Fallout in the aftermath of the 2022 ICC men’s T20 World Cup continues to affect cricket nations around the globe.
England has crashed back to earth, losing all three matches in an ODI series to Australia.
The team was missing several of its stars and more than a little of its focus, but the crushing defeat took some gloss off the T20 World Cup performance.
In India, the cricket control board has exercised its control function by sacking the entire selection panel, immediately inviting applicants for the vacancies.
Meanwhile, there is apprehension in Pakistan. This is not because of sackings of captain, selectors or coaches.
England’s first Test there in 17 years is scheduled for Rawalpindi on Dec. 1. Political unrest is in the air. An anti-government march in support of Imran Khan, former prime minster and national cricket captain, who survived a recent assassination attempt, threatens the itinerary of the three-match series.
How ironic that a British-educated, high-society, top-class cricketer, who led Pakistan to a World Cup victory over England in 1992, should be the person in the eye of this storm.
This speaks volumes for the intricate, complex nature of England’s relationship with Pakistan, a subject that is brilliantly explored in a recently published book, “Cricket in Pakistan: Nation, Identity and Politics,” by Ali Khan, of the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
He begins by quoting C.L.R James’ famous “What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?”
James’ work was based on the West Indies, but his message that cricket is not just a sport, but part of a wider reality, can be applied universally.
The extent to which this has been recognized by the game’s numerous stakeholders is open to debate. Clearly, the fact that accusations and examples of racism still plague the game means that James’ idealism has been unrecognized by many, even if they knew about it in the first place.
Can there be any doubt that cricket reflects a society’s history, structure, culture and politics? In societies where it is the main sport, it may also reflect hopes and fears.
In Pakistan’s case this is evident. Cricket is a unifying force against the obstacles the country faces in the wider world.
Khan suggests that cricket has come to represent Pakistan, articulating its history, culture, society and economy in a way that no other construct can achieve. As an example of this, he refers to the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team’s bus on its way to the Qaddafi stadium in Lahore in March 2009.
As a result, Pakistan was not allowed to host international cricket for over a decade. This has affected the team’s global competitiveness, an isolated example of where the country can do this. Cricket’s ability to be a unifying influence, when all else seems to be going badly, took a severe psychological blow from the attack. Its players were condemned to a life on the road.
Consistency has never been a frequently used description of the performances of the Pakistan’s men’s cricket team. This may be unfair, given that few teams manage to achieve prolonged consistency. One description that I have heard used frequently is mercurial and this is one to which Khan also refers. He feels that, although the epithet is exaggerated, it is a defining feature of Pakistan’s cricket. Why this is so rooted does appear to be a function of the country’s history, the way in which Pakistani cricket has evolved, and the changing ideologies to which its society has been subject.
The early years of cricket in Pakistan was played mainly by the urban middle-class. Lahore and Karachi were the main centers of activity with universities, schools and sports clubs providing the basic structure. This regime continued for around 30 years, the team achieving international success in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Societal changes, population growth, especially in urban areas, vacillating policies of different political ideologues, and broadcasting of cricket on television led to the sport being played and watched by a much wider spectrum of the population. It also brought in different types of players from a different background to those who represented Pakistan in its early days. One contributing factor which Khan considers not to have received the recognition it deserves has been the role of tape-ball cricket.
Electrical tape is stretched over a tennis ball. This removed the natural bounce of a tennis ball and those who could bowl quickly benefitted by low bounce, particularly if the ball was pitched close to the striker’s feet. When the tape frayed, the ball’s movement swerved through the air.
Matches of short duration were played under streetlights at a frantic pace, while some laws of cricket were ignored, such as leg before wicket, as well as umpires. These conditions generated innovation through a variety of bowling actions, not all legal, and batting strokes. Of course, there was no coaching. The players who came into the professional game through the tape-ball route were uninhibited, natural, high-risk and, to an extent, lawless.
Some of Pakistan’s finest bowlers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries learnt their tricks in tape-ball cricket. Their ability to bowl fast deliveries into the feet of strikers, to make the ball deviate once it had lost its shine and to spin on surfaces others could not manage were wondrous to behold. However, the lack of coaching and fitness levels meant that if these natural assets were countered, they lacked an alternative plan. In turn, this fed the images of inconsistency and mercuriality.
The inconsistent tag has not been helped by previous “match-fixing” incidents and controversies. These ruined the reputation and careers of both experienced and young cricketers, leading to the removal, at a stroke, of a part of the team who had to be replaced, almost immediately.
The renewed hope for Pakistan to host international cricket — this time against a former colonial ruler and protagonist — hangs by a thread.