July 24, 2013

For the love of swagger

West Indies can be an unpredictable and volatile side. And Pakistanis love them for it

In Pakistan, we thoroughly enjoy locking horns with West Indies. Alongside India and England, they are our favourite opponents. We like to see cricketers who have style as well as swagger, whose approach to the game is at once nonchalant and keenly driven. We want to watch cricketers who smile easily and laugh with abandon, cricketers who - like us - carry an air of unpredictability and volatility. Yes, we do have our own team, and despite its ups and downs we love it to bits. But after Pakistan, we find it easiest to cheer for West Indies. Except when we happen to be on the receiving end, we always want to see West Indies win.

When our septuagenarian and octogenarian cricket fans narrate their choicest memories of visiting teams, they bring up images of Wes Hall walking back to his unimaginably long run-up, or Garry Sobers brandishing his incredible backlift. There is wistful talk of Lance Gibbs, Conrad Hunte, and Rohan Kanhai. Those were the players with truly effortless mastery over the game, we are told, players who knew how to play as well as to entertain. Australia, India, and New Zealand also visited Pakistan in the 1950s, but the cricketers whose visit gets most longingly recounted are the ones from the West Indies.

Nor is this reverence limited to the fans. When great cricketers such as Hanif Mohammad, Imran Khan and Javed Miandad reflect on their most satisfying matches, they go back to epic contests with West Indies.

It is often said that West Indies are to cricket what Brazil - with their flair, flamboyance and feats - have been to soccer. In Pakistan, we feel we have been in possession of some of the same flair and flamboyance. Perhaps not as much to be considered the Brazil of cricket, but certainly enough that it helps us identify with a team like West Indies far more than with those such as England, Australia, India or South Africa - better known for method and application.

Pakistanis who have been privileged to watch cricket at arenas around the world unanimously agree that the best place to enjoy the game live is in the West Indies. I'm not one of those lucky few, but even sitting in Pakistan and following on television, you can sense the heady atmosphere of West Indian grounds. There are people having a party even as others pay attention to the nuances of every delivery. There are fans cheering and dancing and letting their hair down, and others who stand berating, bemoaning and wailing in despair. Especially these days, when there is no international cricket in Pakistan, the urge to be transported into those West Indian throngs is intense and overpowering.

There may not be a particularly fleshed out rivalry between the two teams, but Pakistan's most evenly balanced record happens to be against West Indies. In 46 Tests against them, Pakistan have won 16 and lost 15; and in 125 ODIs, Pakistan have won 54 and lost 68 (in T20 cricket, the two sides have met only once so far). In both Tests and ODIs, Pakistan's win-loss ratios versus West Indies are closer to the parity figure of 1.00 than against any other team.

It is often said that West Indies are to cricket what Brazil - with their flair, flamboyance and feats - have been to soccer. In Pakistan, we feel we have been in possession of some of the same flair and flamboyance

Contests with West Indies have produced some of Pakistan's most dramatic and closest matches. Including last Friday's game in St Lucia, three Pakistan-West Indies ODIs have ended in a tie; no other pair of ODI teams has tied more often (Australia-West Indies and Australia-South Africa also have three ties each). Pakistan and West Indies have also played four ODIs decided by the narrow margin of one wicket, more than any other pair of opponents (and equalled only by the combination of England-West Indies).

There is also general agreement that Pakistan's toughest and most closely fought Test series have taken place against West Indies. During the latter 1980s, when Pakistan's golden era coincided with the historic West Indian peak of international success, the two teams played a three-Test series in Pakistan followed by a repeat in the West Indies, and drew each rubber 1-1. Legends populated the ranks of both teams - Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, and Courtney Walsh from West Indies; Imran, Miandad, Saleem Malik, Abdul Qadir, and Wasim Akram from Pakistan. Pakistani fans who followed them in real time remain intoxicated to this day by those unforgettable battles.

For two decades between 1973 and 1994, when Pakistan were an impenetrable fortress at home, West Indies were the only side to breach their defences and draw blood, securing a Test series victory in the winter of 1980. And between 1976 through 1994, West Indies convincingly won every Test series at home except the 1988 one against Pakistan, the only occasion during their heyday when a visiting side managed to grind out a draw. From those magical days of the 1980s, both teams have experienced a downward twist in fortunes since.

Although West Indies have won a Test series in Pakistan, Pakistan are still looking for their inaugural Test series win in the West Indies in five decades. It's a pity that the two Test matches originally included in the itinerary for Pakistan's current West Indian tour were scrapped; the fan base in Pakistan - and presumably in the West Indies - had greatly looked forward to them. The PCB and WICB are equally culpable in this disappointing turn of events.

Pakistan's ODI record in the West Indies is much better, with three series wins so far, and the welcome possibility of a fourth if things go Pakistan's way in the final ODI of this series. Despite inconsistent batting from both sides, it has turned out to be a highly absorbing series and that has at least partly compensated for the lack of Test cricket.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi. His latest book is Breath of Death, a medical thriller