November 20, 2008

Lahore Badshahs v Pakistan

A fan dreams of a clash between the two teams that have brought Pakistan much joy over the last week



Welcome violence: Imran Nazir murders the Hyderabad attack in the ICL final © ICL

Memo to Moin Khan, manager of the Lahore Badshahs: "Congratulations. Your team has won the ICL tournament and made us proud. Now your captain has gone one better and challenged the Pakistan national side to a duel." We've just had a few terrific few days: both the Pakistan international team and their alter ego, the Lahore Badshahs, have scored a series of resounding wins. What could be better for the Pakistani game, and for the fans, than watching these two outfits do battle against each other?

Lately it's been so slow around here that you could be excused for forgetting that Pakistan is a full-member ICC nation, which has played over 300 Tests and nearly 700 ODIs, won a World Cup, and added a few names to the pantheon. These days all anyone seems to notice is that Pakistan is an agitated land boiling with a Taliban insurgency, exploding at random, and sitting on the cultural and ideological fault line of conceivably everything.

Pakistan haven't played a Test in nearly a year, and prior to the series in Abu Dhabi hadn't played any ODIs since July. With no sign of wood meeting leather, fans have instead occupied themselves with whatever cricketing scraps they could get their hands on - cricket board politics, firing and hiring the coach, the soap opera of the naughty-boy du jour (Mohammad Asif, Shoaib Akhtar, or Mohammad Yousuf - take your pick).

Then, one recent Abu Dhabi evening, Kamran Akmal hit those two last-over sixes for victory in the first ODI against West Indies. As the balls crashed into the stands behind long-off and point, it felt like the welcome patter of rain after a hard and bitter drought. West Indies had had the upper hand throughout the match until that point. Akmal reversed the momentum with a turnaround so energetic that Pakistan rode to a 3-0 series sweep.

Even the most unforgiving and sceptical followers were awestruck. I heard a female colleague, a trenchant critic who has never offered anything better than grudging praise, admire newcomer Khurram Manzoor as the great answer to Pakistan's incurable opening problem. An octogenarian fan, who has seen it all and loathes hyperbole, opined that Pakistan were turning a historic corner in the evolution of its cricket ethos. A friend who had supposedly given up following cricket altogether sent a text message, all in capital letters, that Sohail Tanvir's wicket-taking in-dipper to Chris Gayle in the second ODI was better than the best of Wasim Akram.

Even if events in Abu Dhabi were not that earth-shattering, you could forgive the fans for feeling that way. After the sadness and disappointments of an extremely lean year, Pakistan came out keenly motivated and driving hard. The on-field body language, the most sensitive gauge to a team's rhythm, was amazing. Batsmen looked opponents in the eye, bowlers snorted and charged, and fielders (most of them, anyway - this is Pakistan we're talking about) flung themselves around. Even Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Malik, never known to see eye to eye, exhibited a surprising range of male-bonding rituals, including smiling, back-slapping, draping arms over shoulders, and generously patting hips.

The national side was motivated by deprivation and disappointment, the Lahore Badshahs by half a million US dollars, and the loss in the last season's final. It was noticeable that Inzamam-ul-Haq was bending his back in the field with an assiduousness that was perhaps not always seen in his playing days for Pakistan. Whatever works, said the fans, and cheered him and his team on. Lahore didn't receive much coverage in the press, but their games had fans riveted. Some of their players, such as Imran Nazir and Saqlain Mushtaq, are beloved figures. There was also the chance to behold partnerships between Mohammad Yousuf and Inzamamul Haq, an exquisite pleasure we thought we had lost forever.

 
 
As Kamran Akmal's hits crashed into the stands behind long-off and point, it felt like the welcome patter of rain after a hard and bitter drought
 
Lahore have approached ICL with an arrogance that comes from a non-negotiable belief that you can hold your own against any team in the world. Last season's embarrassment, when they lost one of the finals in a bowl-out, only intensified their hunger. After a shaky start they peaked perfectly and entered the semi-finals at No. 2 on the points table. Sandwiched between the first and second ODIs in Abu Dhabi was the first match of ICL's best-of-three final, in which Lahore comfortably chased 170 against Hyderabad.

They were off-colour in the second match, but a stunning boundary catch from Justin Kemp had the unintended consequence of toughening their resolve immeasurably. Dean Jones called it the most awesome catch he had ever seen - check it out, it's not an exaggeration - but it stung the Badshahs, and from merely motivated they became menacingly murderous. The decider, held the same evening as the third Abu Dhabi ODI, featured a 44-ball detonation from Imran Nazir that fetched him 111 out of the winning total of 160.

Ultimately both Lahore and Pakistan were driven by revenge. The Badshahs wanted to scream in the PCB's face that their players, who are banned from playing for Pakistan, were as good as any. Pakistan wanted revenge against the geo-political winds, and the nameless and faceless terrorists that have led to their cricketing desolation.

How far the revenge motive was achieved, only time will tell. While it's been a good few days, prospects for international cricket in Pakistan are still shaky at best. The fans are slowly retreating to once again hiding their faces and licking their wounds.

So well done, Inzamam and Moin. Geo Super- our local sports channel - will televise it, the PCB will organise it (we'll talk to them very, very nicely), Cricinfo will spread the word, and the fans will cheer and chatter for a long time. Lahore Badshahs versus Pakistan could really kick-start the mood.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

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