Someday you’ll return
To your valleys and your farms
And you’ll no longer burn to be
Brothers in arms
Sang the Dire Straits. In a West Wing episode, the song was an emotional soundtrack that showed people standing by their leader, their president. In a wonderfully idealist America, where the president was good and kind and made the right choices. Today morning in my car, I played the song, not thinking of Jed Bartlet, the impossible president, but about Team Pakistan, the impossible champions.
If you are a child growing up in India or Pakistan you grow up revering cricket. You don’t take it lightly or ‘just a sport’. It becomes as important as religion, state and sometimes it takes an oracle-like shape, it becomes a prophetic being, something that gives you hope and makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger, much bigger than your troubles, your fears. It feels like you are connected to a bigger scheme of things, their losses and their wins are your losses and your wins. Their performances are directly proportional to how you did at work or at school or in your relationships. Your moods and your highs and your lows are tied with the swing of the ball and the flick of the bat. Your breadth of imagination becomes one with the length of boundaries and the sixes and your spirit begins to voyage the field alongside mid-on and mid-off and fine leg and backward point. Cricket becomes you. You become cricket.
The World Cup, the Asia Cup, Champions Trophy, World T20 – each year, cricket tournaments bring the big leagues of cricket together. Pakistani fans hope and watch with baited breath as their teams sometimes win, sometimes lose. Sometimes they give you hope that they would win – but end up breaking your heart completely. The 1999 World Cup final still stings. We won almost all the matches – except with the one against Bangladesh (lol?) and India (gulp) and took a brutal assault in the final. We were all out for 132 against Australia. Australia had won by 8 wickets.
I remember that evening. I remember how I had loved the whole tournament and much our family and friends had gathered to watch the final. I remember loving the game, cheering on Pakistan, writing in my diary every night how wonderful it was to see Pakistan win throughout the World Cup. Almost felt like 1992 where we had won it. But that final. That evening on that final. It broke my heart into so many pieces. How could they do this? How could our team lose? Our brilliant team with the likes of Saqlain and Wasim and Saeed Anwar and Shoaib Akhtar and Inzamam and Moin Khan and Shahid Afridi – these were greats. No. They were more than greats. They were the greatest. But we lost.
And such was the nature of Pakistani cricket. They could give you all the hope in all the world and your heart would be filled with this optimism and your brain would be filled with images where your team would be lifting the cup. And it would be shattered in painful, long, unwatchable minutes. Dropped catches. Misfields. Missed hits. Stupid shots. And then there would be those rivalries. Spot fixing allegations. Match fixing bans. Ball tampering. Betting. Point-scoring. Ethnic biases. Inner politics that would constantly be the face of sports news in Pakistan.
There was a time when things were good – under the captaincy of Misbahul Haq, who raised hopes of Pakistani fans once again. He was like a solid rock upon which Pakistani team rebuilt itself. The scandals were lesser. The wins were real. We fought back and won against thoroughly professional and outstanding teams. Our ODIs were struggling but we were shining in Test matches. There was a glimmer of hope again. Could it be? Could it be that the ‘cornered tigers’ (a term famously given to Pakistani cricket team by captain Imran Khan in 1992) were making a comeback as the rising phoenix? Could it be that the man who had only played 19 tests – would be our test captain? Could we begin to hope again? Under Misbah, Team Pakistan won 24 out of 53 tests. We were back, if not on a winning streak, but on a hopeful streak.
Then came the Pakistan Super League that gave Pakistani fans more reason to celebrate. After the deadly attacks on Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009, Pakistani cricket suffered for years before it could bring cricket back home. The PSL final in 2017 in Lahore gave more hope to Pakistanis than ever.
But then there was yesterday. June 18th, 2017, the Champions Trophy final at the Oval. Plans were canceled. Banter was peaking, trolls were hunting and experts were biting their lips. It was India versus Pakistan.
Pakistan was ranked at 8th in the ICC rankings – we took a thrashing from India in our first match against them, we barely were able to win from Sri Lanka. If it hadn’t been for all the catches Sri Lanka had dropped… but we made it. We made it. And we chameleoned from a loser, headless chicken team to a professional, focused, intelligent side that knew exactly what it was doing. What was this magic, this sudden rebirth? It seemed like something of the glory days was returning. Some shadow of it, some ghost of Wasim Akram in Muhammad Aamir (3 for 16). The wrist movements of Fakhar Zaman (114!) echoing a style of the great Saeed Anwar. The pressure mounted by the young and brilliant Hassan Ali (13 wickets in CT17). Then there is Sarfaraz Ahmed – who has a strong head on his shoulders, who listens to his youngsters, who isn’t arrogant or selfish but gracious and consistent. This is a good man, this is a good omen. With the captaincy of Quetta Gladiators under his belt, he has experience. So do Hasan (Peshawar Zalmi) and Shadab and Rumman (Islamabad United). The power of Pakistan Super League is still seen as the confidence and experience of our players is growing. Pakistani fans watch in a state of surprised glee as the runs mount in the first innings and the wickets fall in the second as the Indian side realises that it’s just not their day today. Is this the salvation Pakistan was waiting for? Is this when we start to celebrate not a win – but ushering a new era of a stronger, better, greater Pakistani team? Pakistan beat India by 180 runs. This wasn’t just hope. It was belief.
I spoke to a Pakistani cab service captain yesterday who had been in UAE for nine years. Away from family. Here only, like many Pakistanis like him, for the better future of his children. He was from a small city in Punjab, and he inquired of me if I would be watching the match tonight. “My heart says,” he tells me, “that Pakistan will win.” I laugh. “I don’t know. I hope we do.”
He shakes his head somberly. “We will. It is just like 1992. Everything is the same.”
I smile. His tone is what Pakistani fandom is made of. It’s earnest. It’s hopeful. It is filled with love and admiration for his team. Despite all our failures in the past, it is full of a resolute, unrelenting positivity that makes me hope too. “Our lives, you know,” he continues matter-of-factly, “are so filled with troubles. We have so many worries. Our families. Our jobs. Our country. Winning this trophy would make us so happy.”
I nod quietly. There is silence. He breaks it by saying this – and making me hope, not for team Pakistan, but for Pakistan itself:
“Cricket is all we have sometimes.”