Cricket Conversations: On Cricket Fandom with Ahmer Naqvi

I started a new initiative on this blog way back in May 2013 called “Cricket Conversations” which involves email back-and-forth on a variety of topics with bloggers, writers, fans and journalists. The first of the Cricket Conversations was with Siddartha Vaidyanathan on Spirit of Cricket and the second with Gideon Haigh on Club Cricket.

What follows is the third installment of cricket conversations where I had email exchanges with cricket writer Ahmer Naqvi on cricket fandom, spread over a few months.

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November 1, 2013

Ahmer,

Hope you are well, and I mean this seriously, in a sporting sense, since you must have gone through a roller coaster of emotions in the aftermath of the improbable loss that Pakistan somehow contrived to achieve in the first ODI vs South Africa in Sharjah. I guess when you mix Pakistan with Sharjah, most improbable things start looking possible, doesn’t it? I read your article about the existential dread of a Pakistani cricket fan these days. Hope your faith in the Pakistan team is restored a bit after the second ODI vs South Africa where they strangled them with spin, defending a low score.

It is kind of an upside down world of cricket and its possibilities for a Pakistani fan these days, isn’t it? There was a time when the W’s were there, Miandad, Malik, Saqi when out of nowhere Pakistan would win. I, as an Indian fan growing up, used to envy the Pakistan team – for the talent on show, but mostly the fans. Could it even be legal to have so much talent in one team? I used to think there needed to be some sort of Global cricket resolution to limit the number of match winners that Pakistan could put out on the field at one time.

Somehow, the tables have turned in the last decade. The emotional heartbreak of Chennai 1999 seems such a long time ago. I remember talking to you on the eve of Mohali 2011 and being completely at ease and you being the total opposite.

I guess in Seinfeld parlance, we are now in a bizarro world where you’ve become George and I’ve become Elaine.

We can talk about the strengths of the individual teams and the comfort blanket they provide such as the confidence I have when India are chasing (mostly) and you possibly when Pakistan is defending a total. We will get to the emotional transformations and perhaps our own evolutions as cricket fans and all that, but first, tell me, how are you feeling after the second ODI?

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November 15, 2013

LOL I am feeling like I just sat through a nihilistic comedy. I mean, the way we were batting, you had little choice but to laugh since the second Test and first ODI had already exhausted the pain you could feel. I personally much prefer the collapse of no recourse, like in the Test match, than the collapse at the finish line. I had written after the first Test how rarely Pakistan’s bowling gets anything more than platitudes because the shocking failures or the occasional resolve of the batting gets all the attention. So that comeback in the bowling was exciting but also something (thankfully) we can still count on.

I wrote about that ‘existential dread’ issue because these days I feel like things are as bad as they can possibly get. Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I used to work as a TV journalist and would often end up calling Saad Shafqat as a guest to a news show I worked on whenever we covered cricket. Saad is a brain surgeon at Pakistan’s most prestigious hospital, but he has this hipster-stoner charm which he masks with his excessive politeness. I would love talking cricket with him while he’d be waiting to go on-air and we developed a bit of a rapport. One day he called me and asked me if I would be interested in moderating a talk at a Karachi cafe (t2f represent!) with him and Osman Samiuddin. I had never done anything like that and since I was a huge fan of both writers it was a dream come true for me. Osman was a rock star for Pakistani fans, particularly as he was part of this new generation of cricket writers who were able to write exciting, literary pieces on cricket and cricketers. During this time, Osman also looked like a quintessential Pakistani rock star. He dressed like an artsy Waqar Younis (in case you are wondering, slightly below a normal Shaiby) with half-unbuttoned silk shirts and a chunky gold chain, and there may have been kohlapuris.*

(*Some details have been exaggerated for your entertainment)

Any ways, the topic of this discussion was “Cricket in Crisis”. It felt like a fair call, given that this was 2009 and Pakistan was suffering from a whole host of spectacular and mendacious problems. The talk went well, but a year ago I came across an old CV where I had mentioned this little event. (I’m desi, we do this) I couldn’t help but laugh because I realised that we had held this talk BEFORE the terrorist attacks, BEFORE the spot-fixing scandal, and (worst of all) BEFORE Ijaz Butt’s tenure had even began.

So currently, I am extremely despondent about how Pakistan’s worst collapses have all – bar one – come since we stopped playing home Test matches. I am really worried about how we will be able to keep up in batting, bowling and fielding while still being barred from the IPL, which is IMO a great way to build up a pool of players. I am slightly concerned by the court-driven power vacuum in the PCB, I am not sure how we’re in a position where a 36 year old is the first name on the list for the World Cup happening the year after next…

But I suppose, though this is scant comfort, this is how it always is with us.

