The strange thing about athletes and sports arenas is that their characteristics are misunderstood as similar, at least relevant. Cities in the image of athletes and athletes in the image of cities. It’s lazy subconscious typing or awkward nonsense. But in the late 90s, before the Internet, before Wikipedia, before the smartphone, there was a window into the world of athletes and sports venues, mostly imaginary, semi-imaginary worlds. Game Sphere Malgudi or McCondo.
So the Multan was in the image of its ‘Sultan’ Inzamam-ul-Haq. Backward but lazy; Sleep but awesome. Maybe it is, maybe it is not. But no one cared, no one cared. The siege of Multan, with its ancient Sun Temple, reveals a random wiki-test of Sufi shrines. In the dim years of the twentieth century, cricket coverage from Pakistan stumbled and shattered; Broadcasting, like the Sultanate, was done to capture the city, either in its glory or in ruins, unlike now, or during the Games in Australia. So the image and taste stuck like a tattoo on the brain. Many years later, at a time when the Internet world was shrinking, Sehwag returned from Multan with the ‘Sultan’ mark after his three centuries. But the Sultan of Multan, in our minds, was Inzama.
Multan is not alone. Pictures of cities and towns in Pakistan were expelled from its cricketers as the minds of the youth were not yet tainted by politics and geopolitics. Or not just Pakistan. Kingston had a scary ring about it because of Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh. Hobart was a tough, hostile city because of David Boone. But Pakistani cities may still sound more in your head, perhaps they are more musical (like Gujranwala), or it may be elusive or it may be the attraction of others who are forbidden or it may be the jealousy of their talent wealth or just the interest of the neighbors.
Those names all got stuck because there was satellite television (then Prime Sports); And most importantly international cricket was active in Pakistan. Unlike now, when Pakistan is heavily deported, when teams are afraid to tour the country, the only cricket coverage from Pakistan includes match-ups with past glory teams like the Pakistan Super League and the West Indies and Sri Lanka, in addition to a Zimbabwean Lahore, In old important places like Karachi and Rawalpindi. You occasionally yearn for games in unexplained places like Quetta and Shakubura, or Gujranwala and Sialkot. This is the result of commercialization, and the festival of cricket in small towns rarely ceases. If you cheer on the names of places like Taupo (the place where Rahul Dravid once scored a century) or Moratuwa (Sanath Jayasuriya’s hometown) or New Plymouth, it shows your age. Sports are fast becoming an urban phenomenon.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to these grounds. Of course, many domestic spaces are active. Rolled up in some archives and melted into memories. Some are only in Wisden Almanac. I don’t remember what the stadiums were like – some billboards stretched from memory like PIA, or Four Square and Pepsi. But the hysteria of the crowd is clear. It’s like their music – seamless, bold and spectacular. Like a frantic quail. Their interest caused immediate emotion — the community is trying to encourage you to do everything else in Pakistan, and they are trying to teach you that they are different, watching less obscure cricket made them look and feel. There was a vibe of unity — the pitches were the same, dry and thin grass in the sun, the faces were no different, cricket mad and the sun. They are not as glamorous as Sydney or London. This made Pakistan even more loving.
Then, in the press-boxes and pub-tables, I heard the most fascinating stories on the borders of Pakistani theaters and the magical reality of the crowd. As ticketless spectators climbed a tree branch, it began to fade under their own weight. Or the Peshawar stands emptying themselves after Shahid Afridi leaves. Or the usual riots at the ticket booths or the Qawwali at the stands. I read reports and diaries and Rahul Bhattacharya’s amazing Indian history 2003-04 tour of Pakistan, pundits from Pakistan. All of these cities and towns I had only seen, or read, piece by piece on TV, or imagined about titles.
All of this, along with nostalgia, makes it very painful to be deported from hosting tournaments. Their pain is beyond relationships. A generation could not cast their eyes on the greatest cricketers of their time in flesh and blood. It is unfortunate that neither Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson nor Joe Root have toured the country for an international match. Neither Jaspreet Bumra, Stuart Broad nor Pat Cummins nor Ravichandran Ashwin. After the recent bilateral series against England and New Zealand melted down, it is a pity that they will not play in Pakistan. You fear that the paranoia of fear will hold the cricket world even tighter. Of course, nothing is more important than life. Taking risks is not worth it. But do not make empty promises.
Even more tragic than the plight of the public watching Pakistan cricket is their cricketers. Some of them did not play any cricket at home. Babur has played five of Assam’s 35 Tests and only six of his 83 ODIs on home soil. At least he was lucky to be able to play a little cricket at home. Despite a crazy blanket of protection. Omar Akmal has played in four T20 matches – 221 international matches, in all formats – domestically. “Cricketers around the world normally play at home in front of their own crowd, but not for us,” Omar Akmal once said.
So for this generation of cricket-watching spectators, Pakistan has no cities and towns. No matter what they do, they will not emulate the most famous cricketers. Does Assam embody the magic of Lahore, as Akram did in another generation? Or did Karachi take a piece of Fawad Alam, like Javed Miandad? Or how does Multan feel? Lazy and backward as its sultan? Or how is Rawalpindi? As fast and furious as its Express? There may be more windows to the world than cricket matches these days, but a piece of love is lost. The love that builds cities and towns in your head, lives, spins and wanders in that imaginary place. The glamor that makes malkudis and macondos in your head.