Unlike Imran’s cornered tigers of ’92, Sarfraz’s boys didn’t have it in them to justify cricket’s famous dread ‘you never know with Pakistan’.
Why is Nadeem Omar just disappointed, and not surprised, that Pakistan have all but bowed out of the World Cup? But first, who is Omar? He is the owner of Pakistan Super League franchise Quetta Gladiators where Sarfraz Ahmed is the captain. But Omar is also the patron saint of Pakistan cricket in some ways. He runs cricket clubs, promotes young talent, and funds grassroot development of the game in the country. Who got Viv Richards to PSL? He did. Who is the genial godfather of many young players? He is. But why isn’t he angry?
“Is team mein voh jaan nahi hai, (It doesn’t have the spark). This team is different.” But what about all that 1992 talk? Omar laughs. A wry, almost sad, dry laughter. A laugh bereft of joy. “That team, once it got on a roll, you knew it would go all the way. At least do something special.”
What about the accusations and annoyance at India for going easy in the end overs against England? “First, we have to set our house in order. There is no use looking elsewhere for scapegoats. Bakra nahin dhoondna hai, apne andar dekho pehle. Right now, the fans are searching for conspiracy theories but in my opinion, all that is needless. Did we really think and believe that this team could have gone all the way? You can fool the world, not yourself,” Omar says from Pakistan. He doesn’t buy the desperate fans’ arguments that if only Pakistan had gone through, they would have won the Cup.
Over the years, at Omar’s house, Sarfraz would come and sing at the mehfils. Naats, (poetry as ode to the Prophet) and even songs from Bollywood movies. There is a video that Omar shared couple of years ago from an Independence Day celebratory night at his house. There is Sarfraz, in a kurta, legs folded, sat under a shamiana and baring his soul. He first sings “Mera paigham Pakistan”, a beautiful rendition that fills the air. Someone sends a note across – viewers request. “Baharon phool barsao, mera mehboob aaya hai,” Sarfraz sings to great appreciation.
Just after the 2017 Champions Trophy, those lyrics could well have been sung about Sarfraz himself. An enthralled Pakistan, it seemed, had landed at his house, hanging on ledges and cheering for their star waving from the balcony. Every nook and corner around the mohalla damp with human sweat. A myth slowly built around him. Look, there is Sarfraz coming out at 4 am to meet a handicapped child. There he is jesting with a newspaper sports editor, who used to criticise him in print, but didn’t take it to heart. Then the lights went out suddenly.
In the 1980s, it was bright, and used to light up small towns in India. In the outskirts of Kancheepuram, a small temple and silk-saree town in southern India, just outside a small school, stood a magnificent banyan tree where kids would hang about on the branches. That’s where one first heard it: “Allah hu Akbar, anju-paisa rubber, Miandad adichaan sixer, pudichaan Gavaskar! (Allah hu Akbar, five-paisa rubber, Miandad hit a sixer, caught by Gavaskar)
The cricket ditty just about rhymed, and was devoid of any meaning, but it has stuck in the mind, and loops around in the head when India play Pakistan. It was well before that crafty Javed Miandad hit that six in Sharjah, but when he eventually did, and Gavaskar or Krish Srikkanth, the man whose head the ball flew over at deep midwicket and who was left slapping his hands in disappointment, the ditty took on a mysterious spine-tingling turn for some of us.
Watching India play Pakistan was one of the life-defining experiences in the 80’s. The Doordarshan logo spiralling out of control, the saree-clad lady presenter taking us to unknown places in the rest of India where matches would be held, and if the telecast was interrupted, we would have to hear the dreaded announcement, “Aayiye dekhte hain Bharatiyam” (a cultural event of sorts).
But the point beyond the silly nostalgia was that in the 80s, cricket against Pakistan meant something. It set you up for rejection, for bliss, for unexplained hurts, and for blues – and, most importantly, matured you. Loving West Indies, as many Indians then did, was easy. They owned the game. They enchanted, they bossed around, and yet, they captivated us with their dazzling skills.
Pakistan was more complex. Indo-Pak, in particular, threw up complicated questions. It was always more than a cricket match. Politics, religion, sports; everything rolled into one. Sport often panders to the parochial but these men in green elevated you with their jaw-dropping brand of cricket.
West Indian fast bowlers would knock your head and stare silently. Australians would snarl. With them, the territory was known: everything they did was within the cricketing syllabus. Grace and talent from West Indians, remarkable spirit and skill from Australians – but it was still within the known.