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January 15, 2014

Ahmer,

I had composed a beautiful response to you but unfortunately it was while I was in dream state. You see, I read your email on my phone when I was woken up by my cat in the middle of the night, and now I can’t exactly remember how it went any more but I think it was some beautiful prose with the words “strings of melancholy” in it, appearing as a theme. If only there was a mechanism to record dreams, we all could be writing best sellers…

Compared to the problems facing Pakistan cricket, the issues in Indian cricket seem like child’s play. But as you say, problems and Pakistani cricket have always been bosom buddies. Certainly, no international cricket in the last 4 years and also no IPL access means Pakistani cricket is being severely crippled for the current lot as well as the next generation.

But I want to go back to the chat you and I had on the eve of the World Cup semifinal. I remember mentioning to you that I wasn’t stressed about the outcome of the match. It was weird telling you that but it was the truth. There were a few things that put me at ease: 1) Pakistan has never beaten India in a world cup (but history doesn’t guarantee the future, I understand) 2) India playing at home and 3) This is more important than anything — the leadership of Dhoni and the sense of calm he exudes which seems to not only pervade through his players but also through the fans.

India has had a spectacular middle order in the last decade – and a very good middle order is key to winning ODIs lot more than openers, as you might agree. The middle order had done it time and time again, anchored by Dhoni with stroke makers in Raina and Yuvraj (ODI resurgence coinciding with Dravid becoming an astute ODI middle order bat), and so, I was confident that India were going to be able to get through Pakistan.

I’ll admit that I was nervous before the Quarterfinal game against Australia, the bogeyman. Once that hurdle was crossed, I was quite relaxed that this puppy was in the bag.

The other day, an Indian journalist called me up to talk about how fans take the losses and wins of their teams. I believe I’ve gone through various phases of fandom from looking at everything with the bottom line of Wins and Losses (in my impressionable, ignorant years) to accepting Wins and Losses as part of the game. It sure does hurt even now when India does not perform well but I do understand now that the players are not automatons and they cannot be performing at the same level all the time, and they will get beaten – sometimes by a better team, sometimes by themselves and sometimes, it just happens that way. The losses don’t hurt so much and the wins don’t excite as much either. What matters in the end is, whether we were witness to a good game of cricket.

I had written about the evolution of the cricket fan in me after the world cup 2011 win. (Link) Where are you as a fan now? Does it still drive you nuts when Pakistan lose? Do you feel overjoyed when they pull one out of the fire, and have the urge to rush on to the streets and hug strangers?

I wonder how the fans of Australia used to feel when their team dominated the sport for a decade. I mean, every match they went in to, they were the odds on favorite to win.

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January 29, 2014

So plenty has happened since this last email, of greater significance (arguably) than even Sachin’s retirement. However, since it seems impossible to clearly predict what the long term holds, let us not speculate on that just yet. (Hint: I’m referring to the Position Paper)

To answer your question about where I am as a fan, I would say the same place I’ve always been. I’d written recently about how the Pakistani fan is unique in genuinely fearing for the death of cricket altogether in the country. From terrorist attacks to court-driven dramas to spot-fixing to doping to whatever else, the problems always seem to be so catastrophic that they threaten to wipe out everything in their wake. The precedents of hockey and squash – two sports in which we won multiple world titles yet are almost extinct today – makes that fear more palpable. Moreover, the obsession of the world and our establishment with the potential collapse of the state itself further feeds this paranoia. Yet somehow both the country and the cricket keep carrying on, and at the risk of sounding like a folksy idiot, I think that perseverance is all that an optimist needs to keep on believing.

That means that I am still in many ways the classical fan – who despairs and revels in the thrills their team provides. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was watching Misbah and Azhar chase down Sri Lanka in the twilight. As the target came down and the light kept reducing, I began feeling that terrible sensation of my stomach’s lining being ripped into ribbons by a cat’s claws. Its a feeling I first identified when Ireland were beating us in the 2007 World Cup, and its one that re-emerges time and again. What is quite revealing is that this feeling of dread and terror arrives both in wins and losses, and is more of a symptom that I am watching an exciting match and it has taken a hold of not just my mind but every fibre of my body. And at the risk of generalising, I think it is this feeling more than anything else that one gets addicted to.

I remember once while a student in Lahore we were driving down a busy street at stupidly high speeds, when a car clipped ours while we were cutting lanes, causing it (I am not sure of the physics involved, so can only accurately describe what happened and not how) to go in the air and swing in a wild circle before landing on all four wheels on the other side of the road. There were a 1000 ways for us to have died but somehow we didn’t, and that rush I felt afterwards was beyond articulation. Since I am far too scared to consciously pursue thrill-seeking activities like roller-coasters or bungee-jumping, I guess Pakistan cricket offers that feeling instead; that of being pushed beyond the mundane and onto a dance on a knife-edge. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way – there is little doubt that the insane and unjustified criticism heaped on Misbah derives from a nation of fans unwilling to be rid of that crazy, panicked madness associated with Pakistan cricket. The irony of course is that those moments have not ended under Misbah’s reign (both the good and the bad) and instead his approach has been one of the main reasons that we have had any good moments at all.

