When Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder caustically said that the passions of Indian and Pakistanis are excessively inflamed by cricket matches, she wasn’t wrong. But that is only a small part of the picture. It's not just sub-continentals who are emotionally vested in sport.
The parliament session held after June 22, 1986, was somber with British MPs in mourning. Argentina had beaten England in the quarter-final of the football World Cup and it was being seen as revenge for the Falklands. Even Maggie couldn’t rouse the moping Tories. When Iran beat the US at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, owners of Persian restaurants in America opened their doors to all and welcomed them with free food.
Sport has always inspired strong emotions and for many reasons. According to the Homer’s Iliad, demigods and Greek kings competed against each other to honour a fallen comrade killed in the Trojan war. The Greek myths are replete with heroes proving their mettle through sports. Hercules, Jason, Theseus, and Achilles were as brilliant on the tracks as on the battlefield.
Myths passed into fact. The Olympics started in 776 BC as a tribute to Zeus and a celebration of the most wonderous creation: man. The event would lead to cease fires between fighting kingdoms. Winners were crowned with a wreath of leaves from the laurel, a tree associated with Apollo. One can imagine the emotions and cannot miss the religious connotations. Even the urbane Greeks were not immune to the mixing of religion with sports. Qudrat ka nizam in Athens and Sparta.
When Pakistan win, the average Pakistani, beset by issues and problems can for a few moments lay down his burden and forget about the trials and tribulations prevalent all around him and which seem to be beyond his country’s leadership
When Olympics were revived in the late 19th century, they were to bring humanity together. By then the nation states had matured. Germany and Italy were countries and no longer a federation of petty kingdoms. Sports would become a means to not just celebrate physical prowess but a platform for declarations of superiority. Hitler used the 1936 Berlin games to showcase the might of the Third Reich and display the superiority of the Aryan race. He was upstaged by Jesse Owens, the grandson of a black slave, who won four gold medals and demolished the Nazi ideology. Humanity won, fascism lost. It was emotional.
A similar blow was struck by Joe Louis. When the 'The Brown Bomber' fought against Nazi Germany’s Max Schmeling it transcended the heavyweight championship and became a battle of ideologies: all men are equal versus the preeminence of the white race.
Before the fight Louis was invited to the White House, where President Franklin Roosevelt told the pugilist “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” Hitler telephoned Schmeling before he left the dressing room, extolling him to win and threatening dire consequences for a loss.
When the final bell rang the black man was standing while the symbol of Teutonic perfection late prostate on the floor. It was a reaffirmation of man. Harlem celebrated. The world celebrated. Maya Angelou wrote, “Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Cola like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas.” Harlem was also jubilant when Jackie Robinson broke the colour bar and joined the major leagues in baseball. The black race was equal, Jim Crow was wrong, segregation was wrong, injustice was wrong, Uncle Sam was wrong. Emotional scenes.
Decades later, black athletes Jon Carlos and Tommy Smith stood on the winners stand at the 1968 games and raised their fists to highlight injustice and segregation in America. This time the black man was protesting against his own and sport was again the medium. At round the same time Mohammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, was reaffirming his Muslim faith by destroying opponents with jabs, physical and verbal. “What’s my name? Say my name!” he yelled to Ernie Terrel who had insisted on calling him by his forsaken Christian name. Ali taunted and teased round after round while delivering a beating so brutal that Terrel was left scarred for life. Emotions at play.
For decolonised nations, sport became a chance to reclaim their self-respect after years of subjugation. It was a chance to put one over their erstwhile masters who had stolen centuries of development and condemned their people to become children of a lesser God. In 1820, China produced a third of the world’s output. By the time it became an independent republic England, Japan and others had reduced it to penury. The dazzling magnificence of 2008 Beijing Olympics was China’s arrival moment, an announcement that the Middle Kingdom is reclaiming its status as a global economic and political powerhouse. Emotions were understandable.
