Essays, reflections and more

Magic and chaos

A familiar madness has visited Pakistan cricket again. But all is not lost

Kamran Abbasi

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After nearly two years of relative calm, Pakistan cricket reacquainted itself with scandal and turmoil - chief among them the Shoaib Akhtar-Mohammad Asif drugs imbroglio © Getty Images
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Ever since I can remember - and if you're wondering, I remember right back to the early 1970s - some Pakistan players have refused to play under other Pakistan players. Ever since I can remember, Pakistan - the country and the cricket team - has been ungovernable. A procession of army top brass and civilian top knobs have stepped up to the plate, but the plate has invariably slid from under their feet.

The cricketing shenanigans troubled me considerably. When you are still some way from your teens, you are some sort of tart for heroism. Heroes are acquired quickly and held close to your heart. I remember crying my eyes out at Jimmy Connors losing Wimbledon, Liverpool losing an FA Cup final, and Pakistan losing the 1975 World Cup semi-final.

Javed Miandad, who played in that World Cup, was one of my 1970s heroes. The idolatry began when he signed my autograph book without a moment's hesitation. I was barely able to speak in gratitude; his status as an international cricketer seemed so gobsmackingly awesome. After that I watched Javed's career closely. Indeed I became a firm supporter simply because he had scribbled his name for me.

Hence it came as something of a shock that Javed's colleagues in the Pakistan team didn't quite share my rose-tinted view of him. In fact they positively disliked him - so much so that they went on to refuse to play under his leadership. I quickly realised that it wasn't just players who refused to play for captains but also captains who refused to play for certain board presidents. Some captains refused to captain on certain tours, and even refused to captain certain players.

In a funny kind of a way none of this came as a surprise. Pakistan has always struck me as a country running without any civil structure, and visibly little order. In a bizarre caricature of the American dream, any man (far trickier for women named other than Bhutto, of course) could conceivably become anything. A frog could become a prince. But that frog had to be one lucky frog, plucked by the hand of god from Pakistan's teeming millions of spawn.

When I asked people how this amazing country functioned, the answer was simple: It was run by the grace of god. And this was an expression of despair rather than a flash of religious fervour. When I asked why few people of genuine merit ever succeeded in the Pakistani system, I was told to imagine a ladder that climbs to heaven and that I was climbing it by my own ability, and then to imagine that millions of others were also climbing the ladder with the sole purpose of bringing down the person at the top. And because the millions were always more powerful, nobody ever got to the top.

This parable saddened me because it rang true. It saddened me because I have met wonderfully talented people in Pakistan and throughout South Asia - this failing troubles not just Pakistan - people whose talents deserve a much higher reward. How often have we lamented the wasted talents of Pakistani and Indian cricket? When such a blight affects all of society, when people find it hard to respect their leaders and their superiors, when merit plays little part in advancement, is it any wonder that we fail to achieve what we dare to dream? Is it any wonder the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and the running of Pakistan cricket are no different?

But then again, perhaps Pakistan cricket does have the opportunity to be different. It is a national organisation with an international profile and international revenue. It is powerful. People really care about the product that it produces. The head of the organisation has the ear of the president of Pakistan. When you think about it, the PCB has a real opportunity to lead the rest of the country in the direction of professionalism and good corporate governance. The fact that it has failed to do so over the last decade is the real cause for desperation.

The cricket board's failures and whims and fancies, however, are only half the explanation for the unpredictability of Pakistan's players. There is something more, something about the Pakistani nature that flirts with the dangers of international cricket. And this flirtation creates an aggressive style of play that is both compelling and exasperating. What makes Shoaib Akhtar bust his guts for speed, or Shahid Afridi want to oppress a bowler, or Younis Khan reject the captaincy over a mere matter of pride? At every step Pakistan cricket treads a fine line between glory and destruction. It is this sense of the impossible and the dread of the probable that makes it so captivating.

I believe it has something to do with the nature of people who scramble above all others on the ladder to the top. On that ladder it is every man for himself. To reach the top you are required to take outrageous risks and trust in your good fortune. You cannot rely on your brothers - in fact, to hell with them because they probably did you no favours. While you are at the top you have to make the most of your moment because you could be dragged down at any instant. It is a hard, dangerous climb but a quick, long, and damned fall. Which also explains why the ones who reach the top through sheer ability are genuine maestros - and what they do best is tread the fine line between glory and destruction - while the ones who are deposited there, by their friends and connections on the ladder, are horribly exposed.

In many ways it is a relief that Pakistan's unpredictability is as alive today as it was in the seventies. It reassures me that for every disaster there is something magical around the corner. It reassures me that watching Pakistan cricket will remain fun, futile, and fantastic. For almost two years now Pakistan cricket had managed to bottle up its extreme variations and acquire near-brilliant consistency, but it was too much for the Pakistani psyche. All that pent-up unpredictability exploded all over the world in the last few months.

The one unavoidable truth about Pakistan cricket is that for it to be sometimes brilliant it also has to sometimes be achingly bad. There must be something brilliant coming, because boy do we ache.

Kamran Abbasi is the editor of Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine

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Kamran Abbasi Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He was the first Asian columnist for Wisden Cricket Monthly and wisden.com. Kamran is the international editor of the British Medical Journal. @KamranAbbasi
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