Sachin Tendulkar – A Reluctant Romance

And in a fleeting instance it was over. A brief silence ensued; a billion people mourning in unison. A murmur then started to grow. The quiet, weary traveler trudged off the ground, his head bowed in disappointment. Finally he turned; a small nod of his head, a shy raise of his bat.  A roar then erupted.

For a few hours, Sachin had composed the glorious final sonnets to his epic tale. Every shot carried with it a familiarity, a comforting memory perhaps of a happier time. Every duel reminded one of battles won, of reputations scarred.  Every smile spoke of an innocence unfettered.The inevitable end followed; a few steps up the stairs; a final walk towards the close. His legend became memory.

sachin

Photo BCCI/FILE

I must admit I didn’t think much of Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar when I first started watching cricket. I wasn’t accustomed to liking too many people from across the border anyway, and this short, curly-haired boy was no exception. I remember feeling rather annoyed when he gave Saqlain Mushtaq a send-off in Sharjah.

“Typical Indian”, I said to myself.

 

In 1999, Pakistan toured India for a historic 2-test series. Pakistan won a nail-biting test match at Chennai by 12 runs. I remember laughing at the thought of Sachin sulking in the dressing room and not coming out to receive his man-of-the-match award. The match was to go into my burgeoning collection of cricket recordings, a treasure I proudly maintained as proof of my cricketing obsession. One day, as I was happily revisiting the Chennai game something caught my eye. It was the final innings of the game and Waqar Younis had just dismissed both Indian openers. At 11/2 he swung a ball in towards Tendulkar and trapped him in front of the stumps. The umpire turned down the appeal. A few balls later, Waqar threw Sachin a half volley. Tentative perhaps, because of the LBW shout a few balls ago, his feet did not initially move. Instead he threw his hands at the ball. The feet then did a small forward skip, the elbow following suit to end up in a grand pose. I kept replaying the shot. It was so unlike any cover drive I had ever seen. It had a mix of both orthodoxy and delicious improvisation. It was beautiful.

 

A friend shared with me with a recording of his desert storm innings in Sharjah. My bias against Sachin was now wearing off; I thoroughly enjoyed how he tackled the Australian bowlers. Our own batsman had suffered so badly at the hands of the Australians in recent times, it was just a relief to watch someone annihilate them so brutally and thoroughly. Tony Greig’s voice started to ring through my ears,

“This little man is the greatest batsman since Bradman”.

 

My favorite memory of Sachin remains that he was the first player from India I ever felt any affection towards. I had grown up on a diet of Srinaths, Chauhans and Sidhus; all somehow representative of the villainous Indians casually lurking in my subconscious. Sachin somehow transcended all that. He played in a manner that was impossible not to appreciate; such was the purity of his play. For the first time, nation loyalties became secondary to me; it was the sport that I fell in love with.

In many ways Sachin acted as a bridge I had with India, he allowed me to see it as something that could be appreciated, even revered. All admiration for Indian musicians and actors followed Sachin, he was the protagonist who kicked open the doors. For a while, India even became my second-favorite team. I was enthralled by how Sachin continually attacked the common enemy, Australia. An innings in the Champions Trophy 2000 captured the imagination. On a seaming wicket, as Glenn Mcgrath charged in with his usual immaculate line, Sachin decided that he would not let him dominate. Highlights of this innings are astonishing; Sachin is running down the wicket to length balls that are seaming away from him and flat-batting them over the covers. In the middle of the exchange, there is even a subtle shake of the head from Mcgrath as if to acknowledge the genius of the man before him.

 

In 2004 when India toured Pakistan, I finally watched Sachin live in a game at Rawalpindi. Pakistan had amassed 329 and Sachin predictably was the only thing standing between them and victory. Even though he scored a brisk 141, I remember feeling that he was batting below his best; such was the talent of the man that even when he achieved scarcely believable feats, one always felt he had not just yet unleashed his full might. I was obviously desperate to see him dismissed so my team could win the game. I remained anxious however to soak in every moment of him batting; such was the majesty of his presence.

In recent years, Sachin has grown on me like he was one of my own. Even when he broke Saeed Anwar’s record of 194, it felt as though the landmark had finally reached its rightful owner. There have been precious few like him, who have simultaneously evoked feelings of awe, envy, respect and adoration. Today, Sachin is perhaps, the last vestige of an era when cricket was untouched by the follies of commercialization; he remains the nostalgic impulse of a cricket romantic. He is a throwback to childhood memories and glorious carefree days when I first fell in love with the game.

(Originally published in the Express Tribune)

The 15 stages to cricketing heartbreak

Cricketing defeat often engenders similar symptoms to heartbreaks. Usually, there is a clear progression of stages that lead up to its inevitable appearance. The cricket fan can try to read the signs and pull out early rather than getting sucked into what will eventually be a perpetual nightmare. Leading into the knockout stages of the world cup, particularly the Pakistan-India game, I find it prudent to revisit these stages to ensure that cricketing audiences are well-prepared to deal with a potentially depressing aftermath.

The early signs are always the same.

Stage 1: Work can wait.
Much like a romantic, hopelessly infatuated with the subject of his love, you become obsessed with the game. All other mundane daily tasks are rendered meaningless. The first thing you tend to do is to stop paying attention at work.

In the digital age, romantics will often stalk the Facebook profiles and photos of their love interests. Us cricket fans have our own unhealthy obsessions. We have Cricinfo.

You could be working for the biggest company in the world, facing the toughest deadlines imaginable. You’ll get out of it somehow. You know what’s more important? Reading the Cricinfo preview.Sometimes however, even Cricinfo is not enough. To get a more comprehensive overview of the game, you might hit twitter to understand the public sentiment. When even that doesn’t do it for you, reluctantly you will turn to Pakpassion to listen to the fans ranting at each other. It gives you peace knowing there are people like you out there who also have nothing else to do in life.

Note, this is not something you should be proud off.

Stage 2: People start to annoy you
As a huge cricket match approaches, normal people whose Facebook statuses are usually flooded with details of their mundane social or love lives will suddenly switch to cricket. As a self proclaimed guru of cricket fans, you may find this extremely hard to digest. When you get home after a tiring day of reading Cricinfo previews and blogs, you open up Facebook and see your timeline flooded with cricket updates. A whole population of facebookers is suddenly displaying great passion and excitement for the game.

“Newbies”, you chuckle to myself.

Stage 3:You can’t stop talking about it
As obsessed as you are, you need someone to talk to to relieve your stress. You call up your equally obsessed cousin who is the only person you know, who is as stressed out about the game as you are. Together you debate the game to death. Ultimately you both decide that your team will win and there is no point in worrying about it.On that very reassuring note you both set your alarms and hit the bed.

Stage 4:You can’t sleep
You sit up in your bed. Sleep is the farthest thing from your mind. You re-read the Cricinfo preview and double check the starting time for the game. You know that you’ve already set your alarm but just to be sure you want to set it again. “What if the alarm isn’t working?”, you think to yourself worriedly.

Paranoid moron that you are, you set your alarm for just one minute later. When it goes off, you are finally sure that the alarm is working. You set the alarm for 30 minutes before the start of the game.

Two minutes later, you check the alarm again.You just need  to make sure you set it to AM instead of PM.

“Wow I really need to get a life”, you think to yourself before eventually passing out.

Stage 5:The dreams
You fall asleep. You have an extremely elaborate dream about the game. Your team wins! As you happily watch your players celebrating, you hear a ringing sound in the background.

“Damn, it was just a dream”, you think disappointedly.

Stage 6:Calls at odd hours

The ringing sound is coming from your phone. No, it’s not the alarm. Your cousin is calling  you again.He can’t sleep. It’s two hours to the game. And you’re up.

Your cousin and you go over all the points that you discussed a few hours earlier. The tension of the game has gotten to you and you are now sure that your team will lose. Your cousin convinces you that you are simply being paranoid and that your team will win.

Don’t believe him. He’s lying.

Stage 7:The sleepless hours

There’s one hour left to the start of the game.You know that you have to work tomorrow and it would be ideal if you could get some sleep. You close your eyes and hope for some sleep. Nothing happens.

Stage 8:The alarm rings
A half hour later the alarm bell puts you out of your misery. It’s game time.

Stage 9:The previews
You put on the previews and listen to two old farts rambling on about how your team’s reverse swing or spin gives you  the edge.

Don’t believe them. They’re lying.

