Pakistan fans celebrate
© Getty Images

Essay

Strange love

A lifetime of supporting cricket's most infuriating team, and now five years of no home international cricket, places the Pakistani fan in a unique predicament

Ahmer Naqvi |

The sun has just set over Hattian, a small peri-urban area about an hour's drive from Islamabad, and I am sitting on a sofa on the open roof of a small building. The building is right on the edge of a road first built about 2000 years ago, and tonight heavy trucks with neon-lit geometrical designs go roaring down on it, their luminescent decorations like blurred trails in the twilight. I look at the rampaging trucks while I wait for a match to begin on a TV hooked up to a wire that emerges from a mangrove-like mass of other wires.

Pakistan versus India at the World T20, and as the Pakistani openers walk out, the call to Maghrib prayers rings out. At least half of the assembled crowd silently files into a small room near the television, where they form a congregation and begin praying. As the rest of us watch the batsmen limber up, a rakish man with his shalwar tied at a distinctive height above his ankles, hair neatly oiled and light kohl in his eyes, takes his place in the crowd. He soon starts pointing at the congregation and hisses that they are committing a sin. He asks, rhetorically, why they haven't bothered going to the nearby mosque. No one responds, and when he leaves muttering under his breath, a few grin. When I ask about him later, everyone dismisses him.

It is a cliché to describe cricket in the subcontinent as a religion, even if the situation is as symbolically loaded as above. I was only there to visit a friend, and to get a feel for this piece. My brief was to try to understand and explain what made the Pakistani fan unique. When I began pondering this, I came across many such examples that showcased Pakistanis' love for the game. But at the same time, the more examples I came across, the less sure I was: after all, sports fans the world over share many characteristics and failings. So what made Pakistanis unique?

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Pakistan fans are more likely to put up a picture of a cricketer doing something non cricket related than any other fans. Discuss.
- @ajarrodkimber

Jarrod Kimber's tweet raises some fascinating questions. Pakistan lacks alternatives for celebrity worship, and after decades of oppression of the arts, cricket genuinely cuts across a massive and diverse population in a way little else does. Everywhere you look you find cricket, every facet of society seems to bear the game's reflection, whether it's religion, politics, music, gender, advertisements, films, memes, or even symbols of national identity; cricket is an integral part of Pakistan. It is a country that struggles to acknowledge its myriad languages and cultures, a country that struggles to find space for its bewildering diversity of beliefs and traditions, and yet it is a country that has increasingly found itself in cricket.

A country that, remember, for the last five years has hosted no international cricket.

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Blessed with sharp wit, trenchant opinions and a proclivity for the graveyard shift, Suhayb Alavi is a bit of a cult figure at the news channels he has worked for as a producer. Generally he is remarkably laidback, but he possesses an unnerving poker face that, combined with his heft, makes him appear quite dangerous at times. It is odd to imagine him being scared of anything, like when he describes his first experience of going to a stadium. Episodes of police lathi charges in the general stands in the 1970s and 1980s meant he had to wait until he was well into his teens to see his heroes in the flesh. He describes the trepidation during his first visit, finally relieved by the "tight security… awesome festivity, and no hungama".

Everywhere you look you find cricket, every facet of society seems to bear the game's reflection, whether it's religion, politics, music, gender, advertisements, films, memes, or even symbols of national identity

When I ask him how he feels about cricket no longer being played in the country, he says: "We don't need this generation to treat cricket the way we had to treat Indian movies - if you wanted to watch Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge in the cinema, you had to go to Dubai. Now you have to do the same for cricket."

Not that making such a journey would be out of the question. When Pakistan beat West Indies in the quarter-final of the 2011 World Cup, Sana Kazmi had five days to arrange transport, match tickets and, above all, a visa to her country's traditionally hostile neighbour. All she had was a hashtag - #GetTheGirlsToMohali - and blind faith. It goes without saying that she got there.

Epic journeys are undertaken within the country as well. Ahmed Hassan's first match involved leaving his village at 5am with little money, on the off chance of getting tickets for an ODI against England in Rawalpindi in 2005 (he did). He makes sure to visit as many village tournaments as he can in the spring, when the fields have been harvested and are free for cricket. He tells legends of a batsman called Richie (after Richie Richardson) who is an unrepentant fixer and who once hit Sohail Tanvir for multiple sixes.

