Kids play cricket in a street

Home is where you play in the streets at all hours

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7

Dear Cricket Monthly

Home is where the cricket is

Letter from… Islamabad

Saad Sayeed

Dear Cricket Monthly,

I went to class the morning after the match and my professor, of Irish descent, jokingly announced that everyone should share in a moment's silence to mourn the demise of Pakistan cricket. The year was 2007, and a vaunted Pakistan side led by Inzamam-ul-Haq had squandered a straightforward (on paper, at least) World Cup match to Ireland. I was studying in Toronto at the time and working as a freelance cricket writer. The morning after the match, Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer was found dead in his hotel room. Since that World Cup, until this summer's tour of England, I did not write on cricket. In the nine years in between, I actively watched only a handful of matches. On that day in 2007 I found myself falling out of love with cricket. In the years since, I tried to rekindle that love but never quite succeeded, until this summer. It took leaving Canada and moving back to Pakistan to make it happen.

When you pack your bags and move from the place you were born to another country, it raises certain existential questions about belonging and what constitutes this idea of "home". You try to recreate it in the new place, sometimes on a large scale and at other times in smaller ways. Food is probably the most common association with home, as it touches all the senses. For me, as surely is the case for many other migrants from former British colonies, cricket is another. It binds us to our place of origin, conjuring forgotten memories: skipping school to watch the 1992 World Cup final, shedding tears when Darren Lehmann hit the winning runs to thwart Pakistani hopes in 1999, arguing about who the better bowler is between Wasim and Waqar, playing in the streets till the sun rises the next morning. In all these moments there was hope, despair, jubilation, or conviction in one's argument. One cricketing event or another marked every year of my life up to the point I moved to Canada.

The academic part of me has wondered for many years about how to understand "home" outside a framework of nationalism. How can we think about where we come from and the emotion attached to it without saying "I love my country" or evoking symbols of national culture? I have a similar question about cricket: can our love for the game, and the national team, exist outside a nationalist affiliation?

I realise that everything - memories, relationships, hope, despair and happiness - is cricket. I realise that in cricket I can find the meaning of home

I ask this because nationalism is a blind love for one's country that often excludes space for dissent and critique. And it is also a somewhat monolithic identity, where who you are is determined by belonging to a group based on ethnicity, religion or citizenship, or sometimes all three - as if this defines who we are in a natural manner. It is important to rescue the idea of home from this framework. I like to think that underneath it is a more personal cultivation of identity and belonging based on relationships, experiences, smells, tastes and sights. One of these, I am certain, is a red leather ball missing the edge of a piece of willow by no more than a fraction of a millimetre, caught by a player wearing funny-looking gloves, followed by ten other players in all white placing their hands on their heads and exclaiming, "Oooooohhh!"

After what happened at the 2007 World Cup, everything else I knew about Pakistan cricket, the players, the administrators, the match-fixing, became too much to handle emotionally. The damning knowledge I had accumulated, and the disconnect created by moving to a place where cricket was peripheral, made it all the more difficult to follow the game. Cricket kept tugging at me and I tuned in for a few series here and there. I got excited about watching a young Mohammad Amir bowl in England. We all know how that ended. I followed Misbah-ul-Haq's Test wins against England and Australia, and while I appreciated the grit this unheralded bunch displayed, I monitored the game from a distance.

All this happened while I lived in Toronto. So distancing myself from cricket also became a metaphor for leaving behind my home in Karachi. With every passing year it seemed that Toronto was going to be a permanent residence, making cricket outwardly less a part of who I was. But like Sunday biryani lunches, the smell of sand and saltwater, midnight card games with friends, and arguments about democracy versus dictatorship, cricket remained a powerful memory and an everlasting part of my story and identity.

Ireland and after: 2007 was a good year in which to fall out of love with cricket

Ireland and after: 2007 was a good year in which to fall out of love with cricket Jewel Samad / © AFP

There is something intangible connected to the game that I still cannot identify. I used to think it was related to the team as a symbol of hope and achievement for a nation, but I no longer subscribe to that idea. There is certainly a nationalistic element, but the individuated experience of being a cricket lover, of playing, watching, and having the game form a backdrop to so much of our lives is much bigger. So many Sunday lunches were around a Test match, countless card games played alongside the roar of a lively ODI, so much time spent with friends and family was punctuated and propelled by cricket.