In that sense, I like to think that cricket (in Pakistan atleast) has taught me some of the Big Lessons in life they don’t teach you elsewhere. How to deal with grief, how to understand the madness of love, how to experience a tangible moment of transcendence.

Cricket is also a great and rare means of cutting across class, culture, ethnicity, sect, gender politics etc etc in this country. It is a unifier of the sort that you don’t find in Pakistan. It is a way of accessing people, ideas and places that someone – especially a rich, elite, minority like myself – would have no other way of doing so. So cricket helps you understand Pakistan as well, from the way our dressing room politics play out to the kind of approach we have towards feilding to that exceedingly rare uninhibited, guilt-free sense of joy that a big win (like 92 or 09) brings out.

I know a lot of people who have tuned out of cricket with each huge controversy/defeat – for some it began with 1996 in Bangalore, for many in my generation it was Lord’s in 1999, and the summer of 2010 was the most recent mega-horror that turned people off. But those that remain and keep joining the ranks are inevitably drawn into these two strands I refer to earlier, amongst a host of other reasons.

So when we talk about ups and downs, I think that its something that even as we complain about when we lose we are all addicted to. Osman Samiuddin’s Haal piece gave a very intriguing insight into how sub-continental spirituality also has an aspect of it manifested in Pakistani cricket, and whether one agrees with him or is a clueless idiot, it captures the ideal form (in the Platonic sense) of Pakistani cricket – irrational or even supra-rational, instinctive, magical and inconceivable. And for that ideal form to be realised, I think we all (subconsciously) know that the ups-and-downs are necessary. That said, I have been at pains to point out that Pakistan’s mercurialism is not a cause or an innate quality but rather a symptom of causes that are similar in nature but often keep changing. It gets reductive to just see Pakistan as mercurial even when it is an essential feature of our side.

I’ll end with both echoing and partially answering the question you finished with regarding Australia. I have to say that I’ve also wondered how the Australians manage to avoid victory-fatigue, which is something that has not only taken down most great cricket sides but also most sports teams in general. Moreover, while the Windies had a 15 year run, it coincided with a cultural and political sea-change in their society and hasn’t been recreated since. Australia therefore is the *only* team in cricket history to regularly dominate the world game for years on end, and that desire to be on top never goes away. Perhaps part of the answer is what people like Peter Roebuck mention about the centrality of sporting success to the Australian identity. And if that’s true/valid, then I think that’s a good explanation for Pakistani cricket fandom too. I don’t see following Pakistan cricket as something nationalistic, but I do see it as a way of engaging with and understanding Pakistan.

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January 30, 2014

Ahmer,

I don’t think I can be a full time Pakistan fan. It seems to me it’s a state of mind that is cultivated over one’s lifetime and is a product, as you so beautifully put, of everything around it. Mostly, I don’t think I have the heart for it. Not at this age. Although, I’d still tune in and root for them when the game is afoot, when Pakistan has an outside shot at winning, and especially when they sense it and start to smell blood. From the recent past, the strangling of England in UAE in 2012 in those Tests immediately comes to mind. No one does the spectacular – escape act or collapse – like Pakistan. As you say, even with Misbah at the helm, with a sense of calm and stability pervading the team, the basic instinct is never too far. Good luck!

It is interesting to see two countries that are tied together in their “births” would go in such divergent paths, isn’t it? Like some Bollywood movie where the judwaa brothers grow up to be exact opposite of each other. I’m sure someone has written a sociological doctoral thesis on this aspect.

I mentioned in my earlier email about speaking to the Indian journalist on the emotional torture of being a sports fan. It has since been published, and my thoughts were a small part of a collage of such emotions (Link). As I mention there, two moments of torture that come to mind as an India fan. Firstly, the semi final loss to Sri Lanka in 1996, especially in the background of defeating Pakistan only days earlier. But more recently, the one that left me reeling from the sheer ferocity of the stomach punch was at Trent Bridge when India toured England in 2011. I had written about it earlier (Link). It was like Jimmy Anderson reached in to my chest, ripped the heart out, threw it on the ground, stomped on it and did a little jig while pissing on it. God, it was painful.

These days Limited over game results don’t seem to affect me as much. One goes, another game is just around the corner, equally devoid of context. The ones that hurt more are Tests. I guess I’m a little too cautious to get suckered in to the fortunes of the team in ODIs and T20s. Test matches, as they slow burn and simmer, allow me the opportunity to get drawn in, hour by hour, and make me care that much more, and hence when the loss comes, affects that bit more.