Stage 10: The toss
You wait for the toss. Your internet stream is playing an ad on the ‘claim time solicitors’. You think that the girl in the advertisement is cute. As ads continue to blare on your stream, you check the internet and discover that your team has lost the toss.

“Never mind”, you say to yourself. “The victory will be even sweeter if we win after losing the toss”.

It won’t. As soon as you lose the toss in a  big game you lose the game. Walk away right now!

Anyway your team will be bowling first.

Step 11: The dropped catch
A catch goes down. You want to tear your hair out. However, you realize that the moment has passed and there is nothing you can do about it.

“It’s all in the past”, you console yourself. Quickly, you re-focus your attention on the game.

Two overs later the batsman at the other end is dismissed.

“See it all evened out”, you tell yourself.

It never does. The dropped catch will haunt you for years.

Stage 12: The pause
Your cricket stream suddenly crashes. You are glad to get a small break from the game and run to the restroom. When you come back, you are excited at the possibility that a wicket could have fallen. You put  the cricket stream back on.

The ‘Claim Time Solicitors’ ad is on again. This time however, you take one look at the cute girl in the ad and get pissed off.

“Bitch”, you mutter under your breath.

The ad break meanwhile is extending beyond the normal time.

“This can only mean one thing”, you think to yourself excitedly.”It’s a long break because a wicket has fallen”.

You await the new batsman. But alas, it’s never a new batsmen.Turns out there was a delay because the side-screen had some issues.

Stage 13: The Kaalee bud dua (black enchantment)
It’s been a while since a wicket fell. You are on the phone with your cousin. You both realize that it’s time for some drastic measures.  Your cousin tells you that he is now putting a kaalee bud dua on the current batsman.

The kaalee bad dua is an elaborate process. The way it works is that your subject has to stay on strike for four consecutive balls. On the second ball there will be an LBW appeal or an appeal for caught behind against him. The appeal will be turned down. Don’t worry, this close call is merely a confirmation from God that the kaalee bud dua is in effect.

If the Kaalee bud dua works, batsman will get out on the fourth ball.

There are a few crucial prerequisites for the kaalee bad-dua to work. Both the participants in the phone call must believe that the bad-dua will work. If either person’s belief wavers even slightly, the batsman will be able to get off strike by taking a single and the kaalee bud-dua will be rendered meaningless.

If the kaalee bad-dua doesn’t work, it is likely that your cousin will tell you that it failed because you didn’t believe in it. Don’t be too sad though. 2 overs later the batsman will get out. It seems that the kaalee bad-dua did in fact work but the result was produced with a bit of a delay. Well, in any case you’re happy that your belief has been repaid.

It is now the end of the innings and the opposition has racked up a decent score.Once the innings concludes you get your snacks and return to the TV.

The old farts are back on. They all agree that your team is still the favorite to win the game.

Don’t believe them. They’re lying.

Your team’s batting innings finally begins.

Stage 14: You hold your pee

You have this superstition that if you leave the game to pee, your batsmen will be dismissed. Therefore you feel that you have to hold it for as long as you can. You sit loyally by the TV for a long time. Your team makes good progress and does not lose a wicket.

Finally when you can no longer control your bladder, you head to the toilet. You pee to your heart’s content. You feel much more relaxed.When you come back, you look nervously at the scorecard. Yup, a wicket has fallen. You blame yourself.

Think about it, you’re blaming your pee for a wicket.  Seriously, this is beyond obsession. Get out now!

Stage 15: You become desperate and clingy
Much like the closing stages of a romance, this stage is inevitable. As wickets fall regularly, you become more and more anxious. Finally your tail-enders are at the crease . Logic is still telling you that the game is over.

But you’re desperate now. When your tail-enders starts to slog, you stare hopefully at the TV again.

“Miracles do happen”, you tell yourself.

They don’t. The game is lost. Shut off the TV and go to sleep.

DISCLAIMER: All rights to the Kaalee Bud-Dua are exclusively reserved for Mr Shoaib Naveed

Pakistan cricket – Unravelling the minds..

Cool dudes, tableeghees, womanizers, corrupt fucks, sneaky fucks, junkies, fat boys, lazy boys, useless boys, pretty boys, youngsters, showmen, crazies and phattoos; Pakistan cricket’s got ‘em all. Reflecting over the countless hours I’ve spent following meaningless cricket, I can at least proclaim a degree of expertise in recognizing these personalities and unraveling the minds that run behind their often-legendary antics.

In spite of the wide variety of cricketers at my disposal, it is the name of Abdul Razzaq that screams out for instant recognition. Where lazy boys go, Razzaq is in a distinct league of his own. Once on the field, Razzaq steps into his own bubble. In the Razzaq bubble, everything moves at his pace; the rest it seems is immaterial.

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In the Razzaq bubble…

 

The Razzaq bubble phenomenon is best displayed when the ball is struck in his direction. It may be early in the innings, but already his brain is fixated on more impending issues. Lost in his thoughts, Razzaq suddenly notices that all the fielders in the ground are pointing towards him. Razzaq stands unmoved. Finally when none of the fielders can get through to him, Afridi decides to take matters into his own hands and shouts at Razzaq. Afridi, I might explain is the only person on the field able to perpetrate the Razzaq bubble. Upon hearing his call, Razzaq catches sight of the white ball streaking across the outfield in his direction. He now starts to panic.

The beauty of Razzaq is that even as he panics, his body reacts in a normal graceful fashion. I believe that somewhere between hearing Afridi’s call and seeing the ball rolling towards him, Razzaq’s brain sends certain signals to his body. This process probably takes a few seconds. And then Razzaq starts to run. Well I say run, for lack of a better word. It’s only a gentle trot really. Keeping his hands straight, he moves in a graceful, repetitive motion. As he gets closer to the ball, he feels that a dive is in order. While his brain is still processing this new request, the ball has crossed the rope.

“Oh well”, thinks Razzaq. “It was hit too hard anyway”. Razzaq nonchalantly picks up the ball from the boundary and throws it back. Back in the bubble he goes.

Razzaq’s partner in crime, Shahid Afridi presents a compelling case to head the category of the crazies. Afridi’s batting mishaps are by now the stuff of legend. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to break down the process leading up to Afridi’s inevitable flashes of madness.

As is often his wont, right before he enters the field, Afridi promises himself. “Today I will play out the first three overs. Then I’ll see if there’s a loose ball”
.
Ball 1. Respectably played away towards the leg side. No run.
“This is good, I’m playing myself in. No need to panic, lots of overs to go.” thinks Afridi to himself.

Ball 2: Played towards the leg side. Into the gap. 2 runs.
“Wah, wah Lala, I’m finally coming of age as a batsman”. The success of this new approach has left Afridi excited.

Ball 3: Something bizarre happens. Only it would be bizarre if it hadn’t happened 250 times before.

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Wow, never seen that one before Afridi

 

Afridi himself suggests that he forgets about defending the ball as soon as he hears the crowd cheering him on. If one was to believe Afridi’s explanation, it would mean that the crowd’s voice enters Afridi’s ears, reaches his brain, and attempts to turn it off. With his brain in a hanging mode, Afridi’s body turns to its default action. The result by now is imprinted in our memories. The ball skies into the deep and Afridi is caught.

As he trudges off the field, Afridi’s brain turns back on.” What the hell just happened?”, he thinks to himself. “I thought I was going to play a long innings this time!”

“Maybe I’m just not cut out for this sensible batting”, concludes Afridi despairingly. “I think I’ll just concentrate on my bowling from now on.”

We’ve witnessed this sequence of events for the last 15 years. 15 years, imagine that. When Afridi first batted this way, I was in grade 8. Today, I’ve completed high school, undergrad, grad school and 5 years of professional life. A lot around me has changed. One thing hasn’t. Afridi still bats like this.

The most fascinating genre of Pakistani cricketers is the corrupt fucks. I’ve always been curious about what the corrupt fucks must be thinking when they’re on the field. As the subject of my analysis, I’ve chosen that distinguished TV expert on ARY, Salman Butt. I might add of course, that I am only tentatively assuming that Butt is guilty. After all he does present a strong case of innocence (Did you know that he has some new proof that proves that he’s innocent? Oh and he says that he only went to jail to protect the country’s honor. What a martyr)

Anyway let’s try to envisage a scenario where Salman Butt has been instructed by Mazhar Majeed to play out a maiden over. I think the sequence of events must be something like this:

“Ohh man I nearly forgot, this is the over isn’t it? Mazhar said I needed to play out a maiden”, thinks Butt to himself.

