A horde of young, working-class men riding their motorcycles while lying flat or standing on one leg, racing each other to a beach they might not live to see. Women smashing glass bangles against bare wrists to display their anguish. Men unloading tracers of death into the night sky to celebrate the wedding of a relative. News channels displaying grotesque animations of terrible tragedies.
A spectacle is a statement.
Pakistanis are a people who can't resist spectacle. We can't resist staring, gawking, glaring at what we find worth looking at, and we can't look away when it's offered to us. In fact, we stare so readily and so lustily that guidebooks for foreigners visiting the country advise simply getting used to inquisitive pairs of eyes everywhere.
We are forever awaiting spectacle.
Therefore, the sight of a lean fast bowler lecherously licking his lips repeatedly as he stares at an opponent from a culture famed for its pantomime manliness is nothing if not spectacular.
The spectacle isn't for the eyes alone, and cricket is perhaps at its most majestic, most rapturous, when its spectacle translates directly into sound.
In that match, it starts to happen on the second ball of Wahab Riaz's second over. It's short and Michael Clarke's bat dangles a bit as the ball squirts towards Ahmed Shehzad at point, who misses with a shy at the stumps during the quick single. The crowd acts on a premonition, suddenly aware of what's around the corner, and its buzz begins to display an anxiety. Two balls later, the noise rises with shock before giving way to a murmur as the captain of the "broken ****** arm" brigade gets out fending. The next ball, the silence is punctuated by a flat yell - "Come on, boys!" - and the staccato of several sharp claps.
Almost instinctively, the sea of citizens of perhaps the proudest sporting civilisation in the nation-state era is riled into the response of a speared bear. A guttural, deep and dense howl of boos rings around the stadium. The bowler runs into their sonic wave and beats the bat. He stares murder at the batsman. Before his adversary responds, he does it again:
The bear swats an angry paw, howling in rage as the bowler collects his cap. When he returns, he sends down one that singes the batsman's nose hair. The anger is now swagger, and the bowler leans against a wall and drags on a cigarette before he does it again.
Essential to this sonic spectacle is the chorus, and it builds up this time. They run in from each corner, yelling colloquialisms with confidence. The bowler bowls length next, and the batsman defends. The bowler runs up to him, swivels extravagantly on one foot and displays an exaggerated, pitying sarcasm along with his applause this time.
"The high was not the fear. The high was that […] I can hit people at will. I can get people out at will. I can fool around with them at will."
- Shoaib Akhtar
- Shoaib Akhtar
The High Prophet of Pakistani Pacedom captured a central truth about how Pakistanis play and are expected to play in the quote above. In the same interview, he mentions loving to hit batsmen but not enjoying it, and expands on the ability to taunt the batsman by simply being better.
Australia's and Pakistan's remain the two great traditions of fast bowling, but an Australian bowling this spell would have used fear and intimidation. Instead, Riaz was blowing kisses. When the match ended, people said that he was too one-dimensional, and that Shane Watson's limitations enhanced the spell. If Watson was limited, so was Riaz, whose wickets in the tournament had mainly come off variants of the same delivery. His spell, which snared David Warner, Clarke and owned Watson, was really only bettered by the batsman who ended the tournament as the world's best. Steven Smith played seven scoring shots off Riaz, and three off those were balls around the upper chest on fourth and fifth stump outside off - which he played to the leg side.
Yet versus the rest his control was vicious, and at one point (over 14.4 onwards) Watson sent five consecutive balls into the air. Four landed in no-man's land, one went to Rahat Ali and was dropped. Five consecutive chances can be many things, but they can't be inefficient. After the fifth, when an Australian pacer might have glowered or sledged, Riaz put a hand up to his face to hide a chuckle.
"I can fool around with them at will."
Maybe there is a link between the two, but along with loving the spectacle Pakistanis are also fatalists, and we treat its opposite, downfall, as inevitable. And maybe because downfalls occur and recur for us, we seek the spectacle for the brief thrill. Then, when disappointment eventually comes, like it did for Riaz, just like him we laugh. We laugh out of exasperation and we laugh out of defiance. And as the laughter fades away, we relive that moment when our skills and our swagger shone as a spectacle worth celebrating.