Back when I was a child, I was subjected to atrocious PTV coverage of cricket with godawful commentary and even worse ads. One of the ads was by Movenpick, which tried to convince us that the ingredients for its ice-cream came from all over the world: that the chocolate in its chocolate ice cream came from Switzerland and that the pistachios in its pistachio ice cream came from Italy, even though I knew for a fact it was just a product of some nutter in his basement, using the same dodgy syrups that gola-ganda wallahs use.
It later struck me that the same dynamic which purportedly underpinned Movenpick’s ice-cream was reflected in the composition of the Pakistan cricket team: geographical specialty. In Pakistan, there are three basic repositories of cricketers: Karachi, Lahore, and Everywhere Else. And with only a few exceptions, players from each display similar tendencies and traits.
Cricketers from Karachi are street-fighters. The get in your face, and they don’t take nonsense from anyone. They are always up for a mid-pitch chat and are usually the mentally strongest of Pakistani cricketers. These characteristics are born of the environment which they grow up in – an unforgiving and grim city, the country’s capital of commerce and business and industry, a hodgepodge of ethnic and sectarian groups living side by side. In such surroundings, only the strong (and cunning) survive. You figure out unconventional ways to get ahead, take shortcuts, and work hard. There’s nothing pretty about Karachi – a concrete jungle with few sights of natural or constructed beauty – and there’s very little that’s pretty about Karachi’s cricketers. But similar to the relationship between the city and the country at large, Pakistani cricket teams have historically relied heavily on Karachiites, from Hanif Mohammad to Javed Miandad to Rashid Latif to MoinKhan, because these are the people who provide the backbone and fight.
Cricketers from Lahore too betray their origins. Lahore is a city of gardens and basant, of fun and frolicking, of grand mosques and red brick architecture. It is, in short, a classical and beautiful city. The cricketers it produces mirror these characteristics. They tend to be attractive in their play, technically correct, and easy on the eye. Think of Wasim Akram in full flow, or a Mohammad Yousuf cover drive, or Imran Khan’s wind-up just before he bowled (and please save the emails; Imran Khan may be a Pashtun, but his cricketing education took place in Lahore, at Aitchison). Cricketers from Lahore, as well as other big cities in Punjab similar in their DNA to Lahore such as Multan (think Inzamam) and Sialkot (think Zaheer Abbas), have generally provided the flair for the national team.
Finally, there’s Everywhere Else. Little can definitively be said about Everywhere Else, for the region stretches from the Hindu Kush to the Arabian Sea, from the Durand Line to Rajhastan. But because cricketers from Everywhere Else tend to come from more obscure backgrounds, they have to do more to be noticed. To that end, they tend to one thing well, and nothing else, because it is that one thing that will stand out at the various camps and trials from which Pakistani talent is plucked. Waqar Younis (Burewala) or Mohammad Asif (Sheikhupura) show this to be true: enormously talented with the ball with almost unnatural gifts (Waqar’s pace and direction, Asif’s control and seam movement), but like all other Everywhere Elsers, these two – at least at the beginning of their careers – were incapable of doing anything else. No matter, because Everywhere Elsers fulfill the all-important role of outrageously talented specialists.
Of course, these are gross generalizations, and there are always exceptions. Pakistan’s most successful opening partnership ever shows the flip side of these characterizations. There have been few more languid and beautiful players in Pakistan’s history than Saeed Anwar, who batted like a typical Lahori, especially when playing through the off-side. Saeed, as we well know, was born and bred in Karachi. By the same token, Aamir Sohail was an extremely strong and punchy individual, street smart to a fault, and combative in almost everything he did. He, of course, is a Lahori through and through. In general, however, the point stands: Karachiites provide the fight, big city Punjabis the flair, and the Everywhere Elsers fill in the gaps.
This gets us to a diagnosis. Pakistan’s second innings in the second test against Sri Lanka spoke volumes. The one player to provide the most fight was, quite naturally, Fawad Alam. And where is he from? Karachi, of course. Did Fawad and his ungainly shuffle make anyone forget about Lara or Kanhai or Gower? No. But, pardon the expression, he showed balls – Karachi balls. No one else did, except for perhaps Younis (who showed with his dismissal that, owing to his originating from a different planet, he defies such geographic characterizations).
Fawad’s role speaks to a larger problem: for quite a while, the hardnosed Karachiite role in the national side has been completely vacant. There is no one that opposition teams hate playing against, no one to rile them up, no one to get in their faces with constant chatter and a game to back it up. Asim Kamal had the mental fortitude and the talent but lacked the opportunities, Faisal Iqbal had the motor mouth and the opportunities but lacked the ability, and Shahid Afridi – well, aside from his superlative performances in the T20 World Cup, he has wasted his quite considerable talents; if anything, his performances against South Africa and Sri Lanka showed us what could have been for the last decade. To get back amongst the elite in international cricket’s small fraternity, Pakistan needs more Fawad Alams. Put differently, it needs more Karachiites.
Fortunately, the new chairman of selectors is Iqbal Qasim, himself from the port city. If ever there was a time for the chairman to play regional favorites, now is the time. For Pakistan’s test team, there really is nowhere else to go but up.