By Khaled Ahmed
June 24, 2017
On June 18, Pakistan thrashed favourites India by 180 runs to clinch the ICC Champions Cricket Trophy title in a thrilling competition at London’s The Oval ground. Earlier in the tournament, India had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the same Pakistani side that could neither field-and-bowl nor bat properly. Then uncannily, it arose from its ashes and defeated three teams to play India again in the final.
India and Pakistan can’t play bilaterally although Pakistan wants it badly if cricket is to survive in the country. The problem is that no one comes to Pakistan to play cricket because of terrorism that targets foreign teams; and no amount of security assurances have worked so far to attract the world back and save the Pakistan Cricket Board from starving of cash. The last time that Pakistan requested Bangladesh to break the taboo set by India it got a no because the players were scared. But the real rub is that India doesn’t allow Pakistan cricket teams to play in India too. The BCCI wants it but the government doesn’t, perhaps as a policy of keeping Pakistan under pressure. Yet the fact is that India is no longer safe for Pakistanis because of the “street power” vigilantism. Pakistan has its terrorists, India its own variety of fanatics. And, ironically, both want to play cricket.
No matter what the media warriors may say, the final at The Oval brought out the best in the defeated Indian team. India’s charismatic skipper Virat Kohli praised the Pakistani team pinpointing their strong points. Ex-skipper M.S. Dhoni showed his humanity by carrying Pakistani captain Sarfraz Ahmed’s baby in his arms, smiling blissfully for the camera. Perhaps one highlight of the competition was ex-skipper Sourav Ganguly’s commentary during the final match. Not only is he the best-speaking cricket observer, his analysis enriched the experience of watching the match. His assessment of and advice to the Pakistani side justified the title of “dada” given to him by Pakistani players.
But defeat carries insult which the unworthy victor must fling in the face of the vanquished. The Pakistani media did it and the Indian media responded with counter-insult. The low point was reached many times. Before the match, the exchange was humorous and lightly sarcastic; after the match Pakistan showed no generosity and rubbed the defeat in. The fact remains that the Indian side is still the best cricket side in the world and the Pakistani boys need to play with it to raise the quality of their game. India’s IPL attracts the entire world and quality players give up their places in the national sides to come and entertain the best cricket-watching crowd in the world, found in India. Pakistan is still too isolated to become the parallel arena of this great sport. Bangladesh refused; Afghanistan has also begged out.
After the victory, Pakistan was festive. After watching the match on the big screen set up in street-corners, crowds spread out dancing amid blood-curdling challenges to all comers in cricket. The youth was at the forefront but the very senile too abandoned their cots and danced to the drumbeat of nationalism. The entire population was united as one nation, a rebuke to those very credible scholars who declare on good evidence that Pakistan is a state that hasn’t yet become a nation. Even some of the madrasa leaders who usually stay away from sport, as a distraction from piety, joined the saturnalia, equating cricket with jihad.
Sport in history has been a pantomime of war among city states. The nation of Pakistan got united because the contest was with India, which clearly means that the cementing factor was the urge to “throw the Hindu wrestler”. (These days Indian Kabbadi-players regularly floor their Pakistani counterparts.) Starting 1952, India-Pakistan cricket has always been a kind of wrestling match. When Pakistan’s hockey team was the world champion, its Indian counterpart was a timid weakling, but the real battle was always in cricket.
Starting with Abdul Hafeez Kardar down to Imran Khan, religion was not directly inducted into cricket; but now you have to prostrate yourself, preferably bearded, on the pitch if you score a hundred or take five wickets. This time at The Oval the entire team did it to complete the parable of jihad. The best message of congratulation appropriately came from Pakistan’s army chief. India, shelling Pakistan’s border villages across the ceasefire line, was supposed to feel humiliated. And peace, obviously, is nowhere in sight.
Oddly, India has never been more “united” than now under a ruling party that has a clear majority in Parliament, but this unity is bothering communities being made to stand outside it. This is very much like what Pakistan has made of itself. Politically it is so divided that it has become uncertain about where it wants to go. Cricket unites it but in the negative sense: It wants to challenge India or respond aggressively to its punitive policies. Cricket is supposed to unite, not divide, if you want to go on playing.
Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor,‘Newsweek Pakistan’