Cricket is a part of our national identity. In the 1980’s and 90’s it overtook hockey and squash as the national sport. There was no need to officially acknowledge this, since everybody involved felt it. Cricket had well and truly become a major galvanising force for Pakistanis everywhere. Up until the 70’s, cricket had generally been a sedate affair. Defensive tactics, methodical batting and privately schooled banter precariously tied the various cricketing nations of the time loosely together as a kind of floppy shamianah, gently nesting over cucumber sandwiches and an increasing number of drawn test matches.
Then, everything changed. First, the ODI World Cup was launched in 1975. The West Indies, with all their pomp and class, stream-rolled their way to victory and announced the arrival of exciting one day cricket. Soon after, Kerry packer introduced the controversial rebel league of World Series cricket, which showcased the talents of several international superstars , including a select group of Pakistanis such as Javed Mianda, Asif iqbal, Imran Khan and Zaheer Abbas.
This was the dawn of the age of international superstars cricketers capturing the imaginations of entire nations and not just seasoned cricket fans. Cricket in Pakistan blossomed during this period, where squads transitioned from the old guard; private school boys from Lahore and Karachi, to the new blood; young boys from the cult Pakistani tradition of ‘tape ball cricket’ emerging from all the far flung corners of our nation.
In 1987 Pakistan visited the beautiful island of the West Indies, to face the feared pace attack and towering batsmen that had reigned supreme over test cricket for over a decade, defeating every touring party that came their way. What Pakistan achieved has widely gone down in cricketing folklore as amongst the best test series ever fought. Under Imran Khan’s courageous leadership and sensational display of inswinging Yorkers speckled with reverse swing leg before appeals, Pakistan defied all odds and returned from the Caribbean unbeaten. A year later Pakistan and India met at the Sharjah cup final, a match that would go down in history as the epitome of this south Asian rivalry that already rivalled the historical Australian and English battles. With 6 needed off the last ball for victory, Chetan Sharma prowled up to the crease hoping to deliver anything but the juicy full toss he offered, which was ferociously walloped by Javed Miandad into the midwicket stands, and into the hearts and minds of nearly every Indian and Pakistani who saw it.
A national love affair with cricket had swept through the nation. International recognition basked the Pakistani public in pride and heroes were born; the young left-arm fast bowling sensation Waseem Akram, the fearless and inspirational leader Imran Khan, and the ultimate hustler and run machine Javed Miandad. What these cricketers gave to Pakistan at that time was exactly the kind of unadulterated and uplifting entertainment that sport is so revered for. They made us feel like winners, they inspired us to compete and push ourselves, to challenge the very best and show results by merit.
Cricket evolved into one of the few truly egalitarian spaces in Pakistan. We finally had a platform where people from different ethnic backgrounds, varied academic and professional qualifications and wide ranging socio-economic realities could interact on the same field as equals. They were able to put aside factors that had kept them apart in their daily lives and instead, focus on aspects that brought them together. What mattered on the cricket field was how fast you bowled, how much you swung or spun the ball and how far you hit the ball. No one cared how wealthy you were, how well you recited Urdu poetry or wrote English literature or which tribe your family belonged to. It was your talent and skill that earned you respect on the cricket pitch.
Cricket was rapidly becoming the great equalizer of a nation that had struggled to find platforms to unite its dynamic yet divergent people. Watching Inzamam ulhaq, a young lad from Multan, and Wasim Akram, a rapidly maturing fast bowler from humble backgrounds in Lahore, dominate opposition over the years, cricket continued to bring our countrymen together from different parts of the country, Younis Khan and Misbah ul haq from Khyber pakhtoonkhaw, Yair Hameed from Peshawar, Inzamamulhaq from Multan, Shoaib Akhtar and Waqar Younis from Pindi, Shahid Afridi from the Pathan community of Karachi, Danish Kaneria from the Hindu community of Karachi, Muhammad Yousuf (formerly Yusaf yuhanna )from the Christian community of Lahore, Shoaib Malik from Sialkot, Muhammad Hafeez from Sargodha and the list went on, a case study in diversity and cultural cohesion.
Recently the vicious face of terrorism has threatened to undo the hard work that the brave and inspiring young cricketers of our country had done. The heinous and unforgivable act of a handful of outlaws against our guests, the Sri Lankan cricket team, stripped Pakistan off the rights to host any international cricket, including the much heralded 2011 World Cup. For the first time in our history, the cricket-loving masses of Pakistan were denied the pleasure and joy of watching their heroes host international teams on home grounds. Cricket was at risk of being taken away from Pakistan.
Having already faced the disgrace, time is right to reignite all the hype that has fuelled our love affair with cricket. Let us come together for the revival of international cricket by making Pakistan a peaceful state. Let us reach out to all the beautiful and diverse people of Pakistan, our countrymen, and find a common cause. This is our chance to rise against forces that have threatened to tear away at the fabric of our society and show to them that we will unite and fight for a platform that has always strived to make us equals in our own country.