The first ball whizzes past Butt’s outside edge.

As the bowler heads back to the start of his run up Butt’s conscience has suddenly made an appearance. “Come on yaar, I thought I wasn’t gonna do this anymore. I’m captain of my country, maybe I should just forget what Majeed said”

The second ball goes by and Butt is still debating with his conscience.

“It’s not my fault, I have so many responsibilities. I have to earn money for my sister’s dowry, have to feed the family. Besides, I really need to purchase a new watch.”

The third ball leaves Butt seriously wrestling with his paranoid side.

“What if I get caught? ICC’s got scouts all over. What if Mazhar rats me out?”

Butt is now visibly nervous.

“I need to think of all the money I’ll make”, he reassures himself. “ Besides I’m only playing a dot ball. I’ll make up for it in the next over. Come on yaar, every player in the world is doing it, why shouldn’t I?”

2 more balls go by and Butt through a mixture of intent and incompetence, has now played out 5 balls without scoring.

Before the bowler returns to his mark for the final ball, Butt has finally calmed down and is now thinking rationally.

“I think I’ll give most of the money to charity, this way it’ll go towards a good cause. It’s all about the country you know”.

On that very benevolent note, Butt blocks the last ball.

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The innocent who was “set up”

 

The useless boys are the bane of my existence. Imran Farhat has long been the flag bearer for this category. For more than a decade I have watched helplessly as Farhat has somehow made his way to the team, swished at balls outside his off stump,made a fool of himself and then disappeared back into the wilderness.

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Why does everybody hate me?

 

With regards to his persistent plays and misses outside the off stump, I believe Farhat usually goes in thinking,”I think I’ll look good if I drive this ball without moving my feet. After all, I have excellent hand-eye coordination”.

Sadly he’s doesn’t.Ball after ball passes by Farhat; bat and ball simply refuse to make contact.One would think that Farhat’s reaction to this sad predicament would be, “Yaar itna ghatia player naheen hona chahiyay tha mujhay.” (I should not suck so much)

But I don’t think that’s his reaction. I genuinely believe that Farhat is a fan of his own batting. This can be the only explanation for why he keeps swinging outside his off stump with such confidence that his endeavors will bear fruit.

However, despite all his swagger at the crease, the inner Farhat is a broken man. The impatience of the media and the cricket fans weighs down heavily on Farhat every time he takes strike.The poor guy is truly overcome with emotion as he takes strike.

“Why does everybody hate me?” he thinks to himself in a rush of sadness. The ball meanwhile keeps whizzing past his outside edge.

To conclude my musings for now, I’ll touch upon a category that has long suffered from the vagaries of Pakistan cricket, ‘the youngsters’. Hassan Raza makes a strong case to be considered a veteran of this category.

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The eternal youngster

 

As a youngster, not much is to be expected from Hassan Raza. His mind is occupied with only one thought as he nervously takes strike.

“I’m too young. I’m too young. I’m too young”.

As he is trapped LBW and trudges back to the pavilion, Hassan Raza reflects sadly on his career.

“I was picked too young. I’m still so young. One day when I’m not so young I’ll play a long innings”.

I believe you Hassan. In fact, I look forward to the day when you’ll finally graduate from the youngster category.

One can only hope that men from all these categories; the youngsters, the crazies, the useless boys,etc. can find their salvation and inner peace in the rocky world that is Pakistan cricket. Until they do, one can only be a curious, helpless and often exasperated spectator to their peculiar antics and hope that they do not cause us too much embarrassment along the way.

Pakistani cricket – the soap opera of madness

Where enthralling story lines go, Pakistani cricket is the stuff elaborate and sometimes-horrifying dreams are made off. Having devoured more than my fair share of mediocre television productions over the years, I feel Pakistan cricket comfortably outstrips these stories in the richness of its characters, the intrigue of its story lines and the sheer surprises it throws the way of its spectators.

It is from its characters that Pakistan cricket derives many of its glorious storylines.  There is Javed Miandad, the bitchy and part senile grandmother, whining persistently in the background. There is Intikhab Alam, the all-powerful grandfather who still has a say in all the decisions in the family. There is Shoaib Malik, the devious and cunning daughter-in-law, forever jostling for power with the other women in the family. There is Sarfraz Nawaz and Amir Sohail, the next-door gossipers. There is Rashid Latif, the do-gooder of the family. There is Shoaib Akhtar, the spoilt brat who rebels against the family. No great story is complete without an idiot. Ijaz Butt fulfilled this role with distinction for a number of dark years for Pakistan cricket.  The list goes on endlessly, each character bringing a unique flavor to the storyline.

The sub plots of Pakistan cricket provide entertainment and intrigue in equal measure. Imagine for a second, how the oath taking ceremony that led to the sacking of Younis Khan must have played out. 5 of our main characters stand in a circle. Mohommad Yousaf walks into the darkened room, beard flowing in the wind, a book grasped firmly in his right hand. The devious daughter-in-law, Shoaib Malik steps forward boldly and puts her hands on the book. Emboldened by Malik’s action, the other players in the room follow suit. Together they swear in passionate overtones, ” We will not play under Younis Khan and will do everything in our power to destroy him”. Death and illness is wished on anyone who goes against the oath.

Shoaib Malik - the cunning daughter-in-law

Lest the viewer starts getting bored, the story provides its first action sequences to liven up the mood. A Sri Lankan team visits Pakistan to play a cricket series. On the field Samaraweera is smashing the Pakistani bowlers all over the place. Cricket however is too trivial a matter to dominate Pakistan cricket. Enter, the villains.

True to its rich storyline, Pakistan cricket does not boast just any standard villain. The enemy instead is a group of disgruntled individuals reportedly affiliated with the Taliban. One fine day, as the Sri Lankan team is riding a bus to the cricket ground, our villains appear on their motorcycles, armed with AK47 rifles, grenades and rocket grenade launchers. The security members charged with protecting the Sri Lankan team are either killed or flee the spot, leaving the Sri Lankan players at the mercy of the attackers. After firing at the bus, the villains mount their motorcycles and ride back confidently into the streets of Lahore. The guests are predictably traumatized. They raise a huge ruckus, especially the Englishman Chris Broad, who bemoans the pitiful lack of security.

The story is getting too intense, one feels. It is an appropriate time for the idiot in the story to make an appearance. Enter, Ijaz Butt. Chris Broad is lying, he says. Forget about the fact that two of the Sri Lankan players ended up with shrapnel in their bodies and an umpire took a bullet in the back. Ijaz Butt says the security obviously worked because nobody died. The senile grandmother, Javed Miandad throws her weight behind Ijaz Butt and suggests that the ICC should put a life ban on Chris Broad for his comments on the terrorist attacks. It is a testament to the quality of the script of Pakistan cricket, that the dialogues that are worthy of this historic occasion.

The idiot makes an appearance

The spoilt brat of Pakistani cricket, Shoaib Akhtar provides the story with some much-needed comic relief. True to his rebellious, playboy nature Akhtar has been indulging with a plethora of women. No need to get startled, it is after all the story of every flamboyant sportsman. The Pakistani cricketer however decides to take things to an impressive new level. He contracts a horrible sexual disease and is benched from the Pakistani team. The media meanwhile, is awash with rumors of Shoaib Akhtar’s poor fitness and injury prone body. The Pakistan cricket board however, is desperate to get the truth off its chest. It releases a statement on the following day, explaining Akhtar’s absence from the team.

“The medical board has reported that Shoaib Akhtar was suffering from genital viral warts and the wound needs further care and treatment for another 10 days.”

Shoaib provides further entertainment.  One day after net practice, Shahid Afridi is telling Shoaib Akhtar how he needs to improve his attitude towards the youngsters in the Pakistan team. Mohammad Asif happens to walk out of the shower at that very instant. Afridi asks him what he thinks of Akhtar. Asif has a twinkle in his eye. He merely smiles at Akhtar. Akhtar gets angry and picks up the bat that is lying nearby, conveniently. He strikes Asif on the leg. Like a true hero, Afridi steps in front of Akhtar and protects the young protégé from further harm. Asif meanwhile, is writhing in pain. Predictably, Akhtar is banished from the Pakistani cricket family. When he returns home, he calls an angry press conference blaming Shahid Afridi for inciting him by saying derogatory things about his family.

