There is a certain generation of Pakistani cricket fans — provisionally, we can say those born between 1975 and 1985 — that have grown up with a very particular worldview when it comes to cricketing miracles. In short, they believe that they are not miracles at all, mainly because they happened too often, and in ways that were too predictable, to be truly providential.
These predictable, orderly miracles usually go something like this: Pakistan hem and haw for three or four days, dropping catches, playing stupid shots, bowling wides, getting wickets off no-balls, and so on. The opposition, usually a good but not great team such as early 90s New Zealand or mid 1990s England, have done the hard work, and are poised to finish off a game with one or two sessions of good, solid play. And then they get blown away.
I choose that metaphor very carefully. Watching Wasim and Waqar and Saqlain and Mushie and Shoaib in their heyday was a little like watching Omar Little in his element — it was fun, but it was also very violent. There was something comically brutal about the way they went about their business. Collapses against that Pakistan team were gory murder scenes: the stumps splayed, batsmen hopping, fielders rendered unnecessary.
Yesterday was something very different. It was a choke, a suffocation. Pakistan essentially shut England in an airtight room, closed the windows and doors, threw the keys away, and waited. I’ve never really seen anything like it.
Forget the 10 wickets for a second. Just think about the drip-drip-drip of those first fourteen overs — where we got zero wickets but conceded only 18 runs. Those fourteen overs set the stage for everything that came after. It was marked by brilliant bowling and even more brilliant captaincy. Misbah’s field placings were so intelligent — he simultaneously had attacking fielders, single-saving fielders, and boundary-saving fielders. You had to look twice to make sure we hadn’t cheated by sneaking on three extra guys on the ground. One common refrain from the commentators was that England were going nowhere. But that’s because Misbah left them nowhere to go. This was Stephen Fleming and Mark Taylor level captaincy, maybe better.
And once one fell, you just got the feeling — apologies for channeling Ravi Shastri — that one would lead to two and more. England’s rejigging of the batting order meant that once Cook got out, their next four wickets were the cheapest ones until you got to the end: Strauss, Bell, Pietersen, and Morgan are all either out of form, not particularly good against spin, or not particularly good in general.It gave us the opening we needed.
I didn’t think 145 would be enough though, certainly at the beginning of the innings. It’s such a low total that you just need one half partnership, say 50 or 60, and the game’s over. One wayward spell, one dropped catch, one silly decision, and it was done. But somehow, some way, England never managed it.
But talking about what happened is less important than talking about what it meant. There’s been enough written about our trials and tribulations over the last few years, both on and off the cricket field, so I won’t rehash all of that right now. Instead, I want to make a slightly different but related point.
When people use cliches like “cricket means a lot to Pakistan and Pakistanis” they obscure as much as they reveal. We know that cricket matters but how does cricket matter? It’s very difficult to explain to outsiders. The way I think about is this: very few of us actually know international cricketers personally, but we all act like we do. I know that sounds strange, but hear me out.
The point is that by consuming so much information about cricketers, their exploits, and their stories through magazine profiles, Cricinfo Statsguru, fan forums, rumors, Youtube videos of them dancing, and everything else available publicly (and some things that are not), Pakistanis feel like they have a pretty good sense of who their cricketing representatives are. We start forming a picture of their personalities and their background, and start pigeonholing them into our own social fabric. For example, when I see a bunch of londas on motorbikes on Seaview, I think “there goes Shoaib Akhtar!” When I hear stories about some sifarshi getting ahead in his company, I think “Ah, an Imran Farhat then.” And so on.
So yesterday, when I saw the entire team jumping in each other’s arms and hugging each other and grinning their impish grins, it made me so, so happy.
It was such a powerful experience. I could see what it meant to them because I had internalized the pain they felt over the last couple of years. Their struggles had become our struggles because, for better or worse, that’s how Pakistanis live.
It really was an experience I’ll never forget. Combined with the delirium that comes from being awake at an absurd hour, I got really emotional. I got into bed at 7:30 a.m., but not before shaking the W awake, and telling her that we won a game we had no business competing in (she was not amused or appreciative, but whatever, I needed to tell her for my sake if not hers).
I was clearly not alone. Facebook and Twitter, as they are wont to do at times such as these, blew up. Evidently all the main channels back home led their bulletins with the match. I am sure we have played better cricket in my lifetime, but this may be, alongside Melbourne in 1992 and Lords in 2009, our most meaningful win in a long, long time.
I think it’s important that we just cherish this win, revel in it, and remember it. I hope we don’t start thinking of this as a jumping off point for something grander, because, let’s be honest, that’s not how things work around here. Things are just as likely to go horribly pear-shaped from here as anything else: maybe a power struggle ensues when Whatmore takes over; maybe Mohsin Khan doesn’t go quietly into the sunset; maybe a couple of senior players get jealous of all the Misbah adulation in the media; maybe we go to Australia, South Africa or England and discover the truth that other than Younis and Azhar, none of our batters are good enough for those pitches. It’s better to not worry about the future, enjoy the present, and thank those who gave it to us: #TeamMisbah.