Kids play cricket in a street

Home is where you play in the streets at all hours

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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.


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