Grandfather Intikhab Alam takes the cake for his explanation about Shoaib Akhtar’s consistently erratic behavior.

“He drinks alcohol and has an active sex life”, says Intikhab. A most worthy explanation, indeed.

"Shoaib Akhtar drinks alcohol and has an active sex life"

Shahid Afridi often makes cameo appearances in the headlines of Pakistan cricket. This one particular scene transpires during the final ODI of a disastrous tour of Australia. As Pakistan captain, Afridi feels that it is his responsibility to makes things happen on the field. Instead of his spinning fingers, he decides to unleash his teeth on the game and takes a bite at the ball. After the match, a curious journalist asks Afridi what on earth he was trying to do.

“I was trying to smell the ball”, he replies. ” Just to see how it was feeling”. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

Before he was eventually banned from cricket, Mohammad Asif was busy adding some rich storylines to Pakistan cricket. Let us hark back to 2006, the year of Asif’s first major foray into the craziness that is Pakistan cricket. Asif decides that his recent success on the cricket field is not exciting enough for him. He starts to take performance-enhancing drugs. The Pakistan cricket board bans him for a year. In truly Pakistani fashion, his punishment is overturned and he returns to the team. An emboldened Asif travels to the Indian Premier League where he continues his experimentation with drugs. On his way back to Pakistan, he stops over at the Dubai airport. The authorities catch him with hash in his wallet. He is forced to spend 20 days in a prison in Dubai. After much embarrassment, the Pakistani government interferes. The fast bowler is released from prison and banned from cricket for a year. The story however, does not end here.

Upon his return to cricket, Asif resumes his excellence on the field.  Drugs are a thing of the past, it seems. Asif however, has found a new hobby. He starts to accept money from bookies in exchange for underperforming on the cricket field. Talk about living on the edge! As news of his latest indiscretion breaks out, Pakistan cricket throws out its latest twist. Veena Malik steps into the picture. She insists that she has known all along about Asif’s match fixing ventures and is willing to deliver all the evidence she has to ICC about her ex-flame. It really is the stuff great soap operas are made off.

Veena Bhabi to aa jaayain beech main..

Even in moments of sadness, the story of Pakistani cricket has confounded its viewers and transgressed into moments of total insanity. In the 2007 world cup, the team falls to a most humiliating defeat to Ireland and is unceremoniously dumped from the world cup. Before the spectators have barely had time to digest this defeat, the Pakistani coach Bob Woolmer is found dead in his room on the very next day. If this were the story of any other cricket team, its players would be showered with sympathy. But this is Pakistan cricket. It has no time for sentimental moments. The plot takes a most dangerous and unpredictable turn as a criminal investigation is opened into the death of Woolmer and some of the players are considered as possible accomplices his murder. Champagne bottles are checked for poison and the players’ rooms are ransacked for any evidence linking them to the murder. Due to a lack of evidence, the police eventually settle on suicide as a distinct possibility. The next-door gossiper Sarfraz Nawaz however is having none of it. He is sure that Woolmer was killed as part of an elaborate match fixing conspiracy. When asked if he has any evidence of match fixing, Sarfraz says that he is an expert at human psychology and bases his evidence on the body language of the players in the game.

Long live the gossip queen.

It has been a roller coaster experience, being privy to the insanity that is Pakistan cricket. In recent times, Pakistan cricket has been trying desperately to deprive us off these glorious storylines. It has in fact been months since the media revealed its customary juicy anecdotes about the Pakistani team. It is, but the lull before the storm. Even today us Pakistani fans rest assured, that for every Misbah-ul-Haq who comes to the team espousing his sensible brand of thinking, a new Pakistani cricketer is on the verge of making headlines, adding his own unique brand of lunacy to this never ending soap opera of madness.

An open letter to Dav Whatmore

Dear Dav Whatmore,

First of all congratulations I believe, are in order. Last I heard you were still going be our new coach. Unless you piss off Intikhab Alam in the next week, there’s a good chance you will be our new coach.  Mind you it ain’t no easy task keeping Intikhab happy. You see, in our cricketing circles, Intikhab is the closest thing to Don. Coaches have come and gone, players have won world cups, fixed games and even gone to jail.  Intikhab’s always been there.  And trust me Dav, he’s going to be there long after you’re gone. I’m pretty sure he’s even going to get your job after you leave. Just keep him happy all right?

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The Don

Now I know you think you’re going to come in and start solving Pakistan cricket’s problems from day one. Don’t be foolish now. There’re some things you just don’t change. Take the wicket keeping, for example.  Every wicket keeper who plays for Pakistan has to have the surname ‘Akmal’. Sound stupid? Well that’s just the way it is. We like our keepers to be short, stupid and irritating. We can even deal with a couple of dropped catches in every innings. Hey they score runs for us, you know! Kamran Akmal once got a hundred against India on a seaming track!

You want to do something useful, here’s what you do. There’s this guy, Farhat, you know the left-hander who keeps swishing outside off and never connects? When you see him, you tell him to stay at home. Two days later you’re going to get a call from a guy called Ilyas. He’s going to abuse you and I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be ugly. Just stay strong Dav. Ilyas swears a lot but he’s actually really sweet once you get to know him.

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Ilyas - sweet once you get to know him

There’s something else you should know. The most scolding our boys have had is a little “loving word” by Mohsin Khan. Please don’t yell at Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali. They’re sensitive you know. Umar Gul is also one of our favorites. We allow him to go for 7 runs an over for two or three successive games. I mean he won us the T20 world cup in 2009 for God sake! He’s our match winner so we always play him.

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Umar Gul the laadla

If you ever want to punish someone in the team, you can always find Umar Akmal. But just be aware, he’s going to make all these excuses like “I can’t perform if I’m going lower down the order” or “you’re tiring me by making me keep wickets”. Don’t you listen to him; he’s just a kid.  And for God sake throw away his damn lipstick.

Then there’s Afridi. I think you’ve probably heard by now that he doesn’t really deal with coaches. Please don’t be stupid enough to try and teach him anything. He’s a senior player and senior players don’t need coaching. In fact you must address him as “senior player” at all times otherwise he gets really touchy. There’s something else you should know. Six or seven months into your tenure, Afridi will announce his retirement. Don’t worry, it’ll have nothing to do with you, someone in the board won’t call him “senior player” and he’ll get pissed about that. He’ll come back in two months don’t you worry.

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Senior player

I’m sure you’re also wondering what’s up with this Hafeez guy. Well it’s quite simple really. In every game you must expect only 10 runs from Hafeez. Then he’s going to get out. Don’t get upset Dav, at least he’ll look good when he’s batting. Besides, he’s totally going to make up for it with his bowling. We don’t really need good starts anyway, that’s why we have such an experienced middle order! You can always count on Younis and Misbah to rebuild the innings. Just remember, in ODIs there will be 10-15 overs in the middle of the innings when Younis and Misbah don’t like to score too many runs. Just don’t worry all right? They’ll make up the runs at the end of the innings! Miandad has always taught them that if they conserve their wickets in the middle, miracles will happen at the end. Plus, our team’s got so many hitters down the order that they can easily score 120 in the last 10 overs. And shut up and don’t bring up Mohali, ok? It was just a one-off.

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Wickets bacha lo yaar end main ho jaayay ga score.

You must never question our tactics, Dav. Around the 20th over of the innings when the spinners, Ajmal and Afridi are bowling, Misbah doesn’t like to put too many fielders in the circle. No, I know what you’re thinking, it doesn’t matter if his team’s on top or not. He just doesn’t want to risk giving away any boundaries to the opposition. Do us a favor, don’t be a smart-ass in trying to push Misbah to put men around the bat. He doesn’t like it, I’m telling you now! Why don’t you figure out some other way of getting the batsmen out so that he doesn’t have to take any risks?

There is this one problem you should definitely be aware of. Every time our batsmen go to England, South Africa and Australia, they don’t score more than 180 runs in any innings. Hey it’s not their fault that they’ve played all their lives on flat wickets! It’s a problem at the grassroots and it’ll only be fixed there. You can’t expect our players to improve their techniques once they’re selected! They’re senior players now! It doesn’t work that way in Pakistan! But don’t you worry Dav, Intikhab’s already drawing out a plan to improve the standard of pitches at the grassroot level.

