Cricket in Pakistan has mirrored changes in our society and continues to do so
John Sackville, the 3rd Duke of Dorset and one of cricket’s earliest patrons, once in a rather lyrical mood stated: "What is human life but a game of cricket". Then onwards, we find cricket history and literature replete with moments and references where cricket has out stepped the contours of a common sport.
The two most famous of these examples were Caribbean Marxist writer CLR James’ work Beyond a boundary, and John Major’s aptly titled bestseller More than just a game.
As far as Pakistani cricket is concerned, this field was rather barren till Peter Oborne’s wonderfully exhaustive and well-researched Cornered Tigers was released a few months ago. The title of the book itself makes for an interesting analysis. The 1992 World Cup victory was indeed a great moment in the then 45-year-old nation’s history.
But even more interesting were the events which followed this victory, which through commercialisation not only revolutionised sports in Pakistan but gave a new social space for the youth of the country to express themselves. Twenty-three years later, the biggest tournament in limited overs cricket has completed the full circle and has returned to the Kangaroo Country. It did not take long for people to draw comparisons--from the really interesting to the downright ridiculous. So just like we keep going back to ‘Jinnah ka Pakistan’ we keep recalling ‘Imran kay Cornered Tigers’. In an interesting way, cricket in Pakistan has mirrored changes in our society and continues to do so.
In terms of purely on field action Pakistan was in a worse condition in 1992 than now-- a good omen for those who believe the ‘more cornered’ we are the better we ricochet. However, it is deplorable that we have not gone the route we ought to--again cricket seems to be depicting our societal development.
The socio-political scenario of 1990s Pakistan was marred by rampant corruption and democratic ping pong with a few leaders hogging the limelight for all sorts of reasons. The democratic phase in the history of cricket, after Imran’s martial law brought uncertainty, camp creation, captaincy chaos, back stabbing and above all the evil of ‘match fixing’.
The constitutional struggles continued both in the country and in the Cricket Board where the former were often cut short by the civil military imbalance, and the latter was also disorganised and left directionless -- it was only very recently that the PCB finally drafted its constitution, which then resulted in a much publicised musical chair for chairmanship. Both the PCB and the parliament have had to face a hard time at trial courts too; from Justice Nasim Hassan Shah to Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, and from Justice Qayyum to the judicial activism of the Islamabad High Court in the PCB Chairmanship case, comparative instances are in plenty.
Another very interesting parallel, which the father son duo of Shahryar Khan (incumbent Chairman PCB) and Ali Khan have pointed out in their book Cricket Cauldron is that of post 9/11 Islamisation. Though there is a considerable difference between the versions of Islam practiced by the Taliban and the Tableeghi Jamaat but the latter’s impact on our cricket team throughout the 2000s meant that religion was part and parcel of the daily routine.
Inzamam, the leader of the cricket team as well as the Tableeghi Jamaat, created his own niche in post-match presentations, players started to prostrate a lot more often, and then there were a couple of highly objectionable actions with Shoaib Malik thanking all of Muslim Ummah after an ICC tournament and Ahmed Shehzad’s even more disastrous ‘burn in hell’ conversation with Dilshan topping the list.
Just like politics, Lahore and Karachi dominated other regions and cities. Very interestingly, the last Balochistani (born) to play international cricket was Shoaib Khan in 2008 who since has gone into oblivion.
The Musharraf era brought the ‘revolution’ of 2003--the ‘mission cleanup’ which cut short the careers of the likes of Waqar Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq and Salim Elahi. Inzamam’s camaraderie with the genius of Bob Woolmer served Pakistan well by combining traditional class with modern equipment--an arrangement (minus Inzy’s religious activism) Musharraf would have been delighted with. Without sounding exceedingly spooky, two major losses that Pakistan and its cricket team would have loved to avoid were months apart in 2007, Robert Woolmer and Benazir Bhutto death in unresolved circumstances.
Internationally, both the Pakistani state and cricket started to get isolated at the same time with the exception of India perhaps who was willing to extend cricket diplomacy from 2004-2007-- where both political and cricketing ties came to a standstill on 26/11/2008. The PPP’s democracy had its fair share of re-unions, breakups and scandals. One constant complaint from the government was of giving major responsibilities to undeserving people. The PCB’s chairmanship was one of these posts which somehow or the other went into the hands of the highly controversial and mostly idiosyncratic Ejaz Butt. Evils of the 1990s returned too, as corruption allegations about politicians soared up and so did the match fixing scandals about players.
Today if a poll is conducted throughout the country then two people would closely contest the most hated person’s award: the premiers of the country and cricket, Nawaz Sharif and Misbahul Haq. Go Nawaz Go and Tuk Tuk have gained legendary status amongst slogans in our history. Yet these two have hung on despite all odds, particularly the populism of Imran Khan and Shahid Afridi. What cricket has not got till yet, is a third force which ironically was provided to our political stage by a cricketer turned politician. Both Misbah and Sharif have inherited a lot of issues but have just played well enough to still be here.
Just like our country, our cricket team has gone into the World Cup with expectations which belie preparations and reality, and just like we tend to blame our leaders for everything going wrong we are ready to pounce on our team for any slips--without really analysing and, more importantly, correcting the problems. Cricket once just a game, is now critical mirror into our state and society. The Duke of Dorset was indeed correct.