Sports

The Joy of Cricket

The Pakistan team is a reminder that cricket has room for diverse kinds, that it’s all about fun

Sharda Ugra in Mohali

Until Ahmedabad, Pakistan has played this World Cup in the corner of India’s eye. They were ghosts in their own neighbourhood. They were not Bangladesh, who could welcome the world, radiate optimism and soak the Cup with tears and laughter. They were not Sri Lanka, who went about their business efficiently, putting their strengths on display and keeping weaknesses hidden through six tiring weeks. Comparisons with India here are unadvisable because that makes fans go mental. A day before a World Cup semi-final, there’s enough of that going around, anyway.

Crisis? What crisis? Let's keep marching ahead (Photo: AFP)

Pakistan were the outsiders at this World Cup. Not ‘outside’ favourites because no one in cricket ever counts them out. But on the outside because in their last four years, news around their cricket has pushed them to the fringes of utter collapse. The death of Bob Woolmer during the 2007 World Cup was followed by a year of no Tests at all in 2008 which was followed by Lahore which was followed by Sydney which was followed by the spot-fixing scandal.

Yet, at the pointy end of the World Cup, here they are, in a semi-final, versus India, in Mohali, their captain grinning and poking the media in its eye, their team gambolling about the field during practice, acrobatic catches, direct hits and all. Woolmer, Lahore, Sydney, Salman Butt and then these guys. It doesn’t add up, it doesn’t make sense. Yet with Pakistan, intriguingly, maddeningly, astonishingly, it somehow does.

This was South Asia’s World Cup, okay. So never mind playing zero games at home, never mind national politics and international condemnation, Pakistan were damned if they were going to be left out of it.

No whining, no lamentation, let’s just play.

No being victims, no being delusional, never mind our Board, and (may God bless the father of neutral umpiring Imran) our domestic structure. Let’s just play.

There’s got to be some ICC award that should be given out for Shahid Afridi and his men but not as a patronising pat on the head for being “survivors” or being “resilient”. But for proving in a World Cup what cricket eventually is about – bat and ball, runs and wickets, instinct and guts.

A team thought of and categorised as unpredictable and illogical (and many other horrible things from the past which the current cricketers wear like ankle weights) Pakistan’s cricket on the field is actually very fundamental. It is why they do what they do. All those theories about ‘living in the moment’, about ‘switching on’ for cricket and ‘detaching’ themselves from the uncontrollables. Pakistan shows every cricketer in the world how it can actually be done. They win some and they lose a few but always they play like millions of kids do on the street – full on. When they go down, they go down in flames. When they do well, they can set the world on fire.

How can you not want to watch? Or keep watching?

Amidst all the horrors from 2007, there stand the cricketing facts, the hard results. This is what the Pakistanis have done in the short game since the last World Cup: In the three World Twenty20s from 2007, they have won one, made the finals in another, and semi-finals in the third. They were semi-finalists of the 2009 Champions Trophy. After the spot-fixing scandal in England last summer, in a five-match ODI series they turned a 0-2 deficit to an eventual 2-3 defeat. They went toe to toe against the South Africans in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, also losing only in the deciding ODI. Before the World Cup, they won an ODI series in New Zealand (not to mention a Test series).

Pakistan have always been a bums-on-seats, eyes-on-TV screen kind of team. They have also always been an alternative Dream Team, particularly for journalists, because of the news they can generate without even stepping on the field. But, that is not why they are so compelling. In the 2003 World Cup, they were called the “Brazil of cricket.” It was a beguiling enough description which eventually didn’t seem to add up. It wasn’t referring to the number of World Cups won because then, Pakistan had one, and had made it to another final. Surely Brazil’s football couldn’t match Pakistan’s stories of inner conflict and revolving-door captaincies. The only comparable element then had to be skill.

If India’s batting can be thing of beauty, Pakistan and its bowling is a moving, ever growing piece of pop art. In its history, Pakistan has always encouraged the maverick, both in personality and cricketing technique, but with only one common feature generation after generation: the ability to win matches. It is this presence, particularly amongst the bowlers, that made Pakistan the first Asian team capable of doing well in overseas conditions. It is why they put up with mavericks. Were Sreesanth Pakistani, there is a very good chance that disciplinary issues or not, he would have played a lot more frequently. There would have been dramas, but there probably would have been more wickets too.

In a world now dominated by jargon of ‘good areas’ and ‘process’, Pakistan are cricket’s doers and not its thinkers. Half-measures are rare. They may do good or they may do far from good (and that’s only talking about their cricket) but this is a team with less theory, more action, which in itself is a mighty relief. The glass is never half-anything with Pakistan. It’s either empty or full.

Shahid Afridi now leads because he is one of those doers – of something, anything, these days more good than bad. He is Pakistan’s leading ODI wicket taker since January 2008, with 101 wickets in 70 ODIs, all this with antics that make match referees mad. To see and hear Waqar Younis, bespectacled, leaning towards a forty-something ‘prosperity’, run Pakistan’s nets is to appreciate that men can be taught how to march through mud. Is there any other team in this competition that could have reached the semi-final of this World Cup, at the end of a long and traumatic season, without its two strike bowlers?

When Pakistan play cricket, they remind all of us who watch it, of a few things. That the game can have room for diverse kinds. That enormous and frequent reversals, whether over an over, an innings, a match, a season is actually part of an organic whole. And that eventually, cricket is meant to be about fun. Let’s just play.

(Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo)

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