We also have a bit of a problem with our fielding. I know you think you and this guy Julien Fountain are going to revitalize Pakistan’s fielding. I’m telling you already, your fancy drills won’t work on our boys. Once in every three games they’ll field as if they’ve never caught a ball in their life. Don’t blame yourself when it happens all right? And it’s not their fault either! It’s a problem at the grassroots level. Come on you can’t expect our players to improve their fielding once they’re selected! They’re senior players now! But again, don’t worry Dav, Intikhab’s also drawing out a master plan to improve the fielding at the grassroot level.

Finally, you need to be really careful about how you treat the Pakistani cricket fans. I’ll make it really simple for you. We’ll like you if our team wins. We’ll burn your damn effigies if our team loses. You should also listen to what we have to say about team selection. I’m going to make it simple for you Dav. For now, we need Asim Kamal, Anwar Ali and Mohommad Irfan to be included in the team. On behalf of the fans I would like to say.

“Asim Kamal kay saath hamesha ziaatee hotee hai yaar.”

“Anwar Ali kahaan gaya yaar he performed really well at under 19 level”.

On behalf of Pakpassion I also want to add.

“ Mohommad Irfan is really talented. He was just really nervous on his debut, give him another chance and I’m sure he’ll perform.”

I think those are enough pointers for now, Dav. If you  have any questions please shoot an email at Intikhab@MainHoonDon.com. I’m sure all your queries will be answered. Good luck.

Yours sincerely,

Assad

Shoaib Akhtar – the misunderstood rebel

Akhtar - the entertainer...

There were drugs. There were women. There were even rumors of sexually transmitted diseases. There were tantrums. There were smashed skulls.  There was always adrenaline.  The life of Shoaib Akhtar is one of the most fascinating soap operas to have come out of Pakistan cricket. It is the story of a free-spirited, proud and sometimes arrogant boy from Rawalpindi, one who found his dreams in the world of cricket, but found with them the rules, the politics and the pain that hounded him till the day he left it.

There are many sub-plots to the Shoaib Akhtar story, each as fascinating as the next. There is Shoaib the typical Pakistani boy; raised by an adoring family that struggled to make ends meet. There is Shoaib the angry, ill-tempered youth; one who picked fights on the streets, proudly wore scars on his chest and even carried a gun to scare off his enemies.  Then there is Shoaib the cocky young talent who was kicked off a youth tour for indiscipline. Finally there is Shoaib the success story; the youngster who supplanted Waqar Younis from the Pakistan side, the hero who conquered Tendulkar, the dreamer who became the fastest bowler in the world and the spearhead that terrorized the best batsmen in the game.

My earliest recollections of Shoaib Akhtar are from a sleepy morning in Rawalpindi, when he made his debut against a struggling West Indies batting lineup.  It was hard to get too excited by his early exploits; it was after all a time when the two W’s were still the toast of Pakistan cricket. Another exciting young talent, Mohommad Zahid had already taken Pakistan cricket by storm with his incredible performances against New Zealand.  Meanwhile the impressive Shahid Nazir and Mohommad Akram were also waiting on the fringes of selection.

It was only on a tour to South Africa, in 1998, when Shoaib first captured my imagination. On a fast wicket in Durban, he combined pace and reverse swing to deadly effect and ran through a rather shell-shocked South African batting lineup. There were now obvious reasons to be excited; Shoaib had bowled the typically Pakistani spell of fast bowling that us cricket fans doted on; the crushing yorkers, the sharp banana swing, the consistent clattering of stumps and the rapid procession of batsmen to the dressing room. Despite the obvious similarities to his predecessors, something about Shoaib just felt different. While bowlers like Wasim, Waqar and Imran were smooth, graceful and often artistic, there seemed a certain savagery about Shoaib; an anger that he seemed to channel every time he landed a cricket ball.

 

It was on the historic tour of India in 1999 when Shoaib Akhtar finally got the public attention he had always craved. His two iconic yorkers to Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar were to win Pakistan an unlikely victory and become an instant part of cricketing folklore. Not since the wickets of Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis in the 1992 world cup final, had two balls generated such a furore in Pakistan cricket. The world cup of 1999 that followed the Indian series, provided the perfect platform for Shoaib to announce himself to a global audience that had for the longest period, been starved off true pace. Ever the showman, Shoaib started the tournament in exhilarating fashion; delivering a searing bouncer to Sherwin Campbell that kissed the edge of his bat and flew over third man for six. In a matter of a few games the entire cricketing audience had taken notice. The fastest bowler in the world had well and truly arrived; the era of Shoaib Akhtar had finally begun. Or so it seemed.

 

The story of the remainder of Shoaib Akhtar’s career is tinged with controversies, disciplinary issues and a smattering of match-winning performances. Ironically, Shoaib’s  biggest challenge throughout his career came not from the batsmen that he bowled to, the chucking or drug allegations he faced up to or the authorities that he defied. His biggest enemy in fact was his own brittle body; the body that he had built up through weight training and excessive running to withstand the rigors of fast bowling; yet the body that was ill-equipped to handle the immense stress he was putting on it. It is a testament to his mental strength and love for the game that Shoaib was able to fight back from repeated injuries and maintain high levels of performance throughout his career. The days of his comebacks were a thrill in themselves; I recall waking up early mornings, excitedly counting the minutes to Shoaib’s opening bowling spell. I remember worrying that after months out of the game Shoaib would perhaps not be able to bowl at the same exhilarating pace. It was but a needless worry. Once he was warmed up, the speed guns would inevitably started clocking the 90mph mark again; balls would again start flying past nervous batsmen. I remember looking anxiously at Shoaib every time he winced in mild discomfort and praying that it was not another serious injury. Even when he performed, I applauded nervously, fearing that his fragile body would not be able to withstand the stress of his heroics. I found it rather tragic that the pace that was his biggest asset was also in fact his biggest burden. True to his persona though, Shoaib would never stop entertaining; stubbornly he refused to slack his pace, retaining the long run up and vigorous bowling action that made him the bowler that he was.

For the brief uninterrupted instances when he played without injuries, Shoaib Akhtar was a sight to behold. His raw pace meant that Shoaib was able to take flat wickets out of his bowling equation; his unrelenting spirit allowed him to achieve scarcely believable feats, especially in test cricket. Over time I came to associate Shoaib Akhtar with a certain type of miracle-worker, one who would defy all logic and achieve extraordinary things on the field of play. A test match against New Zealand in 2002 provides just about the perfect example of what a motivated Shoaib could do on his day. Pakistan had closed their first innings on a mammoth 643 runs. A bored Shoaib Akhtar decided it was time to let loose. For 8 glorious and intimidating overs, he steamed in on a completely placid Lahore wicket. I remember wondering to myself in the midst of his spell, if there was anything the Kiwis could have done differently; every yorker was so consistently accurate, every bouncer so relentlessly brutal. It was no surprise therefore, that 5 of the New Zealand batsmen ended up with their stumps in disarray. Ironically, Shoaib’s contribution to the test match, ended with the first innings. He walked off injured after his spell, but not before he had already delivered the knockout punches of the game.

There were numerous other instances especially in games involving the world champions of the time Australia where Shoaib Akhtar was quite often the only saving grace in the otherwise depressing mediocrity of Pakistan’s performances. In 1999, he bowled what Justin Langer still swears is the fastest spell ever bowled in test match cricket. Then there was his unforgettable performance in the VB series of 2002 when Shoaib went head-to-head with Brett Lee and produced some of the most destructive spells of fast bowling every seen in the ODI format. My personal favorite however was a performance in a test match in Colombo when he made the best of a hopeless situation and ravaged through a powerful Australian batting lineup. Within a spell of a few overs the Australians had collapsed to the pace of Shoaib; he had single-handedly put his side with an unlikely shot at victory.

 

It was not always smooth sailing however for Shoaib Akhtar. The 2003 world cup match against India, probably the biggest game of Shoaib’s career will forever remain a blight on his impressive career. Concentrating too much on pace, Shoaib was handed a harsh lesson by Sachin Tendulkar who smashed him to all corners of the Centurion Park. It was to be turning point in Shoaib’s career; dropped in the aftermath of the humiliating defeat, he perhaps finally realized that there was more to fast bowling than his extreme pace.

Given the chastening experience of the world cup, Shoaib Akhtar came back to cricket a far more intelligent bowler. As time progressed he became better at varying his lengths to different batsmen and exploiting their weaknesses. I remember relishing his thrilling battles against Matthew Hayden in the 2004 tour of Australia; Shoaib had openly baited Hayden in the media and promised a thorough challenge to the southpaw from Queensland. As it turned out, Shoaib was precise in his assessments; he relentlessly exploited Hayden’s heavy footwork and kept trapping him on the crease, opening up a weakness that bowlers exploited to the day of Hayden’s retirement.