Mariam Mehdi's cricket-mad parents raised their children the same way, which meant forsaking the usual Pakistani dinner-time discussions on politics (national, provincial or extended family) to delve into cricket. When Mohammad Amir dismissed Tillakaratne Dilshan in one of cricket's great opening overs, in the 2009 World T20 final, the family made so much noise that the superintendent of their Abu Dhabi apartment building showed up thinking there was an emergency.

Mehdi has at least one important future trip mapped out. "To be honest, I don't expect international cricket to return anytime soon but the day it happens I'm booking my flight and flying to the National Stadium or Gaddafi or wherever they plan to play it."

We all know why and how international cricket left Pakistan. But what it confirmed was that cricket lies right in the middle of a political, civil and security imbroglio that threatens not just the game's existence but the country's future potential. Other teams' fans can complain of merely corrupt owners or venal administrators; the Pakistani cricket fan, on the other hand, is dragged into a bigger picture - far bigger than the game itself.

The void left by the instability and incompetence of those running the game has created unprecedented space for fans, and nothing captures this dynamic better than what the ubiquitous fan-driven website Pakpassion experienced in the summer of 2010.

Women in Pakistan are increasingly breaking male stereotypes on how cricket fans ought to behave

Women in Pakistan are increasingly breaking male stereotypes on how cricket fans ought to behave © AFP

In many ways the story of Pakpassion represents the classic promise and potential of the internet in Pakistani society. Initially a sub-forum in a larger website, it was taken over by the British-born Sajid Sadiq in the early 2000s, who tried to focus on "quality discussions and water-tight moderating". It quickly developed into a sprawling social space, with its forums contributing to the development of a canon of conversations on cricket as well as a lot more. Soon the site's enterprising volunteers - fans - were interviewing former and current cricketers, and players themselves were turning to the website.

Several years later, one of the interviewees, a coach called Nadeem Iqbal, requested that Pakpassion try to introduce a seven-foot bowler he knew to Aaqib Javed, then the head of the National Cricket Academy (NCA). The Pakpassion fans managed to get Aaqib to take a look, but the seven-footer, Mohammad Irfan, who worked in a pipe factory, had no equipment, lodging, or suitable diet. The fans stepped in, raising the funds required and contacting their vast networks to try to fulfil what they thought was their best shot - getting Irfan a first-class team and steady employment from the game.

The whole tale is exhilarating: a fan-driven cult website pushing the inert levers of postcolonial institutions to achieve something wonderful and life-changing. Yet there was a typically Pakistani twist to the fantastical tale, and by the time Irfan made his debut in an ODI against England in 2010, the website was engulfed in a serious crisis.

That ODI took place right after the earth-shattering spot-fixing allegations, which implicated three Pakistani players and Mazhar Majeed, a player agent. Mazhar was a regular commenter on the website, where his brother Azhar Majeed had a blog. The chummy access that allowed Mazhar to introduce players to the fix was also what made Azhar an interesting blogger. The day the news broke Sajid's phone was melting with calls and messages as he scrambled to put out a press release explaining the website's complete lack of knowledge regarding Mazhar's criminal activities.

"What I learnt is similar to what Amir said after his trial," Sajid tells me over a Skype call. "Be careful of who you trust. No one's got 'fixer' written on their foreheads." Pakpassion's personal trauma was also a national one for Pakistan. Coming a year after the Lahore terrorist attack, it coincided with the country's worst-ever natural disaster, after what had been its bloodiest year in terms of terrorism. It was bad enough to be known to the world as terrorists, but now terrorists and also fixers?

