Pakistan cricket March 18, 2014

What Afridi v Misbah says about Pakistan

Mirza Faraz Beg
At it's heart, this debate isn't about the two players, nor is it about flamboyance versus predictability. The debate is in fact about how this country should be run

"A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than would a race in which everyone was Vincent van Gogh."

In her phenomenal book Quiet: The power of the introverts, author Susan Cain had argued that to keep the social ecosystem churning, we need all sorts of people including the artists and the businessmen, the lawyers and the clerics to make it a livable society. As Pakistani cricket fans, a lot of us are often exasperated by the bipolar behavior of our compatriots when it comes to the way we think we should be playing the colonial sport. The tussle between the fans of the brash and ballistic, boom-boom Shahid Afridi and the apparently modest, mundane and metronomic Misbah-ul-Haq often degenerates on social media from light banter into heated invective. Advocates of Misbah tend to point at the fragility of Pakistan's line-up to justify his often slow batting, while Afridi fans tend to justify his kamikaze batting style as a result of Misbah's slowness.

At its heart though, the debate isn't exactly about Afridi or Misbah, nor is it about flamboyance or predictability. The debate -as weird as it may sound - is in fact about how this country should be run. Rahul Bhattacharya wrote a while back that 'The cricket world's loss is nothing compared with the tragedy for Pakistan's own citizens. Cricket has thrilled them through dark days, provided them the hope on a mass level that only sport can'. The title of his article was, quite aptly, 'How cricket explains Pakistan'.

Cricket is one of the few entities that cut across a large political and social schism that has scourged the country in the last decade. The populace of a country ravaged with multiple wars and a team that has seen one nadir after another since the inauspicious finale of the 1999 World Cup at Lord's - West Indies and Australia refusing to visit, the shameful exit from the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, the fiasco at the Oval in 2005, the spot-fixing saga, the nomadic lives of its cricketers and the highly unpredictable board setup - may probably be forgiven for taking its sports too seriously.

Sports, after all, provide a unique way to extend beyond ourselves. Watching Roger Federer swinging his signature single-handed, regally executed backhands; or Waqar Younis producing one toe-crushing yorker after another; or Sachin Tendulkar timing his straight drives bisecting mid-off and mid-on to create two even chunks of pie; or Cristiano Ronaldo sending one screaming past the outstretched hands of the goalie; or Ryan Harris defying time, age, the opposition, and his knees to pull off arguably the most epic cricketing heist for his country - all of these can give sports fans a high. We like to see ourselves in the image of our heroes, and that's where it turns ugly as a social activity.

Despite all the natural talent at its disposal, Pakistan seems entrenched in the middle of the ICC rankings table. Still, blissfully unperturbed about this insignificant fact, we find ways to blame each other for choosing the 'wrong' hero. For some, Afridi sinking his teeth into a ball, or doing a waltz mid-pitch and mid-match are but his adorable idiosyncrasies; for Afridi's detractors, that's blasphemy. Those calling for Misbah's head would conjure stats showing that every time he's hit fifty the team loses. For his supporters, he's the Robin Smith of Pakistan cricket - brilliant and brave but often ending up in the wrong set of circumstances. For neutral observers it's only logical to see Misbah at the helm of Pakistan's turbulent cricket; for many Pakistani fans, Misbah's calmness is anathema to the Pakistani brand of cricket.

As a nation, Pakistanis respond to strong leadership. Pervez Musharraf, despite his undemocratic, dictatorial and, in the longer run, devastating decisions, still enjoyed soaring public support in his days as the head of state. He still has a strong social media following. As described by sports journalist Hassan Cheema, we tend to prefer the momentary over the monotonous. It's true that as much as can be said about Afridi's lunacy, the effect of his sixes against India in the Asia Cup was not just emotional. Misbah's heroics in the fading UAE light to secure a Test against Sri Lanka was thrilling, exciting and epic. Both were wins, big wins, and were secured by two very distinct individuals. Incidentally, Afridi clicked with the bat in the next game as well, showing his detractors he can be consistent if he wills, while Misbah has recently added a sense of urgency in his batting, something his critics always doubted he could.

The fact that any successful sporting team needs both, the seasoned general as well as the brilliant, often unharnessed artist is lost on the supporters of the respective camps. With all sorts of questionable cricketing stats and claims of lethargy and lunacy flying back and forth, we find peace with cricket. Because we not only just think, but believe, that if our cricket is fit, so would be the country.

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Faraz is an IT professional based in Karachi. He enjoys watching a good game of cricket, even if it's played in the ground next door and involves 12-years olds. He's quite happy to dwell on the Misbah side of the argument despite his inadvertent knack of getting out at the wrong time. Beg tweets here.