It was in the 2006 home series against England however, that Shoaib Akhtar was in his element as a fast bowler. If stories are to be believed, Shoaib prepared extensively for the series, drawing detailed charts for each of England’s batsmen to formulate his game plan. It was one of the rare occasions when cricket saw the complete bowler in Shoaib Akhtar; when he used intelligence and a rare combination of pace, movement, bouncers and slower balls to deliver the defining performance of his career.

 

The 2007 series of SA was the last time Shoaib bowled Pakistan to victory in a test match. It was a game that summarized his career to perfection. Picked on a hunch by Pakistan’s delusional cricket chief Nasim Ashraf, Shoaib landed in Port Elizabeth, a man on a mission. 5 days later, he had bowled South Africa out for 120, picked up a hamstring injury, fought with the Pakistan coach and boarded the return flight to Pakistan. It was, in a way a microcosm of Shoaib Akhtar’s career; the random spurts of inimitable brilliance, accompanied by injuries and moments of total insanity.

Away from the field of play, there was more to Shoaib Akhtar, than the angry, violent exterior that he conveyed on the cricket field. Beneath all the macho aggression lurked a rare innocence and a terrific sense of humor.  Interviews with Shoaib would reveal his angst with being a misunderstood man; he struggled throughout his career to dispel the bad-boy image that the media had so conveniently associated with his personality. His statements sometimes made me wonder if he likened himself to a Bollywood star, persecuted by society; a broken, misunderstood hero.

The galloping run-up, the captivating release..

Less surprising perhaps was the adventurous, often rebellious side to Shoaib Akhtar’s personality. While the rest of the Pakistan team ventured more towards overt religiosity, Shoaib was the rare exception, the rebel who would try extreme sports, court women in parties and drive around in fancy cars. These tendencies were perhaps the primary reason for his uneasy relationship with Inzamam-ul-Haq; as he stubbornly refused to get sucked into the religious culture that was rapidly perpetuating through the Pakistani team. His huge ego unfortunately only added fire to the rumors of indiscipline about him as he repeatedly refused to cow down to powerful chairmen, captains or even the laws of the game that he loved.

It is rather unfortunate that the majority of the Pakistani public only warmed up to Shoaib Akhtar in the closing stages of his career. Towards the end of the world cup in 2011, it was obvious that the Rawalpindi Express was on borrowed time; the knees had finally given away and Shoaib had lost the strength to keep fighting his inevitable end. He hung on for that fairy tail ending that he so desperately wanted to his career. Sadly, he never got his chance and left cricket a bitter, emotional man. It was perhaps fitting in a way that a career that had frittered away so much promise should end in a blaze of regrets. For those of us fortunate enough to see him at his best though; the memories of his galloping run to the wicket, the brutality of his bowling and the flight of his celebration will forever remain the endearing memories of his career.

Burying the ghosts of an inconsistent past

And in a glorious, fleeting instance it happened.  A long time before Umar Gul positioned himself underneath the Anderson skier, a victory had already been won. Captaincy disputes, player resignations, suspicious batting collapses and jailed fast bowlers were relegated to nothing more than distant, forgotten memories.The Pakistani fan’s broken faith it seemed, had finally been healed. With every ball Misbah made us believe. And believe we did.

Unlike famous Pakistani wins of the past though, a certain logic accompanied the belief. It is easy to place trust in Misbah. As a captain, he has struck the happy medium between aggression and risk-aversion. Previous captains would have chosen to open the bowling with Junaid Khan in an effort to rough up the ball before the spinners came on. Misbah instead opened with Hafeez. Previous captains would have been tempted to persist with Hafeez after he had just picked up a wicket. Misbah instead replaced him with Rehman. Previous captains would have put a man on the boundary for Andrew Strauss’s powerful cut shot. Misbah instead chose to block him off from inside the 30 yard circle. Previous captains would have even brought on the ever-eager Umar Gul straight after tea, in an effort to blast out the tail. It was with his spinners however, that Misbah kept the faith. Every time a wicket fell, Misbah smiled confidently, with the air of a man who could see a master plan unfolding before him. And unfold it did.

The moment of victory...

 

Slowly, over the period of the first 20 odd overs, Misbah choked the life out of the English batting lineup. On the rare occasions that they pierced the strangling ring of close-in fielders, men stationed on the boundary would defend the boundaries, almost mocking England’s desperate efforts to break free. A pitiful four boundaries were struck in the entire fourth innings. And all this while Misbah attacked England with four men around the bat. It was a strategy executed with absolute, clinical precision.

It took however, considerable skill and control from Abdur Rehman and Saeed Ajmal to implement Misbah’s master plan. Ajmal was,well Ajmal. Shedding away the over hyped ‘teesra’ and resorting to his usual doze of doosras, off spinners and faster ones, he applied a relentless squeeze on England. Mentally scarred after their failures against him in the first test match, the Englishmen quickly gave up hopes of scoring runs off him. They chose instead to attack Ajmal’s unsung partner from the other end, Abdur Rehman.  It was, but a fatal mistake. Finding sharp spin from the bowler’s footmarks, Rehman delivered his own lethal concoction of off-spinners and arm balls. In a quite mesmerizing spell of 10 overs Rehman breached the defenses of five of England’s best batsmen. In a weird way, it was a throwback to a style of bowling patented by the great W’s, one in which they attacked the stumps and took Pakistan’s erratic fielders out of the equation by getting batsmen out bowled and LBW.

Come the 30th over of the innings, it was obvious that the English had given up.The final 6 wickets fell in a flurry, signaling the abject surrender of a team that could no longer withstand the relentless onslaught of the Pakistan bowlers.  Glorious, memorable moments of victory followed.

As a Pakistani cricket fan, it is simply a relief that cricket headlines around the world are once again using the words ‘stunning’, ‘glorious’ and ‘stable’ to describe Pakistan cricket. For a painful few years, ‘spot’ and ‘fixing’ have remained the two words most synonymous with Pakistan cricket. Certain sections of the media have even gone as far as professing a desire to see Pakistan cricket ‘given a break’ from mainstream international cricket while it sorts out its internal problems. Through stubbornness, tenacity and a sense of purpose however, Pakistani cricket has found its way again. It has been a marvelous story of how the unlikeliest of men, Misbah-ul-Haq and Mohsin Khan have come together to lift Pakistan cricket from the ruins of the spot-fixing scandal back to its rightful place amongst the top teams of international cricket. Mohommad Hafeez, Abdur Rehman, Saeed Ajmal and Taufeeq Umar, four men who have long suffered due to the inconsistency of Pakistan’s previous cricketing regimes have all joined Misbah at the forefront of this renaissance.

Misbah and Mohsin - the unlikeliest of them saviors

The success of the steady, calculated brand of cricket pursued by the current Pakistan side raises uncomfortable questions about why prior Pakistani managements have routinely pursued a flair-filled brand of cricket that has only brought it inconsistent results. For now it seems, Pakistan cricket has decided to do without the glitz and glamor of its teams from the 80s and 90s. For better or worse, a new face to Pakistan cricket has emerged; one of toughness, shrewdness and practicality. Its success suggests that perhaps it is time to bury the ghosts of the inconsistent, controversial and sometimes suspicious past of Pakistan cricket and usher in the era of Misbah’s tigers.

Tidings from Hell…

 

Like most imaginative individuals who have an abundance of free time, I often amuse myself with images of what hell would be like. I tend to agree with the general sentiment that the usual fire and steel rods routine should suffice as decent enough punishment for the regular person. But then again, I am no regular person. I am a cricket fan.If God is smart about it, he would realize quickly that there are better ways of making me repent my sins.

When I think about an eternal punishment custom designed for me, the first logical question that springs to mind is about the devil. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel strongly that any devil worth his salt should at least be able to torture me with his words. After much deliberation I’ve decided to use Sanath Jayasuria for the role of the devil. I find it appropriate that Jayasuria’s voice accompanies me in what should be the biggest punishment of my life.

The plot begins with my orientation in Hell where the devil, Jayasuria is giving me a personal guided tour . As we walk through a narrow passageway,angry desis are running to all parts. Jayasuria points towards  a small room on the right. Glad for a chance to escape the chaos, I oblige. Jayasuria straps me to the chair in the center and turns on the TV. Imran Farhat is batting.