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"Yeh shaam phir nahee ayegi / Iss shaam ko, iss saath ko / Aao / Amar karlain"
("This evening will not return / This evening, this moment / Come, let us make it eternal")
"Yeh Shaam", Vital Signs

"Tapti dhoop talay / Chaon ki hai talaash / Tasub ki dhool thamay / To milay shanakht"
("I'm searching for shade in a heat that beats down / And I find out who I am when I'm covered in prejudice's dirt.")
"Talaash", Junoon

March 1989 saw the release of Vital Signs 1 and in October, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram played together for the first time. In January 1993, the two Ws ripped out the Kiwis in Hamilton to mark a heady peak. In September, Junoon released their seminal album Talaash. The two pacers and the two rock bands - Vital Signs and Junoon - are still revered as the original gods of their generation, and their roughly parallel rise saw the advent of a new era in Pakistan. After a decade of the most socially, culturally and politically stifling rule in the country's history - that of Zia-ul-Haq - the rise of rock stars on and away from the pitch redefined the way a young Pakistan saw itself. Their swagger and confidence gave the youth new heroes, who they could use to replace the artists, writers and poets who were tortured, exiled or repressed by the military dictatorship of the 1980s.

© AFP

Like the Ws, Vital Signs and Junoon weren't as chalk-and-cheese as our memories sometimes make them out to be, and what made all four so special was that while they could do what others had done before, they stretched out the ideas of what we thought possible. Like the bowlers, the bands matured and evolved over time without ever losing the ability to be exhilarating. But even as music and cricket defined society for people of a certain generation, the two forces went on divergent paths.

Vital Signs and Junoon became victims of their success, struggling to deal with personal demons as well as unprecedented social pressures. The role of Pepsi in hastening the demise of Vital Signs is well documented: they kept pushing more tour dates, more events and more pop-friendly love songs, sternly resisting the band's moves towards the Pink Floyd-inspired melancholy that would eventually become their identity. Junoon meanwhile had to deal with pressures from the state. After releasing a song about corruption, the band found themselves the target of a TV ban on long hair and "jeans and jacket culture".

In contrast, when a combination of youthful bravado and commercialism's destructive impulses played out in cricket, this is how the establishment reacted:

"[…] this commission is left with no option but to hold Wasim Akram not guilty of the charge of match-fixing… This is done on the ground of insufficient evidence. Wasim is barely saved through Ata-ur-Rehman's discrediting himself and Aamir Sohail's actions."
- Justice Malik Qayyum, 2000

"Two things - one, I didn't want that the cricket should be deprived of [Wasim Akram's] participation, and the other was that I didn't want that towards the end of his career... he should be banned or something like that. My idea was not to find people guilty and then punish them."
- Justice Malik Qayyum, 2006

While the rock stars of music were fading out, the rock stars of cricket were exonerated. Most of those caught in the shadow of match-fixing were precisely the sort of players the public lionised - match-winners. They were a brand of match-winners responsible for perfecting the intoxicating, mercurial cricket Osman Samiuddin described as "the haal of Pakistan". The likes of Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Akhtar emerged, perpetuating the idea of cricket as the field of dreams. Even Misbah-ul-Haq, who rose to prominence in the aftermath of the 2010 fixing scandal as a straight-batted anti-hero, has become a cult figure. For Pakistani fans, the anti-hero became just another genre of hero.

Other teams' fans can complain of merely corrupt owners or venal administrators. The Pakistani cricket fan, on the other hand, is dragged into a bigger picture - far bigger than the game itself

Did religion, that other major concern of Pakistanis, have anything to do with it? After the Qayyum report, a number of tainted players became far more publicly religious. This era also coincided with the rise of the "religious celebrity". Several televangelists and popular clerics had taken to "reawakening" popular personalities, mostly former actors and singers. The most famous is one ex-rock star, Junaid Jamshed, the former Vital Signs frontman. But this genre of celebrity really took off once cricket stars came on board. Soon fans were posting pictures of cricketers visiting important shrines and religious gatherings, and performing pilgrimages. These days even the once notoriously colourful Afridi, and the perennially colourful Shoaib, turn up at religious events. It makes for wildly popular images on social media and raises new, still-forming questions about fandom and religion, and the idea of worship that welds them together.

In the early '90s, when my generation got hooked on cricket, Pakistan was still a country with world champions in several sports, where pop music was exploding, where TV dramas would leave cities transfixed, where films could still occasionally boast house-full signs. But as the new millennium approached, hockey, snooker and squash had spectacularly collapsed, cinema was in its death throes, and TV and music were drowning in a broken economy. Through it all cricket not only continued to survive and prosper, it became an omnipresent super-culture, its details and dramas known to even those who didn't care for it. For a nation that was constantly losing its heroes, those of cricket were the only ones left standing.