Cricket has been no exception in the transcendence of sport. A game invented in the cold, clammy greens of England by stoic stiff upper-lippers was imagined to be played in a spirit of equanimity but the natural nature of Man imposed. The Bodyline series caused a diplomatic row between Australia and the mother country and threatened the unity of the British Empire. Even 90 years later the English captain Douglas Jardine is unpopular in Australia. It remains an emotional matter.
The trend continued. Clive Lloyd's team was mocked by the English cricket team captain. Tony Grieg was a South African by birth and said he would make the West Indies “grovel”. It was 1976, racism was rampant. The word “grovel” coming from a white, blonde person who grew up in an apartheid country stung his black opponents. It blistered. It scorched. It inspired the West Indians to absolutely annihilate England, their fast bowlers running in like a howling gale and batsmen brutally bludgeoning the ball. English opener Brian Close paid for the taunt with golf ball-sized bruises all over his body. Finally, broken in body and spirit, Grieg kneeled in the ground to placate the West Indies and their supporters. Emotions running wild.
Pakistan is a post-colonial country that had a difficult birth. Small wonder that victory over England in the 1954 Oval test remains a much-recalled event. Beating the former masters in their own country just a few years after independence from them. What could be sweeter? Two centuries of loot and plunder may have denuded the resources and it would take decades of sound policies and industrial growth to catch up. But cricket could be the equalizer. That was the case in 1954. That is the case today. Its always emotional.
The disappointments that followed since 1947 have only made the stakes higher in cricket. In 75 years, the country has regressed. Other than a few sporting trophies and medals, its presence on the global stage has been missing or cast in a negative light. It has faced constant political turmoil, lost a war, been split apart, and fallen behind not only its eastern neighbour but also its former half. Today it faces economic, societal, and ecological challenges. In a country where currently nothing is right and where things have generally not been right for 75 years, a cricket victory means a lot more than it would in a developed country.
Pakistanis are divided by politics, language, ethnicity, race, class, and even religion. When two Pakistanis meet, they form three political parties. Eid is celebrated on different dates and people are killed in the name of faith. Social fabric has been torn asunder. Cricket is the only unifier. It transcends class, creed, and culture.
When Pakistan wins, the chairman of a bank is as happy as the guard who stands at his office’s gate. They can share that moment, have a collective memory.
And so here we are. The hopes, desires, and disappointments of 220 million persons fall on 11 men who step on the green to salvage national pride and give people something to cheer about. Is there any wonder that multiple generations of Pakistanis still recall World Cup 1992 with such fondness? Is there any wonder that Pakistan’s defeats plunge the nation into mourning and victories are lapped up gratefully?
On the morning Pakistan qualified for the World Cup final in 1992 people rushed out of their homes and started hugging their neighbors like it was Eid. A former federal secretary had similar sentiments for Pakistan’s 2017 Champions Trophy victory, he called it a “second Eid”. Yes, its emotional.
When Pakistan win, the average Pakistani, beset by issues and problems can for a few moments lay down his burden and forget about the trials and tribulations prevalent all around him and which seem to be beyond his country’s leadership.
The labourer can stop worrying about crushing inflation and a dim future. He dances a few jigs because of a victory by his team. The expatriates in Houston, London, Dubai, or Sydney can avoid the continuous negative news emanating from their mother country and joyfully yell “Pakistan Zindabad!”
Today everyone knows the emperors are nude, that the problems are huge, that it will take decades of correct actions to get things on tracks. This may well be beyond the decision makers, and this too is sinking in. We are bereft of sense from top and short on hope. Justice is crippled, treasury empty, future uncertain. In the meantime we all need a bit of joy. Nay, we desperately need it. True, cricket will not solve the gargantuan problems but when Pakistan win, our hearts lift for a few moments before being dragged back to reality. Those moments matter. As Ezra Pound said, we need roses even in the middle of a world war. We need all the happiness we can grab.
Those in their towers of ivory will continue to scoff and tut-tut. They dismissively say that cricket not a matter of life and death. Given the conditions, they are completely right. Indeed, cricket is not a matter of life and death.
It is much bigger than that.
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