“You will watch this for the next two hours”, he squeaks into my ear, “every time Farhat misses the ball, I’ll have a surprise for you”.

Jayasuria has a nasty smile on his face. Despite the situation, I find it hard to take him seriously.

“How bad can this be?”, I think to myself. “Farhat should at least be able to touch the ball”.

And then I start watching. Farhat is trying to drive at every ball and is missing most of his shots. Every time he misses, Jayasuria beats me with a bat. Despite the situation, the cricket fan in me can’t help but admire how powerful Jasyasuria’s bat swing is.  On the odd occasion when Farhat strikes the ball, Jayasuria decides to reward me by commentating on it.  By the end of the two hours both my body and ears are writhing in pain.

As Jayasuria unstraps me from the chair, I realize that I desperately need to use the loo. Hopefully, I turn to Jayasuria and ask him if I can be excused for a couple of minutes. He chuckles to himself. Quietly, he walks me to the other room. He does his routine of strapping me to the chair and turns on the TV. Misbah-ul-Haq is batting.

“As soon as Misbah scores a run, you can leave for the toilet”, says Jayasuria.

I nod thankfully, relieved at the thought that the devil has become sympathetic to my plight.

“This should be over soon”, I think to myself.

One hour later I am still there. Misbah-ul-Haq is stubbornly defending every ball that his thrown at him. His lunges and crouches look even uglier in Hell.  Jayasuria looks at me with a nasty glint in his eye. Scared of tortured again, I keep my eyes on the TV, trying not to concentrate on my bladder which is about to burst.

The Misbah show ends after two hours as he finally gets an inside edge to fine leg and reluctantly crosses over for a run. I am excused for a toilet break. The line to the only toilet in Hell reminds me of the entrance to the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium. The wait is long and painful. Every few minutes, tear gas is thrown into the queue of people.

“They don’t call it hell for nothing”, I think to myself.

To my immense excitement, guy standing next to me in the queue is none other than Salman Butt. Excited, I shake his hand and ask him how his experience in Hell has been.

” It’s all about the country yaar”, he says philosophically.

I ask him if he agrees with being sent to Hell. Disgruntled he replies, ” Evidence kay baghair tow these are just accusations, it’s all a conspiracy against Pakistan”.

Sycophantically, I nod my head in assent and switch the discussion to other matters.  Butt tells me that Mohommad Asif is also in Hell. “In fact,” he adds excitedly, “if you ever wanna get high, you should get in touch with Asif, he’s got a secret stash”.

Not knowing what to make of this piece of information I stand back in line, quietly awaiting my turn for the toilet. Once, I finally reach my destination, I realize that even the toilet reminds of the Rawalpindi Stadium. The less said about it the better.

When I return, Jayasuria is anxious to continue the rest of the tour.

“You must be bored of sitting in a chair by now,” says the devil with a sympathetic tone to his voice. “This should cheer you up”.

Jayasuria points to a new room. As I make my way inside, I see a familiar face smiling at me with an over-abundance of teeth on display. Kamran Akmal is standing there, with his full wicket-keeping gear on looking at me excitedly.

“What is this?”, I ask the devil incredulously.

Jayasuria proceeds to explain that I will be offering catching practice to Kamran Akmal.

“Catching practice! That’s it?”, I scream out in disbelief. Jayasuria winks at Kamran Akmal.

” Well not quite, Mr Assad. You see Mr Akmal has been dropping a lot of catches recently. The responsibility of getting him to catch again has been delegated to you.”

I gulp anxiously. “And what happens if he drops a catch?”, I ask Jayasuria.

The nasty smile on his face provides me the answer to my question.

“Don’t worry Assad bhai, I’ve improved my catching a lot recently. I should even be back in the team soon”, says Kamran Akmal assuredly.

And so we start the catching practice. True to his reputation, Akmal drops the easiest of catches. Similar to the Imran Farhat routine, Jasyasuria punishes me every time the catch is dropped. And sure enough, his bat swing is as powerful as his playing days.

For the last part of the day, Jayasuria takes me to a boxing ring.

“Wait here”, he indicates. After a few minutes, Jayasuria returns with two bulky, powerful men. On a closer look, I identify them to be Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds.

“You’ll be boxing with me today, mate”, says Hayden enthusiastically.

“Boxing with you?”, I ask nervously.

“And when you’re done with him, we’ll do a round too”, chips in Symonds.

It’s a scenario taken right out of my worst nightmare. It is only when I stand in the ring with him that I truly appreciate how big Hayden is,  Symonds is egging him on from the sidelines. Jayasuria meanwhile has taken up the opportunity to offer some running commentary.  For the next one hour, I am at the receiving end of a beating from Hayden. At the end of the rounds, I am ready to pass out.

“Come on mate, it’s my turn now”, says Symonds.

Symonds steps into the ring.Those bulging biceps and whitened lips look scarier than ever before. Braver than I was in the fight with Hayden, I manage to land in a couple of punches. I even throw in a few choice phrases borrowed from Harbajhan Singh. Needless to say, Symonds does not take this well. For the next one hour, my body is the victim of my stupidity.

By the end of this session, I am extremely tired and am ready to hit the bed. Sensing that I could use a break, the devil takes me to the quietest room in the area.

“So you want to sleep?”, he asks me.

“I’d appreciate that”, I reply trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.

“Well, maybe we can do something a little more fun than that”, he suggests.Too brain-dead to speculate, I am already prepared for the worst.

Jayasuria, switches on the TV. Sohail Tanvir and Salim Malik are bowling in tandem. The batsmen in the middle are Jack Russel and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. The batsmen to follow are Daniel Vettorri and Darren Lehman.

“You will watch this for the remainder of the night,” orders Jayasuria.” There is no sleeping in Hell”.

Myths, Romances and Comeback stories…

There’s something about certain cricketers that tickles the viewer’s senses. No matter how many times they let us down with the rubbish half-volley, the mindless swipe across the line or the ridiculously simple dropped catch, we tune in to the next game in the hope that they’ll finally live up to our illogical expectations.

Abdul Razzaq is a classic case in point. He’s given us enough reasons to hate him. He dropped Sachin Tendulkar in the 2003 world cup for God sake! He comes back into the team after every 6 months, fields like an idiot, bowls with hardly any pace and looks absolutely atrocious against any decent spin attack. Every time he lets a ball go through his legs, we laugh, we despair and we tear our hair out. But for some reason we put up with it. The reason can hardly be found in his largely unflattering bowling and batting averages over the last few years. I suspect the answer lies in those odd days in the year, when the Razzler blitzes anything and everything in his sight. The Saffers know what I’m talking about. Oh Razzaq how we live for these cameos. Who cares if you lose us a few games every now and then?

Then there’s that other enigmatic would-be prince of pace Mohammad Sami. A test average exceeding 50, an ODI economy of close to 5, one struggles to recall a single game in the last 10 years when he hasn’t received a royal pasting. He walks into the team after every few months with a new hairstyle and a promise to his fans that he’s finally developed a semblance of control over his lineup.He runs in and his beautiful bowling action melts our hearts all over again. He starts off with an impressive two overs. Maybe he has matured after all, we wonder in our excitement.Come the start of his third over the ball suddenly starts screaming to the boundary. And our boy Sami is back in all his glory. 6 overs of carnage later its regret all over again. Regret about what could have been. Regret that Pakistan’s most naturally gifted fast bowler in ten years has failed to carry on the legacy of his legendary predecessors. Regret that two outrageous performance against New Zealand are the only tales worth telling in a largely inglorious career. Yet, like true fans we’ll keep expecting that miracle from Sami. I hear he’s still touching 150 in domestic cricket. Glorious comeback story anyone?

Rumors are always circling the Pakistan cricket world about a certain swashbuckler by the name of Imran Nazir possibly walking back into the team. As ridiculous as this suggestion sounds, it reflects a romantic attachment to an idea that was born a few years ago, that in Imran Nazir Pakistan possessed an answer to Virendar Sehwag; that a little 20 ball flutter from him was all we needed to win ODI matches. That Nazir continues to get more attention than deserving domestic cricketers is more to do with how good looking his back foot shots look rather than any performances in international or even domestic cricket. But sure enough, the next time he smashes two balls to the boundary, cricket fans will rave about his wasted talent and how he provides us our most aggressive option at the top of the order. Wasim Akram once related a story of how he pinpointed to Nazir early on in his career that his glaring weakness against the incoming ball would be his undoing in international cricket. That he hasn’t been pushed to overcome these weaknesses is the fault of our cricketing culture and an easily satisfied fan base that continues to delight in his odd cameos that come once in every 2 years. Well who am I to talk? I must confess, if Pakistan pick him over Taufiq Umar for the England series I’ll secretly be rejoicing.

