Published in The Express Tribune
When it comes to things we never thought we’d say, ‘That Zimbabwe match was a real nail-biter,’ ranks pretty high among them.
And yet Pakistan vs. Zimbabwe was very much part of the trend emerging from this car crash of a cup: birthday boy Afridi playing an innings as dubious as his date of birth. Mohammad Irfan, a fast bowler in the shape of a seven-foot freight train, proving our only hope.
And Captain Misbah, sadly watching his men collide into one another, always and ever the last man standing. Besides Wahab Riaz, relief was long coming for the skipper: he made do with the occasional drawn-out sigh instead.
But once we go beyond the ballad of poor performance, there comes the background noise. There’s the return of Shoaib Akhtar as queen diva, with a mile-long axe to grind. There’s the P.C.B. chasing Moin Khan, while the masses chase the P.C.B. There’s Star Sports 3 with its melodious Hindi commentary: ‘Aur ab Zimbabwe ke batsmen Pakistan ki class letay huay dikhai de rehay hain.’
But amongst the gloom, there’s P.T.V. Sports boasting a coup: the great Jonty Rhodes as in-house analyst. The earlier episodes may forever be lost in translation – Jonty was trotted out every so often for a sage remark in English, politely smiling in incomprehension as his hosts analysed his analysis in Urdu.
Less polite is fellow Protean and guest Herschelle Gibbs. Best-known for dropping Steve Waugh in 1999 (thus dropping the World Cup), Gibbs is as famous for swearing from the gully in 2007, when he called rowdy Pakistani fans ‘animals’ that should ‘go back to the zoo. It’s not Pakistan, this.’
Reasonable, then, that Gibbs now finds himself in the same zoo. In Herschelle’s defence, he’d earlier denied his rage was racial. ‘I’ve got four Muslim aunts and about 10 Muslim cousins. How could I be racist? My damn family is Muslim.’ Well, good for Hershy.
Yes, in a number of very strange world cups, this one is arguably the strangest – indeed what Daniel Bretting called ‘Pakistan’s bad cover version of 1992’. Because try as we might, it’s hard to feel that same Cornered Tigers vibe via photos of Umar Akmal kissing goats and fondling inanimate objects.
Then again, just the omens were ominous enough. Fawad Alam was left out, Amir wasn’t let in, and Ajmal ended up playing for Worcestershire. But even the sense of doom scaled the absurd, when Haris Sohail fled his bed sweaty and confused, claiming he’d been haunted in his Christchurch hotel room. In an actual statement, hotel management said it knew of ‘no active ghost’ on the premises.
Most Pakistanis agreed – the ghost of Fawad Alam has been a passive presence this World Cup, but it continues to haunt the proceedings. Fawad’s omission was perhaps the end of our beginning: a 24-year-old with a higher first-class average than all of our batting lineup, a stellar record in Australia, and the sort of facial hair that’d send Bollywood’s pulp flick directors into a tizzy. The sultan of singles, Fawad’s sensibility is missing in much of this team’s glory boys.
And, it turns out, a whole lot else. Shoaib Akhtar snarled that this 70-year-old phuphi looked fitter than Nasir Jamshed. Shoaib bhai is hamming it up as this season’s critic-in-chief – egged on no doubt by the P.C.B.’s whispering campaign that he’s mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
Of course, there’s a tad more calculation than that: Nasir J. is an easy target for Shoaib, who’s still paying for his Misbah outburst. Not since Ross Taylor has Shoaib bhai been so savaged – for calling Misbah a craven captain. Shamed by all sides, Shoaib bhai spun 180 degrees and pulled out the pompoms, calling Misbah the life of the team post-Zimbabwe (in a voice several decibels higher).
Not that Misbah, stoic as ever, was bothered either way, ‘If standing firm under pressure out in the middle and scoring runs makes you a jackal, then I am a jackal,’ Misbah had said two years ago. Sounds like a lion’s job description.
Pakistan’s unpredictability may be a part of its appeal; 1992 may be the victory we snatched from the jaws of defeat – the 2015 side may yet be its charisma-less cousin. We may yet tunnel past South Africa. We may yet have vengeance against the boys in blue – for everything from Mohali to the near-genius Mauka Mauka ads.
But issues more structural brought us here: the ongoing turf war within the P.C.B. brought us here. Politicking and nepotism brought us here. Bizarre, badly reasoned selection brought us here. And it would be best for the board to put those issues right, than have 180 million people long for a warm and wonderful underdog story instead.
And yet whatever our win/loss record, there’ll still be the comedic gold of the Nasir Jamshed satirical Twitter account. Nasir’s fictional travails – in all their ball-dropping glory – have been immortalized on the Internet.
From the very start of the tournament, when the account tweeted: ‘At airport many people hugging & holding me. “Hey guys I gonna miss my flight” I say “This what we hoping” one man say & he grab my leg,’ to the soul-crushing moment we wondered Zimbabwe would wallop us out of the cup: ‘Changing room very quiet. Only noise come from Waqar trying to tie rope to ceiling fan. He struggling. Irfan ask if he need help.’
Which at last brings us us to the only chance we have: the man from Mianwali. Despite Shoaib bhai’s snark, the only leadership in evidence comes from Misbah-ul-Haq – having long joined the ranks of Kardar and Imran as an all-time great.
And in a team of Nasir Jamsheds – bemused, confused, and surly in general – the captain is our only compass.