05 GMT)

Dude!....that was amazing...!! Very nicely written piece...though what was so obscene about India's chase? Losing 6 wickets with 17 runs to get seems more 'obscene' to me...but anyways, all in all, a good piece....

Posted by   on (November 1, 2013, 15:04 GMT)

Absolutely brilliant article. Couldn't have summed up any better. I feel your pain brother. For the sake of Cricket Pakistan needs to have a strong team and for all the reasons you summed up in the article it seems only like a dream. How, when, if all the stars are going to align is the billion dollar question. All of the brilliance needs to be harnessed and the Administration seems to be clueless [in these days of professional management how can you have a "Patron" - totally mind boggling, the Patron has bigger issues to deal with, PLEASE stay out of Cricket] and the external influences are holding Pakistan Cricket hostage.

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