No discussion on Pakistan cricket’s would-be wonders could be complete without a musing over our two most over-hyped cricketers from the last decade, Asim Kamal and Anwar Ali. Anwar Ali’s biggest contribution to cricket has been an evening of freak inswing that castled an under-19 bunch of Indian cricketers. 6 years to the day, the average Pakistani fan still somehow believes him to be the next great swing bowler from the country. And then Asim Kamal. Oh Asim Kamal. Barry Richards ,one of the most talented batsmen of his time was forced to prematurely retire from international cricket with an average of 70 plus. I doubt whether South Africans have whined about his absence as persistently as the Pakistanis who’ve been mourning Asim Kamal’s absence ever since the English bowlers exploited his absentee footwork in the winter of 2005.

In recent years, I’ve often wondered if following Pakistan cricket would be any fun if we had a conventional, professional cricket setup like England or Australia. Well I for one am all for the soap opera moments in Pakistan cricket.We pick players on hunches, favoritism and attractiveness. We’re all about glorious comebacks. And sure enough, the next time I see Mohommad Sami and Imran Nazir in the Pakistan jersey, I’ll start hoping again for the miracle performance, conveniently overlooking the ten years of statistics that point to the contrary.

Pakistan vs England – a preview

3 weeks to the start of the England series, the pre-series banter has begun. What has been visibly evident is the conscious effort on the part of either side to show respect to the opposition. Strauss, Swann, Broad, Anderson and Bell have recognized Pakistan’s current form in the longer format and have refused to get drawn into any sort of psychological warfare with their opponents. The ‘hosts’ have exercised similar caution, quietly reflecting on their recent successes and their familiarity with the conditions in UAE.

If the current rankings are anything to go by, England should walk over Pakistan. The top order comprising Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pieterson and Bell is arguably the most technically sound lineup in world cricket. On the bowling front, England have an extremely varied attack that has proven its prowess on most pitches outside the sub-continent. Anderson has swung the ball both conventionally and in reverse at decent pace. Broad, on Andy Flower’s goading has finally started pitching the ball up and has set any Andrew Flintoff musings to rest. Bresnan and Tremlett have been charged with rouging up the batsmen with bounce and pace. Graeme Swann adds a most delicious balance to the attack and has shown the ability to attack and contain with equal adeptness.

The England bowlers’ biggest challenge will be in adapting to the notoriously flat wickets of the UAE. England’s recent 5-0 drubbing in an ODI series in India was not a result of fatigue or a lack of motivation. The results accurately portray an inability on the part of Anderson and co to extract life from the Indian surfaces and match their exploits on the more responsive pitches outside of the sub-continent. For all their recent successes, England’s batch of 2012 has yet to win a series on the spinning wickets of Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. A closer look at the England bowling performances reveals averages of 45.41 for James Anderson and 56.11 for Stuart Broad in the sub-continent. The averages shoot up even more if games involving Bangladesh are omitted from the analysis. While the sample sizes of these games are still not significant enough to give an accurate understanding of their capabilities, these uninspiring numbers will undoubtedly worry Andy Flower as he chooses from his bowling stocks. England’s fast bowlers must seek to draw inspiration from the 2001 victory under Nasser Hussain when Darren Gough switched to off-cutters, slower balls and reverse swing to help dismantle a solid Pakistan team.

Pakistan are an almost bizarre anti-thesis to the mercurial, aggressive band of glamorous talents who terrorized the Englishmen in the 90’s. The rather apologetic looking bowling attack of Umar Gul, Aizaz Cheema, Wahab Riaz and Junaid Khan is unlikely to send shivers down the English players’ spine. On the batting front, Pakistan have shed the expansive stroke-play characteristic of the Anwars, Inzamams and Yousafs of prior years and have reverted to their safety-first approach championed by the Pakistan teams of the 70’s and 80’s. In their eagerness to indoctrinate the team with this new strategy, Pakistan have even chosen to leave out their most dashing batsman, Umar Akmal from the test match team.

It is in spin that Pakistan will choose to find its aggression. In Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman and Mohommad Hafeez, Pakistan possess arguably the most varied and potent spinning lineup in the game. If Pakistan can somehow get through the impressive Strauss and Cook, the spinners are likely to enjoy bowling to Trott (averaging 34 in his only two games in the sub-continent) , Pieterson (averaging 34 in matches in the sub-continent in matches excluding Bangladesh) and Morgan (averaging 29 against Pakistan). The classy Ian Bell has traditionally been a thorn in Pakistan’s side (averaging 68.8 against Pakistan) and is likely to continue his love affair with the Pakistan attack.

The obsession with spin is however a dangerous double-edged sword. In the winter of 2001, Moin Khan arrogantly assumed that Saqlain, Mushtaq and Kaneria would spin webs around the English lineup which was supposedly vulnerable to spin. The strategy backfired miserably. The friendliest of trundlers,Ashley Giles turned in the decisive performance of the series and ended up with 17 wickets as England squeezed out a memorable win victory in the dark of Karachi. Fast forwarding to 2011, it is again the battle between the Pakistani batsmen and the English spin attack that could decide the fate of the test series. Judging from his performances in the last series between the two countries when he captured 28 wickets in 4 test matches, Graeme Swann has developed something of a mental hold over Pakistan’s batsmen and is likely to enjoy the extra assistance on offer from the pitches in the UAE. As Pakistan found to their dismay in England, being rooted to the crease is a dangerous option against Swann who uses subtle variations in flight, drift and sharp spin to outfox batsmen. In recent years Pakistan have displayed similar weaknesses against spinners such as Panesar, Warne, Herath, Murali, MacGill and even Nathan Hauritz, as they have managed to tie down the Pakistan batsmen and have attacked with plenty of close-in fielders. In preparing to counter the threat of Swann, the Pakistani batsmen could do worse than to look at the way India’s batsmen have tackled Swann by improvising and refusing to allow him to dictate terms. The key for Pakistan’s batsmen will be to put Swann off his length by sweeping, using the feet and guarding against his drift. If the Pakistani batsmen let Swann settle into a rythm his wicket-taking deliveries will inevitably follow.

Unfortunately with the exception of Younis Khan and Mohommad Hafeez the remainder of Pakistan’s batting is unlikely to approach Swann with any sort of aggression. Misbah and Mohsin Khan have both made it clear in their recent statements that Pakistan’s safety-first approach is here to stay. Umar Akmal, potentially Pakistan’s most aggressive batsman against Swann is likely to be kept out of the team in favor of the more sedate Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali who solidified their positions with solid performances in the recent series against Bangladesh. Pakistan could do well to learn from the Englishmen’s approach in 2005 when they benched an experienced Graeme Thorpe and opted for a more aggressive option in Kevin Pieterson. As it turned out KP was the perfect antidote to the Australian aggression as he played the defining innings of the summer and landed the Ashes for the Englishmen. Similar to KP, Umar Akmal is a showman who craves the limelight. In Akmal, Pakistan hold a potential key to the series. Whether Misbah and co choose to utilize his undisputed talent is another matter.

The last two encounters between Pakistan and England in the subcontinent provide interesting insight into the sort of cricket that can be expected from the upcoming series. The 2001 series was dull and uninspiring with Pakistan adopting a safety-first approach and an unwillingness to take the initiative. The 2005 series, saw an aggressive Pakistan side hit the Englishmen with both pace and spin while its batsmen made merry on familiar pitches. The current Pakistan team does not boast bowlers of the speed of Akhtar or batsmen of the stature of Inzamam and is unlikely to show the same level of aggression. England on the contrary will be eager to hit the ground running. The England team’s recent successes have not been a fluke; they have learned how to capture the big moments in cricket matches, how to grind down oppositions in the field and how to play for draws when the going gets tough. Furthermore, in Andy Flower, England possess a coach who knows a thing or two about handling quality spin bowling and will offer excellent advice on how to nullify Pakistan’s biggest weapon.

It promises to be a fascinating battle between two widely contrasting teams. January 17th could not come any sooner!