Eventually cricket became everything.

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"It is not about women being given the same chances, the same opportunities, the same positions as men. Why? Because we are different, because we don't need to aim this low, because we need to be ourselves and figure our own selves out. We need to love ourselves, rather than hate men."
- From "What's Yours Is Mine", posted on the blog Zunn, by Bhai****

Junoon's Ali Azmat: like the two W's and Vital Signs, the band matured without losing the ability to be exhilarating

Junoon's Ali Azmat: like the two W's and Vital Signs, the band matured without losing the ability to be exhilarating © AFP

Cricket, like most if not all sports in Pakistan, is almost exclusively a male preserve. When the discussion turns towards women in sports, it inevitably involves looking at women in what are understood to be male roles. In that regard, Pakistan has had sporadic but important success, ranging from the dedicated rise to professionalism of the women's cricket team, to the efforts of journalists like Afia Salam, the editor of the Cricketer (Pakistan), and Fareshteh Gati-Aslam, who reported fearlessly on match-fixing.

In recent times cricket in Pakistan has also seen the rise of female fans loving the game on their own terms. "I've never actually played cricket except twice a year on the beach, so I'm sure I can't understand its technicalities as well as people who do," says Sana Kazmi, she of the Mohali jaunt. "But I never claimed to be a technical expert, so it's cute to see men telling me I don't know how to hold a bat when they don't rate a player I like, or when they find a stat I quote as unrepresentative."

Both Kazmi and Mariam Mehdi complain of how tiresome it is to be constantly tested by male fans, or be expected to prove that they understand the game's rules, history and nuances. Mehdi says: "Guys are less likely to engage in a sports conversation with a female than they are with males. When I say my favourite player is KP, guys usually reply with a comment about his looks, implying that is probably why I like him."

Crucially, they and countless others have refused to be in the thrall of male-determined standards of fandom, nor have they let themselves be defined by the prejudices directed at them. "I refuse to not talk about, say, how pretty a fast bowler's hair is just because I want to be taken more seriously by men, because 1) why should I care? 2) it's a big part of the experience of watching and enjoying cricket for me, and 3) it gets more wickets," Kazmi declares.

This is not to say that cricket fandom changes lives. Pakistani women don't have it easy. But as it does for all else, cricket creates a temporary oasis, or a carnival where the rules are temporarily reversed, the reservations briefly relaxed.

No moment captures this better for me than the celebrations that took place after Pakistan won the World T20 in 2009. In areas and streets where women were, and still are, harassed and ogled, for one night the rules changed, and they were free to dance and sing with abandon. I remember ducking beneath an underpass that night, horns blaring and passengers hanging out of the door, when we came up to another car beside us. Inside, an aged lady in a burqa rolled down her window, pushed aside her veil and flashed a giant toothless grin and a proud victory sign.

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"… cricket here is not just about court cases, and dysfunctional players and management. It lives and it breathes… Instead of worrying about when teams will tour Pakistan again, perhaps we should turn our attentions to the domestic scene once more and rejoice in it."
- Osman Samiuddin, ESPNcricinfo

Fans pour into the streets of Islamabad to celebrate Pakistan's World T20 win in 2009

Fans pour into the streets of Islamabad to celebrate Pakistan's World T20 win in 2009 © AFP

The first surprise was that the only available tickets were in black. Sure, it was a weekend, but there were still a few hours for the match to begin and only the smaller of the host city's two teams was going to be playing. Yet the makeshift PCB stalls had apocalyptic crowds swarming around unmanned posts, while touts were selling extremely cheap tickets for twice their value. This was semi-finals day outside Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium for the 2014 edition of the Faysal Bank T20, and it was going to be a full house.

