I am now at that blessed age where I am no longer expected to dance at family weddings. Nonetheless, as a semi-respectable elder, I am still expected to lend my gravitas to festive occasions by nodding gently while younger men behave as if they have discovered a tarantula in their pants.
Two nights ago, though, I was having a tough time keeping up my end of the bargain. The reason was that, instead of watching the dances, I was huddled over my phone watching a live stream of the Lahore-Karachi PSL match. Given the divided attention, disasters were bound to happen. In this case, I happened to use a Punjabi phrase reflecting doubts about somebody’s parentage just after being asked my opinion about a particular political leader.
Before I proceed further, let me just state for the record that swear words do not count in a sporting context. One cannot be fully engaged in a gladiatorial contest and yet be expected to only use parliamentary language.
I mention all of this because while I raved and ranted on Twitter about perfidious umpires, why Islamabad supporters should be called ‘Pindiots’ and the garbageous variety of left-arm spinners employed by the Lahore Qalandars, my friend Ejaz Haider pointed out that he had not expected me to take cricket, or at least the PSL, so seriously. My response to him was that while I may or may not take cricket that seriously, I certainly do take being a Lahori very seriously.
Now that the fever of (sporting) battle has waned, it is worth examining the PSL (and my response thereto) in a calmer frame of mind.
To begin with, let me first say that I take sports very seriously. I started my writing career as a sportswriter for my college paper. And as Chief Justice Earl Warren once explained as to why he read the sports section first, “The sports section records people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failures.”
Yes, you may say, but is T20 cricket really a sport? Is it not, in the inimitably English phrase, just a hit and a giggle, flannelled fools entertaining crowds like jesters at a market fair?
Let me begin by conceding that the PSL version of cricket bears only a distant relationship to the sport once celebrated by writers like Neville Cardus and CLR James. Let me further concede that even so far as T20 tournaments go, the PSL is not really a match for the IPL. The IPL has more money, more glamour, more stars, more tamasha, more everything. But so what?
Let’s start by admitting that we need to stop mythologising sports. Yes, sports are a celebration of the human spirit and the limits of the human body. Yes, the Olympic motto – Faster, Higher, Stronger – still describes the fundamental spirit behind sports. But we need to stop thinking of sports in a time warp, as if athletic endeavour still consisted of bright young men racing around a Cambridge quad to the tune of a Vangelis soundtrack. Sports is now big business. More importantly, sports is now also entertainment. Most importantly, there is no shame in entertainment.
In any event, the fact that the PSL is not an equal to the IPL or the Big Bash doesn’t mean that it should be sneered at. That would be the equivalent of saying that Pakistan shouldn’t produce movies because Hollywood and Bollywood movies are bigger and better. I celebrate the PSL because the PSL is Pakistani and I celebrate Pakistan because it is mine. One can acknowledge flaws in Pakistan and still love it just like one can accept that a favourite child has flaws.
PSL detractors also need to understand that the PSL is by far the best thing that has happened to Pakistani cricket since the Sri Lankans got attacked and we became international pariahs. The PSL is giving international exposure to an entire new generation of Pakistani players. This is the biggest stage many of them have ever performed on and these are the highest standards to which many of them have ever been held accountable. The money that the PCB is making from this venture will go directly into improving domestic cricket. Who knows, we may even wind up with a middle order that does not regularly produce batting figures of 32-4!
But the reason I’m writing about the PSL is because the PSL is a lot bigger than cricket. As I argued in last week’s column, people need joy in their life. We live in an embattled state where we worry daily about the safety of our schools and our children. Cricket is not the answer to terrorism any more than fashion. But it certainly helps keep national spirits afloat. And that is reason enough for its existence.
The final part of the PSL, though, is that it is helping to construct a new national identity. We read every day about how alienated and bitter the residents of Balochistan are. I refuse to believe that the opening day success of the Quetta Gladiators over the Islamabad United (both terrible names, by the way) did not gladden the heart of every Baloch. Yes, that doesn’t make up for all the decades of oppression. But if there is to be an integration of Balochistan into the national mainstream, then this is a small but very hopeful step in the right direction.
Outside my legal practice and my family, my most regular interaction with people happens through Twitter. And what I saw on Twitter was that for a few days, Pakistanis had stopped obsessing about the follies and foibles of their favoured football clubs and instead were now obsessing about their local cricket team. Is it really that hard to see that if educated upper-class youth actually care deeply about something Pakistani, it is better for the country than when they care most deeply about an Argentinean footballer playing for a Spanish team?
Pakistan has been in existence now for almost 70 years. The fact that many prescribed a swift demise for it is a matter of record. After Bangladesh split off, those calls of doom were then repeated as if the disintegration of the country was imminent. But even the separation of Bangladesh is now many decades old. What then keeps this country together? If there is a ‘Pakistaniat’, what are its ingredients?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that it is incredibly important for this country to construct a healthy, multicultural identity which allows the full diversity of its people to shine through. That identity has to embrace our heritage such as it is, not as we want it to have been. Don’t underestimate the role of cricket in constructing that identity.
There is a wise saying that we overestimate what we can do in a day and we underestimate what we can do in a year. The latest project to construct a stable and democratic identity for Pakistan is now almost eight years old. By itself, the launch of the PSL will do nothing to fix the myriad problems which afflict Pakistan. Heck, the PSL is not even going to fix Pakistan’s cricketing problems, let alone Pakistan’s political problems. But this is how foundations get laid: step by step, brick by brick.
This column was printed in The News on 7 February 2016.