There was a brief time when India were quite good and I was little bit protected from stomach punches but looks like with the composition of the team changing, things might go back to an earlier time. Allow me a few minutes while I give my heart muscle a bit of a work out for what’s in store.

Keep calm and continue watching cricket. Or not.

You get the final word.

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January 31, 2014

Well I would say that I am not a regular or even respectable cricket fan. I forget details of matches and players and events and I don’t remember the last time I sat through a match ball-by-ball. I tune out during insubstantial series and I have even been known to turn off the stream before Umar Gul’s batting led us to a famous win. Moreover, I’ve never, ever been good enough to play at any level. This includes playing with children above the age of 11 for any time over 10 minutes. I am not joking. My friends still don’t believe that I write on cricket, and most of my writings pretty much show that I don’t know much about playing the game.

So in a lot of ways, that allows me to deal with Pakistan cricket’s discrepancies and madness. But I suppose I should speak about other fans in a more general sense, and I guess the answer could possibly lie in what you mentioned in these lines: “These days Limited over game results don’t seem to affect me as much. One goes, another game is just around the corner, equally devoid of context…” It might be harsh to the legions of dedicated die-hards out there, but for a lot of people who still get very passionate about cricket this is true for a lot of the games, including Tests. For example, while our series against South Africa home and away were ones I watched a lot of, the series against Zimbabwe, and our most common Test rivals, Sri Lanka didn’t inspire a lot of interest. And in that sense, cricket being just a game is a blessing, because it comes and goes and we keep at it. In a way, that’s why I find T20s very relaxing and enjoyable. They don’t demand a lot of investment, and with the IPL you get to see a lot of exciting players while not having your entire society revolving around its results. It’s the same pleasure I derive from football, where the engagement is a lot more relaxed.

In fact, if I go on a slight tangent here, I have to mention that I do have to question the morality or ethics of expecting fans to watch Test cricket with the same popularity and interest and eyeballs as LOIs. If you are working, getting time to follow anything more than Cricinfo is often quite difficult. I mean, a journalist is paid to cover a match, but for salaried people and particularly the working class, access to Tests as they are now is very difficult. But I digress.

Coming back to being a Pakistan fan, I think the way cricket is at the moment allows for a certain relaxation as well, and allows Pakistan to keep playing with an approach that is partly professional and partly playground. The lack of context to so many engagements is one (though not the only or even the most definitive) reason why Pakistan can afford to be so mercurial to the extreme. This is not to say that more contexts would end such an approach, but it would definitely allow for evolution to take place. I think that is the crux of the Misbah era as well. I am, like most Pakistanis, extremely embedded to the Pakistani identity in cricket. It is a huge basis for the universe of myths and legends I create, and I don’t wish to let go of it. Yet, at the same time, a fallacy that I hate is that you can only be either/or. If you love Afridi (and all he represents) then you hate Misbah.

I think what I came to first admire and appreciate Misbah for is the fact that he has attempted an evolution of sorts, or at the very least formulated an approach that seeks to build upon the sort of players we have and the situation we are in, in terms of hosting cricket. And even if his tactics are questionable, this desire to create a new identity when the old one wasn’t coming through is a very bold and laudable approach. And so it is not impossible to appreciate Misbah even if you are wedded to the classical Pakistani idea of cricket, mainly because he is not trying to stamp out the instinct, but rather he is trying to break out of the clichés and archetypes forged in the 90’s (explosive openers, pacy bowlers, reliance on ‘match winners’). More importantly, he has also broken (with reason) the Pakistani desire to throw in teenagers to the wolves (which has produced a few legends and thousands of broken careers) by showing the value of age and adaptability. People in Pakistan feel something will be lost if we try and be smart about how we play and don’t look to be constantly risk-taking, but I don’t think that’s true. Misbah’s approach seems to be about developing some sort of stability, and becoming more professional and proactive is necessary for us. Moreover, the professionalisation and modernisation of football in Argentina and Brazil hasn’t hampered the abilities of these countries to produce exciting players, and the same is true for Australia in cricket. Misbah’s reign will be good for us, provided it is accompanied by greater institutional stability for the board and the country, which is asking for the Sun and the Moon.

Lastly, let me point out that while the reasons above are why I appreciate and cherish Misbah, I love him for another reason. His Homeric tragedy in the 2007 T20 WC against India – first in the group stages and then in the final – was of the kind that would kill most spirits. But I loved him for going for that failed scoop off what became the last ball. It was pure method in madness stuff, and its tragedy only made it greater. The fact that he recovered and became who he is makes that moment even more special, but it was enough in itself to be the stuff of legends.

Thank you for this wonderful conversation. You can send the cheques to the usual address.

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