September 26, 2021 9:00:52 am
The strange thing with sportsmen and sporting venues, their characteristics are misconstrued as similar, at least correlated. Sportsmen in the image of the cities and cities in the image of sportsmen. It’s lazy subconscious typecasting, or worse a folly. But in the late 90s, in the pre-internet, pre-wikipedia, pre-smartphone, sportsmen and sporting venues were a window to the world, and often an imagined, semi-fictional world. A Malgudi or Macondo of the sporting sphere.
So Multan existed in the image of its ‘Sultan’ Inzamam-ul-Haq. Laid-back but languid; sleepy but splendorous. Maybe it is, maybe it is not. But no one cared, no one bothered. A random wiki-check enlightens—of the Multan siege, of its ancient Sun Temple, of the Sufi shrines. Back in the fading years of the twentieth century, cricket coverage from Pakistan was wobbly and crumbly; the broadcaster were laid-back, like the Sultan, to capture the town, neither in its glory or in its shambles, unlike they do now, or they did during the games in Australia. So the image and flavour stuck like a tattoo on the brain. Years later, just around the time the internet had begun to shrink the world, Sehwag returned from Multan with the ‘Sultan’ tag after his triple hundred. But the Sultan of Multan, in our minds, remained Inzamam.
Not just Multan. The images of towns and cities in Pakistan, for the adolescent mind yet to be stained by politics and geopolitics, were chiselled out of its cricketers. Or not just Pakistan. Kingston had a deathly, scary ring about it, because of Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh. Hobart was a tough, hostile city because of David Boon. But Pakistani cities rung even more in your head, maybe they were more musical (like Gujranwala), or elusive, or it could be the lure of the forbidden otherness, or the sheer envy of their talent riches, or the mere neighbourly curiosity.
All of those names stuck because there was satellite television (Prime Sports then); and most importantly because there was active international cricket in Pakistan. Unlike now, when Pakistan is largely exiled, when teams fear touring the country, when the only cricket coverage from Pakistan comprises Pakistan Super League and match-ups with past-its-glory teams like West Indies and Sri Lanka, besides, a belaboured Zimbabwe in the same old mainstream venues like Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi. How you sometimes long for games in nondescript venues like Quetta and Sheikhupura, or Gujranwala and Sialkot. It’s the upshot of commercialisation, the carnival of cricket rarely stops by in small towns. If you rattle out names of venues like Taupo (where Rahul Dravid scored an ODI hundred), or Moratuwa (the hometown of Sanath Jayasuriya), or New Plymouth, it shows your age. Sport-watching is fast becoming an urban phenomenon, more so after the intrusion of franchise cricket.
Sometimes I wonder what has happened to these grounds. Of course, many are active domestic venues. Some have rolled into archives and melted into memories. Some exist only in the Wisden Almanack. I don’t remember how the stadiums looked—some billboards protrude from memory, like PIA, or Four Square and Pepsi. But the fervour of the crowds sticks out distinctly. It was like their music—uninhibited, bold and spectacular. Like a frenzied qawwali. Their passion struck an instant emotional chord—for all the otherness of Pakistan the society tries to instil in you, the more they try to teach you that they are different, the less indistinct cricket-watching made them look and feel like. There was a vibe of sameness—the pitches looked the same, sun-dried and skimpy-grassed, the faces looked no different, cricket-mad and sunburnt. They were not as exotic as those in Sydney or London. It only made Pakistan all the more endearing.
Later, in press-boxes and on pub-tables, I have heard more fascinating stories, bordering on magical realism, of Pakistani stadiums and crowds. Like a group of ticketless spectators clambering onto the branch of a tree, which began to creak in their weight. Or the stands of Peshawar emptying themselves after Shahid Afridi got out. Or the routine riots in ticket booths, or the qawwali in the stands. I read reports and diaries and Rahul Bhattacharya’s brilliant account of India’s groundbreaking 2003-04 tour of Pakistan, Pundits from Pakistan. All of these embellished the cities and towns I have only seen in fragments on TV, or read, or heads about or imagined.
All of these, acquired nostalgia so to speak, make their exile from hosting matches all the more painful. Their pain is beyond relatable. A generation has passed on, unable to cast their eyes, in flesh and blood, on some of the finest cricketers of their time. It’s a pity that none of Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson or Joe Root have toured the country for an international match. Neither have Jasprit Bumrah, Stuart Broad or Pat Cummins or Ravichandran Ashwin. It’s pitier that they might never play in Pakistan, not after the recent meltdown of bilateral series against England and New Zealand. You fear the paranoia of fear would clutch the cricketing world even tighter. Of course, nothing matters more than life. It’s not worth taking risks. But then don’t make hollow promises either.
More lamentable than the plight of Pakistan’s cricket watching public is that of their cricketers. Some of them have barely played any cricket at home. Just five of Babar Azam’s 35 Tests and six of his 83 ODIS have come at home. He was at least fortunate that at least he could play some cricket at home. though in an insane blanket of security. Umar Akmal has played just four T20I games—out of a total of 221 international games across formats—at home. “Cricketers around the world take playing at home in front of their own crowds for granted. But not for us,” Umar Akmal had once said.
So for this generation of cricket-watching audience, Pakistani towns and cities don’t exist. Even if they do, somehow, they don’t embody their most famous cricketers. Does Azam embody the magic of Lahore, as Akram was in a different generation? Or Karachi carried a slice of Fawad Alam, as did Javed Miandad? Or what does Multan feel like? Lazy and laid-back as its Sultan? Or how is Rawalpindi? Fast and furious like its Express? There might be more windows to the world than cricket matches these days, but a slice of romance is lost. The romance of building towns and cities in your head, living, swirling and wandering in that imagined space. The allure of making Malgudis and Macondos in your head.
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