Pakistan was different. Who could make the ball swing in in the air and then bend away? Michael Holding almost sneers at modern-day reverse swing. For him, it would be a purely Pakistani art. “The ball would be released like an outswinger, it would curl away like an outswinger and then suddenly, it would tail in sharply. These days, it’s all about the shiny side and such – even a medium pacer is bowling it,” he said.
They also gave hope to ordinary men. Not because we could match up to their skills but somehow, until something stirred in them, it could be well us hurling the ball across in our gullies. Then as Osman Samiuddin, the author of the much-acclaimed work on Pakistan cricket The Unquiet One, is wont to say, “On hai, On hai.” The other day, against Australia, or was it England, Osman turned to look at Waqar Younis, sitting behind him, and blurted out, “On hai, On hai”. That’s the moment when they sense that Pakistan players are switched on and a transformation is happening in front of their eyes. Alchemy on a cricket field. Waqar just smiled – Been there, done that, settle down kid, sort of a smile.
Alas, ‘on hai, on hai’ has made sparse appearances this time. Nostalgia-based hope has evaporated from most cricket stadiums, from kebab shops in Birmingham and Manchester, on Pakistan Twitter handles and, going by Omar’s accounts, from streets in Lahore and Islamabad.
The thing that annoys the likes of Omar is many mistakes could have been avoided. Why would you hang on to Shoaib Malik? Nostalgia? A desperation to keep the 90’s spirit alive? What made you hide Haris Sohail for so long? Spite? Lack of imagination? Nepotism? Other questions are already being asked now in Pakistan: Why is Mickey Arthur the coach? Nice man by all accounts but is he the best coach for Pakistan? Why is Grant Flower the batting coach. Television channels are now furiously debating them but everyone knows it’s too late in the day. Prevention rather than post-mortem was needed.
Back in Pakistan, on a television channel, a former player aired his ire. “They kept saying Mohammad Hasnain is going to be a surprise package. Will they open the surprise package in Pakistan?” Hasnain could have been the fastest bowler seen at the World Cup but was never used. Wrapped in cotton wool. As if they had Wasim Akram, Younis, and Aaqib Javed in the team. Wahab Riaz, who tried his best, wasn’t what he used to be. Even Mohammad Amir was almost ineffective with the new ball, finding his inswing very late in the tournament. Why would Pakistan, of all teams, hide a young pace talent?
Omar is close to Sarfraz but even he is disappointed with the way thing have turned out. He didn’t, understandably, want to say anything about Sarfraz this time but the mind went back to the early matches of the 2017 Champions Trophy when Omar had a frank chat with the captain.
Omar had then talked about a phone call from a diffident Sarfraz from Birmingham on the night they lost to India.
“I told him, I couldn’t see the same confident captain I see in the PSL. It seems you are inhibited, and not taking the calls. Tell the team, seniors or whoever, that on the field you are in charge, and you are not going to take any slacking.” Sarfraz, Omar recalls, agreed and promised a return to his natural style of leadership in the next games. “I’d told him, ‘if you don’t do well, it might not be just the last time you are captaining but even playing for Pakistan. Play it your way; else you will regret later’.”
Sarfraz will have a lot to regret from this campaign. Persisting with Malik, letting things drift, decisions at the toss, and the lack of flair in general. Did he seem like the captain who had won the Champions Trophy? An ICC title under his belt. It’s silly to compare him with Imran Khan or Akram as a leader, but he didn’t have the assurance of Misbah-ul-Haq or even the (temperamental) passion of Younis Khan. Forget them, Moin Khan had more presence than Sarfraz and he never won a title.
Regular Pakistan cricket watchers lay the blame on Arthur and, to an extent, Inzamam-ul-Haq, who was the chief selector. The defining visual from Pakistan came at the indoor nets in Manchester two days before the game against India. Inzi talking in earnest with Sarfraz for at least 20 minutes. Azhar Mahmood, the bowling coach, stands beside them. It seems only Inzi is talking. Very intense it was. Wonder it was all about.
It remains to be seen whether any of Inzamam, Arthur, and Sarfraz stay on in their positions for long.
Have you heard the desperate mathematical scenarios cooked up to see how Pakistan can make it to the semifinals? If they score 400 and bowl out Bangladesh for 14. If they let Bangladesh score 1000 and score it in 4 overs or some such silly thing.
Let’s end it with a cruel joke doing the WhatsApp rounds. A conversation between Sarfraz and Arthur. “We will still go to the semifinals,” Sarfraz says. “How is it possible?” Arthur replies. Pat comes the answer: “I bought the tickets”.