I did this last in 2008, and it is not something I am proud of. In a time where we have an overload of constant information and infinite perspectives, there is a tendency amongst us to cling to what we know, to what we are comfortable with. Perhaps no contemporary emotion is as pervasive, at least to me, as cynicism – a retreat into pulling everything down. Cynicism and despair come across as the fear of those who wish to pretend they are able to understand what they can’t. Hope, sincerity, love – those are brave emotions to aim for, because they are instinctively mistrusted, and believed to be naïve and foolish. So back to 2008, when while watching Pakistan succumb to what would be their heaviest defeat to India in all one-day matches until then, I wrote: “I’m too young to be an old fogey living in the past… but the future feels uninhabitable at this rate.” My first reaction when I revisited this post yesterday was to laugh. Some of the greatest moments I would associate with the game, particularly the 2009 World T20 win, were right around the corner. And yet, I also laughed because I was eerily prescient. Six years later, Pakistan cricket has unarguably gone through its worst period ever. I don’t wish to recount the list of the disasters of this era — you know it by now.
In 2008, a part of me had started to admit what I had feared since 2003, which was When Wasim and Waqar left. It had started to dawn on me that Pakistan’s “temporary” slide since then was actually something more permanent. That instead of resuming our role as the world’s most unpredictable and watchable side once we got over the shock of losing those greats, we were actually going to become a downright mediocre one. It says a lot about the state of my delusion, but also perhaps of the assorted heroics and triumphs since, that this slow admission has still not transformed itself into belief. But now things are getting quite terrible.
In 2008, my post was specifically about Pakistan losing their dominance over India, but now that question is largely irrelevant. In 2014, Pakistan are barely pulling together enough to make ends meet, on or off the pitch. Take a look at how deplorable our record is in the one skill that all of modern cricket venerates — batting. Like a leggie who keeps bowling googlies, Pakistani batting’s current variation is the solid outing, while its stock delivery is the collapse.
In 2008, Pakistan had their world-class bowlers, and they continued inventing new ways of losing a once-in-a-generation bowler forever. But none of those ignominious ends compare to the utter, devastating tragedy of Saeed Ajmal’s ban. As I write this, I keep feeling that we Pakistani fans are like the relatives of a witch burnt at the stake — forced to watch the destruction of a loved one who has been condemned as a heretic. As I write this, I realise that there won’t be any ESPNcricinfo specials or hashtag campaigns marking the end of our lion’s career. His detractors continue to pretend as if his elbow churned out poisonous lasers, and make a fuss over his end as if they have lynched a monster. In 2014, we are not even allowed to mourn.
In 2004, while watching an epic Pakistan-India game at the National Stadium, I sat next to two typical Karachi men who kept making snide remarks about their own team. I vowed to never be cynical like them, yet I increasingly find myself turning to trashing my own players just to feel satisfied for a few seconds. And while all fans are tribal and divisive, the state of listening to Pakistani fans bicker wildly in the midst of terrible results is simply atrocious. I am not above the fray here, but every now and then I catch myself being this repulsive and wonder how my younger self would see me now.
In 2008, my post had a little aside where I praised Misbah’s infamous 2007 final scoop as “a romantic encapsulation of the Pakistani spirit”. Yet now, the most tiresome and intractable debate in Pakistan is whether Misbah has killed the Pakistani spirit, or kept it alive. None of us manages to avoid this debate, and no one has any definitive answers. A while back I had tried to cheer myself up by arguing that the debate showed just how important playing a certain way was to Pakistan. Yet even that respite has lost its charm, as Misbah’s typically frustrating loss of form right at the start of the run-up to the World Cup has made this debate urgent once more. The sectarian divisions I just mentioned have now become nauseatingly pervasive, and we all keep adding to them without finding any way to stop.
Just like 2008, today I hate to sound this despondent and hopeless, simply because apart from everything else, Pakistan cricket routinely sets you up for a surprise. But I think it is time that I — and maybe you too — accept the fact that Pakistan’s cricket team is a lesser force now, and will be. It’s not just the loss of talent or hosting matches, but rather a slow and steady malaise that has lasted for a decade now. Whatever highs come arrive amidst ever lowering expectations and routine humiliations. And so I say this while cringing at my doom-mongering and hoping to be proven wrong, but this phase of quiet desperation is our new normal.