Pakistan v Sri Lanka, ICC World Twenty20 final, Lord's June 22, 2009

A time to laugh, a time to heal

Pakistan's win has brought respite from death and bombs and given a nation the gift of celebration

Sea View was bouncing last night. Karachi's beach is never lost for humanity but last night it was particularly overrun. Mostly they were young men, from all over the city, dancing with the great abandon of those who cannot but do not care anyway. At regular distances, cars would have to stop, allow the men to dance all around, occupants being invited to dance, or drive on through under a flag. Mostly it was a Pakistan flag, but those of political parties were not absent. Those who didn't dance on the streets did so from the windows of their cars, bopping to horns and stereos. Save for rallies welcoming back exiled leaders I have never seen such scenes in Karachi.

TV channels elatedly confirmed that such scenes were not confined to Pakistan's most urban city. Lahore anyway needs no excuse to party, but even the capital, once described as a "fig of bureaucratic imagination," loosened its tie and let out its paunch. Obligatory scenes from refugee camps housing the displaced from the battle in Swat followed and why not? These are people who have lost everything but their lives and nobody will begrudge them a little cheer.

Rarely has cricket's place in this country's conscience been as entrenched as it has been over the past two years. Rarely has it so contributed to the mood of the hour. Since the Oval Test, in drawing rooms, on streets, at parks, at dinners, parties, mosques, markets, hotels, tea shops, courtrooms, police stations, cricket has lurked, waiting for politics to get over. Few things in this country are as talked about as politics but cricket has been a competitive second. Dope tests, intrigues, the death of a coach, rotten performances, more rotten administration, the Lahore terrorist attacks; people outside Pakistan worried that the Lahore attacks were the death of cricket but really, cricket has never more been life and life has never more been cricket, just that with all the beauty came the ugliness, unpredictability and despair.

So, of course, yesterday's win was going to be important. For good measure, for a people weak for romance, it was done in a bolshy, Pakistani way, against the grain, confounding everyone and even their own captain. For added touch, a Pathan led them and a Karachi-based Pathan - an ethnicity in itself - was his main man. Shahid Afridi, an observer said yesterday, has in him spirits of both Karachi and the Pakhtoon, spirits that have often resided uneasily; he is likely to hustle you as Karachiites always will, but the fight he brings will be a fearless one, even if it is often self-defeating. After this, people will remember him differently.

Younis Khan, in particular, has led with touching dignity and grace. He was lampooned for calling the whole thing a bit of fun earlier in the tournament. Yet why wouldn't he? Like Inzamam in the decade before him, he has stood upright and proud through quake after quake, tremor after tremor. He has seen a coach and mentor die after a traumatic loss, he has seen an international team attacked by terrorists in his country, he has seen his province and hometown in flames, he has seen immense personal tragedy and he has travelled to cricket grounds while being shot at during the worst of Karachi's ethnic battles. So if he thought that this was a little bit of fun, you can see why.

But when he needed to get serious, he did. It was not missed in Pakistan that he barely smiled on the field during the semi-final and final and if he laughed at errors before, he was not so forgiving here. He led Pakistan's run-scoring when they were doing badly and that's not bad for a player not thought of by some - including his own, now former, chief selector - as a Twenty20 batsman. Mostly, he realized when the flow was with Pakistan and he seized on it, like Imran Khan and Wasim Akram had often done before him. And he then did what so few subcontinent cricketers have done: he left gracefully. Admittedly it was only from the one format that anyway holds less allure for him, but it was some stage to leave, particularly with the riches the shorter form now brings.

It has been said that few sporting victories anywhere around the world have been as significant as this. Perhaps it is true, but the real truth of that will emerge over time. Pakistan's win will do little in literal terms for the war on terror; if we're lucky the spirits will be emboldened further. Countries are still unlikely to visit Pakistan for international cricket because that is not really part of this.

But the win and the run have brought, for however long, respite from war, death, bombs and load-shedding (power cuts). People have laughed and smiled since Pakistan's run began, with that outstanding Afridi catch and Umar Gul spell. Last night they laughed and smiled and danced and jigged and blew their horns and waved their flags and ate their mithai (sweets) and set off their firecrackers more than they have for a long time. That is as powerful a gift as can be given to any nation.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo