While cricket allows us to replenish our collective energy, art is where we get to dream – to imagine new, more hopeful worlds
Fans of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) have been treated to an explosion of colour. For the 2022 season, the twice-trophy-winning cricketers of Islamabad United are sporting pink and red kits bursting with bright blue floral patterns that seem to have leapt off the painted page of a Mughal miniature painting. It is a look that provokes and invites comment; love it or loathe it, there is no question of ignoring it. But what precisely is it?
To that niche segment of the population that follows both cricket and contemporary art these expressive splashes of colour and the delicate floral patterns are instantly recognisable as the work of Lahore-based contemporary artist, Imran Qureshi - one of the handful of artists from Pakistan whose work has a global following.
Inviting a contemporary artist to provide a visual splash on a cricket kit is an unusual gambit. It is perhaps only possible because IU's owners, Ali and Amna Naqvi, are also art enthusiasts - their non-profit AAN Foundation is one of the most significant collections of contemporary art from Pakistan.
But what elevates this project beyond being a bit of left-field marketing and cross-promotion is Qureshi's interest in developing the project in collaboration with IU's cricketers, and the Naqvis' understanding of the need for, and comfort with, allowing an artist the room to experiment with no predetermined goal in sight.
We glimpse the nature of this experimental collaboration between a leading contemporary artist and world-beating cricketers from photographs on IU's and Qureshi's social media accounts, and segments of a high energy video directed by Qureshi's younger brother, Faisal Qureshi. To the beat of a pulsating hip-hop/rap anthem, Trophy Idhar Rakh, sung by 'Soch the Band' and Talha Anjum, we glimpse Shadab Khan, IU's captain and leg-spinning all-rounder, and Asif Ali, the six-hitting specialist, playing in Qureshi's studio. They dip balls into blue paint and are seen bowling and batting on pitch-length canvases spread on the studio's floor and walls. Even the carefully choreographed image for social media of the three posing for the camera reveals a raucous sense of play - of kids playing with tape tennis on muddy streets, where the splashes of mud are imprinted on every surface the ball touches.
Qureshi has responded to the metaphor of 'working' the ball into his own artistic language with red, blue and white cricket balls carrying the same painted floral and splash patterns that appear on the IU players' uniforms. Super slow motion video shows us these balls mid-flight; we see drops of blue paint being propelled by one spinning ball released by Shadab; a white one with red patterns is struck so sweetly by Asif's bat that it escapes the Earth's orbit; there is even one covered entirely in gold leaf - a regular feature in Qureshi's paintings. The video ends with a cosmological scene - the blue, white and red balls are orbiting around the one covered in gold-leaf. It invites us to reach our own conclusions as to what this collaboration between art and cricket may produce, beyond just a season's clothes and a new series of paintings and artful objects.
For our three protagonists - Imran Qureshi, Shadab Khan and Asif Ali who grew up in Hyderabad, Mianwali and Faislabad, respectively - art and cricket have provided platforms for creating global careers and reputations. In an echo of Qureshi's coming to global prominence in Sharjah, it was in the UAE where Asif Ali's six-hitting exploits propelled Pakistan into the semi-finals of the 2021 ICC T-20 World Cup.
Cricket has long been a balm to the Pakistani nation - allowing us to forget, even if momentarily, the challenges we face in our everyday lives, to lift our spirits and come together. When international cricketers stopped visiting Pakistan after the 2009 terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, and Pakistani players were excluded from the Indian Premier League, the establishment of PSL became a positive act of self-reliance; of building our own pipeline of hope. Asif Ali is one of the dozens of cricketers who have benefited from that pipeline.
While cricket allows us to replenish our collective energy, art is where we get to dream - to imagine new, more hopeful worlds. Whether this collaboration between Imran Qureshi and Islamabad United helps IU achieve their third trophy, we will find out soon enough. But by putting the imaginative potential of art, and the emotional connection and collectivity of cricket, into each other's orbit, this project opens up the possibility that their combined energies will splash onto the screens of audiences in every corner of the country and beyond. From that, who knows what shoots may grow!