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Feature

Rationality meets irrationality in clash of limited-overs cultures

Two skilled and thoroughly prepared teams will meet in the World Cup final. What happens next is up to qudrat ka nizam

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
12-Nov-2022
Professional cricket is one of the more rational pursuits in the world. It is played to pre-decided sets of laws and rules, and it is judged on absolute numbers: runs and wickets. There is no room for ambiguity. Even when a playing condition might seem ridiculous and unfair, as the tie-breaker in the 2019 World Cup final did, it is decided and agreed upon in advance.
The sport is played by players who reach a level of expertise most of us do not in our professions. What we see them do in the middle, they have done it tens of thousands of times beforehand. Batting, bowling, wicketkeeping and fielding are mainly about letting these repetitions take over. In the longer run, better and more prepared players succeed. Teams that have more such cricketers tend to win.
That is not to say that professional cricket is not uncertain or messy. The sport perhaps deals with more variables than any other. The conditions are not uniform and keep changing during a game. One ball - even the ones manufactured by machines - doesn't feel the same in the hand as the next one. A coin toss at the start of the match can hand a team a massive advantage.
Keeping all that in mind, and having never attained the expertise that professional cricketers do, we tend to have irrational explanations for some of the events that we see. The proportions qudrat ka nizam, the order of nature, has assumed at this T20 World Cup is one of them. It was Saqlain Mushtaq's philosophical explanation for differences in results in sport, but it has now become almost another ingredient in an orientalist view of Pakistan cricket. Not that there was a dearth of such ingredients. It ascribes to an invisible hand, the qudrat, a djinn, a fairy, Pakistan's turnaround in this World Cup from losing to India and Zimbabwe in their first two matches to now playing the final.
However, this is one of the more predictable teams Pakistan have had. We know they have a great bowling attack for T20 cricket, which will rarely let them down. We know their batting will be conservative but they reckon that approach works for them because of their bowling. During the tournament they made rational changes to their XI: they brought in Mohammad Wasim after they missed a seam-bowling allrounder against India, and later got in Mohammad Haris to reinvigorate the batting.
They might have lost to Zimbabwe, but they beat South Africa to make it to the semi-finals. South Africa similarly lost to Netherlands but beat India, the leaders of the group. The fact that Pakistan's three wins came in succession creates the impression of a wave. They were among the pre-tournament favourites, and they are in the final. It is actually qudrat ka nizam, but not in the way the term has been used of late.
This is not a hurriedly put-together team: in 2019, Wahab Riaz was not even part of the 30-man provisional squad or training camps; he was privately advised by a member of the support staff to not go on the holiday he was planning, and ended up being one of their main players at the ODI World Cup. This team is not like that team. Nor is it the unbalanced side put together according to the whims of a supreme leader, who is now "celebrating democracy": in 1992, specialist batter Ijaz Ahmed played at No. 9 to bowl part-time seam-up. And cover young children's eyes: Imran Khan wore the cornered-tiger tee to the 1987 World Cup semi-final too, but Pakistan lost that game and it didn't make for a great story. Apart from the 1992 and 2022 captains batting at a similar strike-rate, there are few similarities between the two campaigns.
Yet you can't rule out that professional cricket is played by irrational people. They push themselves to limits no rational person will in order to get into positions to be able to let the repetitions take over. They live a dichotomous life: everything is about the team, but you have to look after yourself to be in the team so that you can look after it. Even getting in is often about being in the right place at the right time. Once there, players leave themselves open to all the vagaries of the sport and nature. They know the science of strength and conditioning inside out, but follow irrational routines in preparation to face or deliver a ball. They can't control or influence it, but there is a massive amount of luck involved in this sport. Players cling to any belief no matter how irrational to get that little bit extra out of their bodies or to eliminate doubt from their minds, doubt that can prevent the repetitions from taking over.
Babar Azam is fully convinced of a guardian angel. He even name-checked tigers in the pre-match press conference, saying his team has played like tigers. "We have always believed in Allah," Babar said when asked if the new version of qudrat ka nizam or the perceived inevitability of a Pakistan win has been discussed in the dressing room too. "Whatever happens comes from Allah. Allah gives us the opportunity, but the effort is in our hand. We put in the effort, try to give our best, but the result is in Allah's hands. The way Allah has given us the opportunity… Allah has given us the opening but we have grabbed it. And the cricket we have played after that… we will thank Allah that Allah has brought us to the final. Inshallah, Allah will win us the final too."
There is an element of belief turning into yaqeen (certainty) in all this, but this is rooted in the quality of this team, rather than being a gag as it was three years ago, when Pakistan threatened another 1992 repeat. Also in a way it is another way of saying: "we will try our best but if we lose, we will accept that result as Allah's wish." Anyone who knows the ups and downs of cricket, especially the venom and ridicule losing brings in the age of social media, will attest that this is not a bad philosophy to live by.
Rationality and irrationality will come together beautifully in this clash of limited-overs cultures. England make the play with their batters, a deep batting line-up, a world-class wristspinner, and use their various allrounders to make up for the lack of the pedigree that Pakistan have in their pace attack. Their batters will need some luck when they take the Pakistan attack on. Pakistan rely on their six-man bowling attack - three excellent and varied fast bowlers, a seam-bowling allrounder, a wristspinner, and a left-arm spinner - to make up for their conservative batting.
Pakistan have seen India fail with this approach before, but believe their bowling unit is just that much better than India's was when their wristspinners were at their peak and they had Jasprit Bumrah. Even when England had Jofra Archer, they believed that bowlers could do only so much in T20 cricket, and loaded their side with batters and allrounders. Even they believed, as Adil Rashid told Eoin Morgan, that Allah was with them in the 2019 World Cup final.
In all likelihood there will be a rational explanation for what happens on Sunday and/or Monday. If there isn't, and often there isn't, we will break our heads imagining and re-imagining merit retrospectively because we never reach the level of expertise where we can say we did our all, now it is all qudrat ka nizam.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo