Pakistan Cricket and the Inevitable Tryst With Heartbreaks

But at the end of the day, agony and pain in a way essentialise competitive sports. There’s no prize worth fighting for that doesn’t leave one contending party in dismay.

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Of the 22 players that took field in the second semifinal between Pakistan and Australia on Thursday in the ongoing ICC T20 World Cup, only Mohammad Hafeez, Steve Smith, and David Warner had featured in that famous semifinal between these two teams in 2010. No Pakistani likes being reminded of that game. As a nation, Pakistan has chosen to erase those memories from its collective consciousness. And who could fault them? What Michael Hussey did to Saeed Ajmal and to some 200 million odd hearts on that day was plain cold and cruel.

But any Pakistani fan who sat through those traumatic 30 minutes in which Hussey turned the game on its head would have inevitably kept their jubilation in check on Thursday as Australia lost half their side for 97 in pursuit of the 176 posted by Pakistan. And with good reason. Hussey has subjected them to wounds that are impossible to heal.

No way another left-handed Australian walking in at 7 was destined to replicate that very run of play off a Pakistani bowler with initials S.A. Even for the mythical cricketing gods, there ought to be some legal ramifications for being so heartless? Well, Shaheen Afridi and Babar Azam will have plenty of existential fodder to ponder over for the next few days. It may not completely help them heal but it’ll be one serious distraction from the agonising pain nonetheless.

There’s one critical difference between the 2010 and 2021 heartbreaks, however, that the Pakistan team shouldn’t overlook. While they’d played nearly a perfect game in Gros Islet back then until Hussey showed up, that was certainly not the case in Dubai this time around. Matthew Wade’s swashbuckling cameo notwithstanding, Pakistan paid the price for batting too conservatively and ended up with a sub-par total with less-than-optimal utilisation of their batting resources.

In a format so loaded in favour of the chasing side, teams batting first are required to be nearly flawless each time. And Pakistan were anything but as they ended up reasonably short of a total that would’ve lent their bowlers the upper hand. But in the wake of a defeat as excruciatingly painful as this one, objectivity ends up taking the backseat as the conversation is excessively emotion heavy.

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The essential beauty of sporting fandoms lies in their refusal of reason. Fans thrive in their irrational fantasies and ridiculous hopes. And even though this phenomenon cuts across cultures, the Pakistani cricket fandom is still very distinctively unique. It takes more than the mundane and academic explainers to truly grasp the absurdity of the relationship that ordinary Pakistanis share with their cricket team.

The country’s troubled political realities find a way to manifest through its cricket time and time again. Generations have grown up hearing stories of divided dressing rooms, bent superstars, corrupt administrators, and a team of mercurial talent that never amounts to the sum of its parts. Much of it is strictly folklore and much more, orientalist stereotyping. It fits a certain worldview to depict Pakistan as ‘unpredictable’ and ‘volatile’. But the narrative is very firmly established and it shows in the way Pakistani fans themselves speak of their team.

Lampooning and casual mocking of players and their on-field shenanigans is practically at the heart of Pakistani fandom. The self-deprecating brand of humour that reflects in their immensely popular meme culture has its own loyal following on the internet.

One Sarim Akhtar carrying an expression of sheer dejection on his face at a dropped catch broke the internet during the 2019 World Cup. A visibly exasperated and inconsolable Momin Saqib voicing his anger after a loss to India during the same tournament has since become a famous cultural reference in the entire subcontinent. Neither of these was a staged act performed for the camera and yet they were incredibly theatrical. The two men perfectly encapsulated the one defining characteristic that comes along with supporting Pakistan – the joy in hopelessness.

But this Pakistan team under Babar Azam managed to subvert many of these notions that have shaped the perceptions of Pakistan cricket in popular culture. Over the last three weeks in the UAE, Pakistan were professional, thorough, and clinical as opposed to mercurial and unpredictable. They were all method and little madness. They bowled to a plan, fielded with agility, and maximised on their strengths while batting.

This was an entirely unfamiliar territory for the Pakistani fans to find themselves in. To be fair, they’ve rooted for better teams full of globally recognised superstars in past but this level of meticulous precision in five consecutive performances belied every cliché that’s normally reserved for Pakistan. The fans might as well be forgiven for starting to miss that sense of anxiety their team would put them through in every World Cup. No complex Net Run Rate arithmetic to be bothered about, no intricate permutations to compute while watching other teams play. Where was the archetypal disquiet that the fans feel so at home with?

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But that immaculate run through the group stage of the competition would’ve been worth it had it not culminated in what would end up reopening the scars that Mike Hussey had inflicted upon an entire nation all those years ago. It wasn’t just about the defeat. It was the familiarity with the pattern that came with it. It was the imminent feeling of the inevitable when the team was once again in a dominant position in a knockout game against Australia and then a whirlwind of a knock that shattered the apprehensively held hopes.

There’s a lot to deconstruct about the over Afridi bowled to Wade. Many felt he tried a very ambitious yorker at high pace against an extremely effective striker of fast bowling. Perhaps bowling into the pitch wide of the batter’s arc was the right way to go about it. The very matchup would’ve been taken out of equation had Hasan Ali held on to a reasonably catchable chance. But then cricketing wisdom is hardly the dominant theme of the day for an emotionally charged people in the aftermath of a heartbreak that hurts so deep.

In this particular unit, the Pakistani fans finally saw the kind of professionalism and discipline that they’d only learned to envy the more competently run teams for. This group of players took pride in their athletic builds, could steal an extra run, sprint towards the boundary, and dive at cover point. The camaraderie within the group and the generally cheerful vibe was extremely endearing to the eye.

To then see them having to relive the very nightmare of the previous generations isn’t what the fans had signed up for. Of course, there’s the consolation in having gotten the monkey off their backs with the ruthless and crushing defeat of India. But the story that began so ebulliently could’ve done without an anticlimax all too familiar.

But at the end of the day, agony and pain in a way essentialise competitive sports. There’s no prize worth fighting for that doesn’t leave one contending party in dismay. And despite the popular belief, law of averages has no scientific basis to it. It’s just a romantic thought that keeps people in pursuit of the coveted piece of glory. There’s nothing to definitively suggest the wheel of fortune shall eventually swing the other way and those shedding tears today shall have the last laugh. Well, ask the South Africans.

Beyond a point, it becomes a Sisyphean endeavour but perhaps therein lies the fundamental appeal of sport that explains people’s fixation to what’s a strictly vicarious form of happiness or sorrow. There’s nothing more to sporting fandoms than finding a collective sense of purpose that lends transient excitement to lives of otherwise little significance. Even if it only ends in gloom and despair.

The Pakistani cricket tragics have long embraced this pensive melancholy and process it with impeccable jocularity every single time. And in addition to the most evocative brand of cricket that their teams have played in every era, it is this unmistakable propensity of fans to laugh at themselves that makes Pakistan cricket so special. It’s an everlasting tryst with heartbreaks. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Parth Pandya is an Ahmedabad-based freelance sports writer.