November 8, 2014

In praise of those who don't set the pulse racing

Pakistan cricket has largely been about celebrating the winners, the mercurial, the flamboyant, but its current success has been built on players who are largely the opposite

Misbah and Younis have quietly presided over an era where Pakistan may not have set the world on fire but have the all-important results to show © AFP

A few years ago, sparked by a popular columnist, the Pakistani internet saw a wave of old images being shared online that gave an alternative view of what we perceive Pakistan to be. Karachi was a recurring subject in these pictures: its famed nightlife, its cabaret dancers, its swing bands and its splendidly attired citizens.

One thing that the pictures don't evoke is the ridiculously inequitable and unjust nature of that era, the beginning of the end of which was marked by a civil war that left the country partitioned in 1971. Since then, every decade has seen a new set of rulers proclaim a Year Zero of sorts, where they blame the previous guys for all the current problems. Each time, we reinvent and reimagine Pakistan, and each time these new rulers swiftly rise to the top before falling down, ten or so years later.

Each time, the vast populations who suffer from these chaotic swings are forgotten. There is no memory of those who lose their lives and livelihoods when those at the top decide everything needs to change. Love them or loathe them, those at the top end up being celebrated and remembered, but what of those who were lost and left behind?

Zard patton ka ban jo mera des hai
Dard ki anjuman jo mera des hai

(For the wilderness of yellowing leaves - which is my homeland
For the carnival of suffering - which is my homeland)
- Faiz Ahmed Faiz

The story of Pakistan cricket has largely been about celebrating the winners - those mercurial masters of fate who can turn matches around on their own. We are willing to forgive autocracy, lunacy, idiocy and financial and moral corruption if we get to watch cricket that makes us feel alive.

But the stars have never been the complete story of Pakistan. The hallowed team of the 1980s was one with a few leading lights and lots of hard-working grafters. For every Javed, there was a Mudassar, for every Qadir there was a Qasim. Similarly the Inzamam-Woolmer era saw a string of celebrated Test victories where the famed middle order was credited, but almost all of these involved tigerish bowling performances from the likes of Danish Kaneria and Mohammad Sami. Conversely the most naturally talented era, the 1990s, was also an insanely chaotic one, and a team that should have dominated its time ended up as also-rans.

Two thousand and ten was one of the most dramatic Year Zeroes in Pakistani cricket history, as the disasters of terrorism were coupled with those of spot-fixing. What was left standing was a side full of grafters and triers, and almost no one who set the pulse racing. But the stunning success of these last four years, especially considering the unprecedented situation of playing away from home, is not only a reason to rejoice but makes Pakistanis think seriously about how they view their country and society.

Kilarkon kii afasurdaa jaanon ke naam
Kirm-Khurdaa dilon aur zabaanon ke naam
Postman-on ke naam
Taangewaalon ke naam
Rel-baanon ke naam
Kaarakhaanon ke bhole jiyaalon ke naam

(Let me write of the little lives of the office workers
Of the postmen
And the tongawallahs
And of the railmen
Let me write of the poor innocents they call workers)

This era is, of course, going to be remembered as belonging to Misbah-ul-Haq, and no one deserves it more. One of the constant refrains about him, from coaches to team-mates, is that this is a man who loves his cricket, loves talking about cricket. He is also a man aware of his limitations - he's no Brearley, but he has always known what his best plan is and has stuck to it. And while he has often remained in his position because all his detractors hate each other more than they hate him, his greatest asset is his mental strength. Any other cricketer, from any team in the world, would never have recovered from stuffing up a world tournament final against their arch-rivals after a decade of being denied their place in the side. How much does it say about Misbah that the 2007 World T20 title match is only a footnote in his story?

Almost equally misunderstood and underappreciated is a giant who has stood by him - and indeed by every other leader he has ever worked with. There is no doubt that Younis Khan has a lot of crazy in him, and it often seems like his values and integrity come from another era. Yet no one has been a greater, more powerful mentoring figure than him. Asad Shafiq, Azhar Ali, Fawad Alam, Ahmed Shehzad have all scored centuries with Younis standing at the other end, or with his unmitigated encouragement. Most importantly he has been one of those rare Pakistani cricketers whose repeated humiliations and injustices at the hands of administrators hasn't prevented him from leading from the front and contributing as a leader.

And the teams Misbah and Younis led were full of others who, in the rush for the exciting, were often forgotten and left behind. Zulfiqar Babar, Rahat Ali, Yasir Shah, Imran Khan, Azhar, Asad are all the sort of guys Pakistan don't normally care to celebrate or remember. They are the players whose careers get put on hold when the stars arrive, but when they had their moment in the sun they grabbed it.

And if these players themselves represent something that was not present before, this team as a whole does have a clear and identifiable link to the past - in its bowling. While many outsiders and fickle fans see Pakistan simply as a country with great pace bowlers, those of us who know better realise that the Pakistani bowler, no matter what his age, style or technique, is one who wants to get you out. The Pakistani bowler is one who will find a way beyond the conditions and constrictions. #TeamMisbah doesn't have the legacy of pace, but it has retained the legacy of lion-hearted bowlers.

And that is the lesson to take away now. Instead of scrapping everything from the past and focusing on the simple professionalism of the Misbah era, we need to realise that the current success flows from building upon the past. No matter what else, the Test side has retained the ability to surprise and to delight, but it is now the consequence of simple people coming together. Perhaps it is time to expand our understanding of who we are and realise that reaching our dreams is not just about the stars but the coming together of many different, beautiful people.

Quotes from "Intesaab" by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated into English by Shoaib Hashmi, from The Way It Was Once - Faiz Ahmed Faiz: His Life, His Poems

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. @karachikhatmal