This June I returned to Pakistan after 12 years, barring short, perfunctory visits every few years. I was surprised to find myself excited to watch the Test series in England and the long-awaited return of Amir. Could he restore my love for the game? I am here as a political journalist, but within weeks of coming back I was handed two cricket assignments by former colleagues. I found myself at the Gaddafi Stadium, speaking to officials at the PCB, walking through the room where I once attended press conferences, running into people who still remembered my name, looking at the ground where Umar Gul ran through a fine Indian batting side in 2004, where Shoaib Akhtar knocked out Gary Kirsten six months earlier, where Mohammad Yousuf scored a lovely double-hundred against England in 2005. I had seen all these matches at the ground, as a reporter. But I had not been back since. The frenzy that accompanies the sport once again seeped into my veins.

After 2007 I felt like cricket was nothing. That it was a sport I could discard and forget about. Every now and then I kept coming back to it, just to see if there was anything in it for me. Being back in Pakistan, watching the Test series against England, talking to friends about the game, getting phone calls from my dad every time something dramatic took place, experiencing the emotions and feelings once again, being in the middle of it all, I realise that everything - memories, relationships, hope, despair and happiness - is cricket. I realise that in cricket I can find the meaning of home.

Thoughtfully,
Saad

Saad Sayeed is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. He is a former assistant editor at the Herald magazine and political columnist at the News

 

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  • POSTED BY Sumit on | November 1, 2016, 9:55 GMT

    Thanks for a piece of writing that will resonate with many. I wonder if someone born in a cricket environment can ever truly fall out of love with it. You may reduce the hours spent watching cricket on TV, due to long working hours, or moving to a different time zone, or having one's hands full with a young family. You may become disenchanted with poor administration, match fixing scandals, or just plain fatigue at one's favorite team's prolonged loss of form. You may switch off from cricket if all your favourite players retire within a short time and you just don't have the same love for the new guys. Whatever the reasons for one's temporary coldness towards cricket, I think the love for this game is almost always lying latent, ready to bounce back given a chance. There is a magic and resilience in cricket, that ensures those who have tasted it in your formative years will forever be under its spell, even when they think they are released from it.

  • POSTED BY Biba on | October 30, 2016, 18:16 GMT

    "I realise that everything - memories, relationships, hope, despair and happiness - is cricket" this line sums up the meaning of cricket for my life as well. What a masterpiece article, i was feeling like it is describing exact my feelings for cricket. My day starts up with cricket and it ends up on cricket as well.

  • POSTED BY Dexters on | October 30, 2016, 9:36 GMT

    Excellent article. As an Indian fan, can only Imagine how important last season was. Very inspired performance.

  • POSTED BY iqbal7861 on | October 29, 2016, 13:03 GMT

    looking forward to reading some more material from you Saad Bhai, keep up the good work.

  • POSTED BY jaswant on | October 29, 2016, 13:02 GMT

    A masterpiece which speaks of the maternal (home) pain every migrant suffers. Achievements in all its forms will never ever be enough to sever the uncompromising love for home. The memories are like priceless jewels which surrenders only to death. The second paragraph touches my heart. As a Guyanese who permanently lives in the USA, I feel the pain to be away from home. And yes,the food,the friends,the villages,the deep culture,cricket and everything else resonates deeply in me. I vividly remember Pakistan's loosing to Ireland and the mystery surrounding Bob Woolmer's death. Cricket has been a huge part of my life like so many billions and I keep in close contact with all its happenings.Congratulation to Misbah's led team which has demolished a struggling WI side.I love this article,it appeals to every cell in my body.

  • POSTED BY Dhanyal on | October 29, 2016, 12:16 GMT

    Since 2009 I also lost my love for cricket, but like Mr. Saad stated and I believe him being in love with cricket I always looked back to see whether there was something for me, this summer watching England series I I found myself back in it. True emotions, excellent simple narration. Keep writing please.

  • POSTED BY Vinod on | October 29, 2016, 11:48 GMT

    Beyooootiful piece of writing.....thoroughly enjoyed this.....what a fantastic description of nationalism and identity.....plz keep writing,,,kudos.....awesome....!