A few days ago in London I was flipping through my morning paper when I came upon a picture of a gleaming new cricket ground. Dubai to provide crickets new oasis the headline said.
I already knew,of course,that there would be no international cricket played in Pakistan in the forseeable future following on from the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore,and it didnt take any act of genius to forecast that the Gulf states,with their large Pakistani (not to mention Indian and Bangladeshi) populations and available cricket ground,would become the alternative venue. Even so,to be confronted with pictures of the closest thing Pakistan would soon have to a home ground moved me to a state of melancholy. I found myself thinking of the status update on a friends Facebook page which declared she was already missing the sound of plastic bottles hitting stadium chairs. There are,of course,plastic bottles in Dubai,and Pakistanis enough there who will know that the true sound of cricket spectatorship,particularly during ODIs,is not cheering or applauding but the thwacking of those empty bottles against the backs of chairs. But even so,there is a sadness to outsourcing that noise,that jubilation. It is a sadness so visceral that it does not even detour via the logical pathways of the brain the ones that ask questions such as: how will the tickets be priced will there be relatively affordable stands or will all but the wealthiest be priced out of spectatorship as is the case with international matches at venues such as Lords?
Instead,the only question that keeps coming back is,why does this feel quite so momentous when the majority of Pakistanis follow cricket via radio or TV,which will still be an option,and when history has shown that games dont lose any of their potency if theyre played in the Gulf (and here although it feels impolite to do so in an Indian newspaper I cant help but invoking Miandads six off the last delivery of the Nehru Cup final in 1986,played at Sharjah). The most obvious answer is a purely selfish one: I may no longer live in Karachi,but Im there every year during the winter when international cricket is played; on the other hand,Ive never been to Dubai and feel no urge to go there (or didnt until I saw the picture of that cricket ground).
But the other reason has to do with the particular history of my hometown,Karachi,and international cricket. Through much of the 90s,when my cricket fervour was at its peak,Karachi was considered too unsafe for international cricket. So time and again,even though the National Stadium is the second-largest cricket ground in the country and Karachi the largest city,visiting teams would leave Karachi off their itinerary. Between the West Indies test match in Karachi in 1990 and their next test there in 1997 only one test match was played at the National Stadium (Australia,in 1994). Thanks to the 1995-96 World Cup the ODI scene look a little better,but if you excluded the World Cup matches,the scene was fairly dismal Australia,England,India: none of these teams came to play between December 1990 and September 1997. And the West Indies,Sri Lanka,New Zealand,South Africa played only one game each during that time. This at a time when Pakistans cricketers were the World Cup champions (1992-6).
Every time a touring side bypassed Karachi it would serve as reminder of the volatility and precariousness of life in the city; the lack of cricket became symbolic of the absence of peace and security. In one of those vicious ironies of life the people who most needed escapism (from a city in flames) were the ones denied it (precisely because of those flames). Because,of course,nothing says escapism in Pakistan quite like a day at the cricket ground,where everything else is blocked out in a way that simply isnt possible when youre watching at home on TV.
If the absence of cricket was symbolic of violence,then a return to cricket was symbolic of the restoration or at least the promise of peace. I was at the National Stadium in 2004 for Indias first ODI in Pakistan during that historical tour. Many people on either side of the border remember the rousing reception Karachi gave to the Indian cricketers and spectators; fewer realise the extent to which cricket and security had become entwined in the minds of Karachiwallas,and how much a part that played in the atmosphere of the day (which is to take away nothing from the genuine warmth the crowd extended to the visitors). We knew we still werent entirely in the clear,though after all,the Indian teams had decided that Karachi wasnt safe enough as a Test venue,and could only be risked for a single day. But at the end of that ODI Indian cricketing officials publicly said they would certainly play a Test in Karachi next time round and so they did. Peace seemed within our grasp.
In the midst of violence it seems impossible to imagine a way out. But in Karachi,in 2004,we didnt merely imagine that way out,we actually felt ourselves propelled through the exit. I hope to be in the National Stadium a few years down the line when we get to do so again. I hope.
Shamsies latest novel,Burnt Shadows,is published this month
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