Do you know of Icarus? He was the lead figure in the Greek legend of a man who attaches wings of feathers and wax to himself in order to fly, only to have the sun melt the wax, causing him to plummet to his death. The comic artist Randall Munroe once wrote, "I've never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive." The ancient parable viewed Icarus' act as foolhardy, but Munroe asks us to see the tale as an engineering problem instead, and to appreciate his ambition.
I have been thinking about the idea of ambition lately, and I feel like we see ambition as a natural progression from the ability to choose. If we can make our own choices, it is expected that we make the best ones. Choosing to be the best is what we understand ambition to be, and it seems like a rational expression of how we are meant to live our lives. But what exactly does ambition serve, and is there any point to it?
I was reminded of ambition by a meme I saw recently. Someone took a picture Umar Akmal posted of his new haircut, which had elaborate curved lines where the scalp showed through. Next to it, they posted a graph, which displayed Akmal's career batting averages in all formats. The punchline, if you haven't already guessed it, was that the downward-looping lines on his head seemed to mirror the initial peaks and eventual trough of his batting average graphs. The symbolism was so obvious it felt overwrought: here was one of the all-time great batting talents of the country, who had spent his entire career being known for his bizarre aesthetic choices rather than for his batting.
Akmal, and fellow metrosexual Lahori Ahmed Shehzad both recently failed to make the squads for the much awaited/dreaded 2016 tour of England. The last such tour, in 2010, was the culmination of four years of absolute nightmare for Pakistan cricket, which had kicked off with the farcical Oval Test of 2006. Six years on, though, Pakistan return to English shores with a side completely transformed from not just the last squad, but arguably different in character from several decades of Pakistani cricket sides.
There are no hotheads, no big mouths, no flashy dressers - in fact, the current side is severely sartorially challenged. There are Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, wise old heads who are both increasingly curmudgeonly. There are the likes of Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Shan Masood and Sarfraz Ahmed - a group of faces so cherubic you have to check if puberty has yet stopped by for them. There is not a single good hairstyle among the fast bowlers. Mohammad Amir, the only potential prima donna in this squad, is seemingly desperate to use this tour as his redemption. Pakistan might still play in the mercurial style, but in the last six years the team has changed radically from what it used to be.
The Pakistani teams of old would have been a natural home for the likes of Akmal and Shehzad. Starting from the mid-'70s, Pakistani team photos were never short of sideburns and gold chains, and their dressing rooms were never short of witty repertoire and sly jokes. The #Mighty90sSide made it an art form, with every player expected to have swagger and style. Even floppy-haired waifs in that team were ready to bring the house down. Now, the latest loudly dressed, loud-talking types of the Pakistan cricket fraternity are not in the national side.
Some people would like to lay the blame for this at the feet of Misbah, saying he has moulded a team in his own image. But though the captain has had a certain style, I don't think he is the one to blame. The biggest difference between the "loud" Pakistani players of the past and those of the present is the question of ambition.
For all their bans and bravado, talented Pakistani cricketers of the past also generally sought to be counted as amongst the world's best. It is telling to consider that many of those accused of fixing were also top performers, ranked among the finest players. In some weird way, the immorality of betraying their sport didn't seem to interfere with their ambition to be considered the best in that very sport.
In contrast, the modern Pakistan side has seen that those blessed with lesser talent have displayed more ambition. Shafiq and Azhar serve as ideal counterpoints to Akmal and Shehzad - both have displayed far greater ambition to improve themselves and be considered world-class. In contrast, Akmal and Shehzad have entered the middle stage of their careers with steadily declining numbers that do no justice to their potential.
It seems reductive to make this claim, but perhaps Shehzad and Umar displayed most of their ambition in wanting to be "superstars", rather than superstar cricketers. Right from their debuts, both have always wanted to look and act the part, taking on risks and challenges with their images. They have managed to show up at parties and be featured in ads, yet have never seemed to be able to make a mark on the world game. The ambition of being superstars at home didn't seem to come with wanting to be considered superstars across the cricket world.
Perhaps there is no better example of this misplaced ambition than *Shehzad's recent coup coordinating extremely awkward wishes from Kevin Pietersen and Chris Gayle to Pakistan's prime minister when he was ill, hoping for his recovery. It is difficult to not think what Akmal could have achieved had he applied such ambitions to his own game.