Domestic T20s have always been popular in Pakistan. In many ways the format brings to life most fans' experiences of playing in the streets and in crowded, cramped spaces, as well as celebrating the improvisation of the amateur. I remember attending one match in 2006 at Karachi's National Stadium, where the atmosphere lacked the police-state terror of normal matches, and fans smuggled in cigarettes and contraband. Eventually some of those letting loose even climbed on the stadium's creaking roofs. The experience was electric.

The proliferation of T20s has allowed for a gradual reshaping not only of the domestic scape but of the fan's interaction with it. One result of the 2009 Lahore terror attacks was that domestic T20s are now the only way to see national stars and exciting cricket live and in the flesh. When I went to the tournament in 2006, it was still a bit of a lark. In 2014 it was the highest-quality live cricket on offer in the country for months.

But it's still too early to know what this may mean. Pakistani domestic cricket has always been unloved by fans because, unlike in other countries, domestic teams are corporate sides: it was difficult to become an ultra-fan of Allied Bank, for example. T20 has started giving regional identities space again. This has helped rouse interest in domestic cricket among fans, but there is little doubt it is also a consequence of the format. Pakistani fans love it because it evokes the sort of chaos and entertainment they identify with.

What we saw in Rawalpindi that night was something from a more innocent era - an extremely diverse and democratic crowd of all ages taking in cricket as escape and entertainment, rid of lathi-wielding cops and overbearing social norms. Instead of the constant paranoia about misbehaving single men and harassed families, all we saw was a sea of genuine excitement. The crowd had some sense of home support, but mostly they bellowed with lusty cheers any time a famous national star made it to the crease. The migrant labourers yelled for Younis Khan, while those from the plains roared every time Saeed Ajmal came in. Perhaps surprisingly, given that being persecuted is part of his identity, the biggest cheers were saved for Captain Misbah.

It was a space where cricket was living and breathing for the Pakistani fan, despite all else.

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"Aaj iss ground mei koi Muslim, Hindu ya Eesaii nahi - iss mulk ka ghareeb utray ga! Qassam khao ke tum nahi darro ge, tum aaj nahi darro ge."
("Today a Muslim, Hindu or Christian won't step on to this ground - this country's poor will! Promise that you will not be scared - you will not be scared today.")
- From Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (2013)

The year 2013 was celebrated for Pakistani cinema's long-awaited revival, as the country's brand-new multiplexes had the chance to play Pakistani films distinguished by both their modern content and filming approaches. The two biggest hits of the year, though, stuck closely to the particular demands of South Asian films: easily identifiable heroes and villains, and a tale of morality. What made these films different, however, was that they were set in urban locales and in contemporary contexts.

Lahore's Iqbal Park plays host to a swarm of matches at any given time

Lahore's Iqbal Park plays host to a swarm of matches at any given time © Getty Images

The biggest hit was Waar, in which a good guy (Pakistani) cop battles terrorism orchestrated by a local group controlled by an Indian agent - a predictably popular action film context.

The second was Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, where a team of working-class boys are led by a good-guy ex-Pakistan captain who is framed for match-fixing by his evil father-in-law, who also owns the rich-boy team that the good guys beat in a big national final. What made this film fascinating was that it showcased cricket as a popularly accepted route at making it big as a winner and a hero in the country's imagination. A review by the critic Rafay Mahmood described the film as "[an] attempt to manufacture a 'Great Pakistani Dream', where individuals unite and fight for something irrespective of religion and ethnicity". This is a crucial insight, since it explicitly links cricket not only to mass appeal but more importantly to mass appeal that is not pandering to jingoism or exclusionary ideals.

This is where Pakistani cricket fans find themselves today - in a society and a country where cricket is everything and everywhere; where cricket serves as one of the fullest expressions of identity, where it manages to subsume the myriad diversities of the idea of being Pakistani and presents it as a whole.

And all this where there is no live international cricket to be experienced. This is the unique situation of the Pakistani fan today, whose life and recent history has led to a moment where cricket has come to mean more than most things, at a time when, ironically, cricket has gone into exile.

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I know that cricket will return one day, and when it does, I have little doubt that it will do so in a country very different from what it is now. Perhaps it won't even be a country where cricket is as central to society anymore. Perhaps the forces that bring about the peace will also unleash new voices, new contexts and platforms to project a sense of self. Until then, we still have cricket.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal

 

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