What the Afridi-Nazir partnership reveals about memory and Pakistan
The truth of a memory, as comedian Tommy Tiernan said in a recent episode of QI, is a rather different thing from the fact of a memory. The subjectivity of truth often clashes with the pure objectivity of a fact. The arguments or explanations of the minutiae of the differences I'll leave to the students of Russell (not Andre, nor Jack).
But the difference is something sports fans, perhaps more than others, can relate to and understand. And it's something Pakistani fans, in particular, seem to be concerned with. Of course, all sports fans are prisoners of nostalgia, but the lack of options for Pakistani cricket fans - both in terms of other sports to emote over, and in terms of TV channels fulfilling their needs - and the state of cricket in the country means it's a crutch they hold onto more dearly than others.
People of my generation have vague memories of Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram's match-winning sixes (or even the 1992 final, in some cases), but are those memories "real" or manufactured by later viewings on PTV?
I've been thinking about this concept of memories over the past month or so, with one match being my major preoccupation, through conversations with players during the PSL (full disclosure: I was the co-manager of Islamabad United in the PSL), a return to the holy shrine of the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, and a reminder of how simply national or generational memories are created all contributed to it.
This match is a reminder that repeated viewings may not change the numbers or facts, but they can change truths.
The context, perhaps, was key. It was the spring of 2000 and a lot of Pakistan was still feeling a military coup inspired optimism (yep, there is such a thing). Pakistan, India and South Africa went to Sharjah to play one of the countless multi-nation series that emirate hosted. Pakistan's dominance over India still remained but South Africa were a puzzle they couldn't solve.
Over the previous 12 months or so, Pakistan had gone to India and won two out of three Tests, three of the five multi-nation tournaments they played in during this time, and finished runners-up in the other two to Australia.
Here was a team and a fan base confident that if their team turned up, only an all-time great Australia could match them, especially in the shorter format. And although still a few months away from the release of the Qayyum Report, the belief remained that all losses could be attributed to the great bugbear. Pakistanis believed that no one, especially in their conditions, was as good as them.
And yet they went into this tournament having won only one of their previous 20 matches against South Africa, and on a 14-ODI losing streak to them.
That streak would be broken in a match Pakistan had to win to qualify for the final (a dead rubber for South Africa), when they still needed peak-Shoaib Akhtar to do his best Rafa-Nadal-in-the-fifth-set impression to win.
Thus, the final of the tournament, again pitting those two sides, wasn't ever likely to be easy.
Much of Pakistan's struggles against South Africa had to do with the new ball. In that losing streak Pakistan had had only two 50-plus opening partnerships, with a highest of 58.
Twenty overs into the final, Pakistan were going at a run a ball, having not lost a single wicket.
Everything after that - Inzamam-ul-Haq's usual collapse-breaking fifty, Arshad Khan's strangulation, and the beginning of Waqar Younis' Indian summer - is insignificant. When this match is remembered, it's with reference to that opening partnership. And the fact that perhaps no other match was replayed more often on TV over the past decade or so only fuelled its legacy.
It's why over the past 16 years, and even after Pakistan's failures in the Asia Cup right now, the response from some quarters is to ask for Imran Nazir's recall. It's why more than half a decade on from the last time he went up the order, there are still some in the comments section who believe Shahid Afridi needs to open.
That partnership had promised to be the beginning of so much more. It had a combined age of under 40, regardless of your opinion on Pakistani birth certificates. The #mighty90s generation was giving way to another that seemed fit to follow it. And yet, that match, like so much from that era and since, can best be qualified as a false dawn.
And that's the match I've been reminded of over and over again in the past month; from Sharjah's billboards to the first reference in my head when asked by a foreign player why Afridi was as popular with Pakistanis as he is despite "always failing in big matches".
It was when I dug up scorecards in response to his question that I realised that the foreign player might not be as off the mark as I had assumed him to be. Since this match Afridi has played 15 ODI tournament finals and five other knockout games, never crossing 35 with the bat, and taking only one four-for in those 20 matches.
And yet, for nearly every Pakistani, all that may have been worth it - for Afridi has also been responsible for a pair of sixes in Dhaka and a pair of innings in England that are easily the greatest moments Pakistani fans have had in limited-overs cricket over the past decade. He, I guess, has paid his dues.
The far greater tragedy is the career of the other man in that partnership. The personification of the difference between perception and reality; between truth and fact. Even in a generation of extraordinary talents, Imran Nazir stood out.
By the time he was 19 he had a Test hundred in the West Indies and three fifties in seven ODIs against South Africa. He seemed like the answer to every Pakistani prayer. In an era when it occasionally seemed like Pakistan had brought knives to a gun fight, Nazir was the gun they were looking for. An opener who could handle fast bowling, and the first modern in-ring fielder Pakistan had had in a generation. Those who grew up in the decade before were resigned to the idea that others would have Jonty or Punter at backward point and we'd have Ijaz Ahmed. And just to make sure it was too good to be true, Nazir had something most domestic dominators (see Alam, Fawad) don't have: he was more aesthetically pleasing than a Pakistani batsman is supposed to be.
But how was one to know that Nazir had peaked by the time he was 19. He'd played half his Test cricket by that stage and more than a third of his ODIs. He'd score only two more international hundreds, average under 25 with the bat in ODIs and yet become one of the most popular cricketers in the land. His exploits against substandard attacks in the ICL and the domestic game would enhance his legend, even if as a cricketer he seemed to remain in stasis.
Every failure was cast away, an aberration to be forgotten. Every success to be remembered and cherished, none more so than that afternoon in Sharjah. The truth of the memory of Imran Nazir in full flow will always be greater than the fact of his figures.
Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag