How cricket explains Pakistan
The writer has taught international relations and public policy at Boston University and the Fletche
The writer has taught international relations and public policy at Boston University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
Cricket enthusiasts are fond of saying that cricket is a metaphor for life. Of course, it is. Maybe everything is. But, cricket, more than most others things. And, cricket in Pakistan, more than in most other places.
This last week was very much a case in point. As one followed the machinations of Pakistan cricket and Pakistani politics unfolding simultaneously on our television screens, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the discourse on the one from the other. Mock outrage. Predictable surprise. Shallow analysis. Hollow sloganeering. Absurd assumptions. Blatant self-deception. Indignant indignation. And more.
It is the ‘more’ that one wishes to delve upon today.
One was reminded, yet again, how so much of what happens in Pakistan cricket – and our reaction to what happens in Pakistan cricket – exemplifies what happens in Pakistan society and polity. And vice versa. Here is a list of just a few observations on how our cricket has become a reflection of us, and we a reflection of our cricket.
1. A belief in miracles. Shallow religiosity, wrapped in its usual cloak of rituality, is forever on display in Pakistan. Deep devotion to the divine, however, is best observed during bouts of cricket. This is more than just devotion to the game. This is about the belief that miracles happen. And, that when they do happen, they are most likely to happen on the cricket field.
This is the endearing image of sporting passion. The much less alluring implication is that where miracles are expected, there is no requirement for strategy. Even less need for effort. Good things happen not because we plan for them to happen; not because we create the conditions in which they can happen; not because we work really really hard to make them happen; but merely because they happen. Agar qoum ki duae’yn aap key sath haiN, tou mehnat ki k’ya zaroorat hai (if you have a nation’s prayers with you, then why would you need to work hard).
Our wondrous search for miracles is not limited to the cricketing greens. We desperately search for miracles in our talks with the Taliban, just as we searched for miracles in Agha Waqar’s water-kit car. Listen carefully to the conversations around you and you begin to discern the patterns of an entire society waiting for miracles: How are good things supposed to happen? By crook or by miracle. Not even by hook. And certainly not by hard work. So, why bother.
2. A search for saviours. The belief in miracles is concomitant to the search for saviours. If a lacklustre performance through the entire game is to be turned around by a miracle in the very last over (maybe even on the very last ball) then we obviously need a saviour. Ideally, a Shahid Afridi blitz.
As a society that chooses to live dangerously, it is not a surprise that we are forever in search of saviours. Mr Jinnah was the ultimate saviour. Six decades after his death we are still not willing to let him rest in peace. We seek from him today what we are unwilling to find for ourselves and what he is unable to give: clarity on who we have become, and why.
Saviours abound, everywhere. Kaptaan Imran Khan has had a saviour role thrust upon him by his followers. The linear logic of moving from saving Pakistan cricket to saving Pakistan politics is, after all, a no brainer! Not all saviours, however, are savoury. All of our military dictators, for example, thrust themselves upon us in efforts to save us from ourselves. So do those who peddle religious salvation or super-patriotism.
Ultimately, it is not saviours who are to be blamed. It is those who search for saviours. Those who seek quick fixes and short-cuts. Victory on the last ball. Sifarish (favouritism) to get the job you do not deserve. Rishwat (bribe) to break the rule you are not willing to follow. A new tranche from the IMF to ratchet the economy. A generous gift from Saudi friends to boost our currency. A dance with the devil to gain strategic depth.
3. A crisis of followership. Eleven individuals do not make a team. Nor does a crowd of 180 million make a nation. Where players play for personal glory, where inhabitants refuse to be citizens, it is disingenuous and deceitful to place the blame solely on a lack of leadership. The crisis in Pakistan cricket, and in Pakistan, is a crisis of followership as much as it is of leadership.
Yes, leaders have to be held accountable. Yes, leaders have to be restrained against the possibility of tyranny. Yes, leaders have to be gauged for performance. Yes, leaders have to be held to higher standards. But leaders also have to be given the space to lead; the ability to innovate, maybe even take risks; the room to sometimes fall; the time to learn from the fall.
As in war so in cricket: you play with the team you have, not the team you wished for. The fate of Pakistan T20 captain Mohammad Hafeez after the debacle in Dhaka makes one wonder about the unforgiving nature of Pakistan society. If one did not wish to be charitable, one would conclude that we take particular delight in kicking the fallen hero. And not just in cricket.
Emotions and stakes may be too high in cricket and politics to remain objective, but think of how many institutional leaders have been thrown out in disgrace and with dishonour. Not always because their actions were disgraceful or dishonourable, but because we seem to have no other way of making leadership transitions. One thinks of all the institutions that remain leaderless in the current disposition. An impasse of decision-making at the top may be partly to blame; but also to blame is the fact that anyone honourable may not want to be subjected to the internal intrigue and fickle followership that is now the norm in Pakistani institutions.
4. An exaggerated self-worth. Pakistani society can be characterised as individual excellence amidst collective failure. We can find highly accomplished individual Pakistanis in all fields and all over the world. Yet, we find relatively few examples of collective achievement. Failure in cricket hurts so much more, partly because it is one of the very few things in which collective achievement does occasionally show up.
I am convinced beyond doubt that there is great talent, and even greater potential, in the people of Pakistan; especially our youth. However, it is too easy for such a sentiment – no matter how true – to translate into a misplaced sense of self-worth: a surprisingly widely-held arrogance that somehow society has failed us by not recognising and nurturing the great talents within us. Yes, society and government can sometimes contribute to the failure of talent to meet its potential. But, ultimately, it is the responsibility of talent itself to rise to that potential. True talent invariably does. That takes hard work, discipline and dedication. To meet one’s potential is not an entitlement or right bestowed by government, it is the test of talent itself.
The notion that ours is a great cricket team with immensely talented players may well be intrinsically true. But it is a notion that has to be tested every time we take to the cricket field. It becomes patently untrue every time we fail that test. Tomorrow, as the final of the ICC World T20 is played in Dhaka without Pakistan in the arena, let us be reminded that a cricket team’s worth is measured not by its potential, but by its achievement; and by the consistency of achievement. Let us also not forget that history judges nations no differently: by their achievements, not by their potential.