Monday, July 20, 2009

The Missing Ingredient

Here's something I wrote at the conclusion of the second test between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It's about the geographical origins of our players and the way it typifies their style.
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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.


8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good observations..

Just curious.. how does Shoaib Malik fit into all this?

Ahsan said...

Erm, I guess he doesn't.

Nabil said...

I have often wondered that myself. Though Salman Butt stands as an exception; he possesses no flair or street smarts.

Has there ever been a prominent Balochi cricketer?

karachi khatmal said...

hmmm

i think the generalization misses out the newly emerged breed of pathan cricketers.

both gul and younis sporadically display that hare brained pathan tendencies that their stereotype is supposed to have. but otherwise, they are a fair reflection of what pathans are often like - modest, hard working, and determined as all hell.

i love karachi, but i have never really loved a player from karachi. they can never seem to get out from their own heads. javed was almost retired, or should have retired, when i started watching. since then, no one really i could love - save perhaps the two keepers. even iqbal qasim was a boring ass left arm spinner, no mystery or mercurial-ness to him.

and i am not byuing the argument you and a million other karachiites have been making - namely lets have more fawad alams. i'd rather see more players from smaller towns, because they fucking want their place so bad. asif, gul, younis, aamer are all small town heroes. and its worked for india (dhoni is from jharkand - where the fuck is that?)

if we can get a mercurial karachiite, i'm all for it. till then, whatever.

Zubair Sheikh said...

Well, amazed at your classification of cricketers on basis of their origins. But i haven't understood one thing that your placing Inzamam among Lahori cricketers as he originates from Multan and places Waqar among "anywhere else".
Like Imran, whole cricketing education of Waqar took place in Multan as he played for some of Multan's big Clubs like MCC or Crescent. Then, he also played for Multan before moving on to UBL.
Secondly, i haven't understood that why our team needs more Karachi players when we don't see a single fresh,new player apart from Alam who can serve for Pakistan. If anybody have one in mind please let me know.

Anonymous said...

The whole argument is quite flawed. Except for Miandad, I cannot think of any Karachittes who has done good in the past decade. As a matter of fact, I think those guys seems to politicize the environment more - remember basit and rashid. By the way, before you start a flame war on my comments, I am a proud Karachitte..

bubs said...

Ahsan: I think there are too many exceptions to the rule for it to hold true. Imran as a bowler was filled with rage, which always trumped his finesse. Sarfraz Nawaz had his fair share of anger but as a bowler he had far more flair and was easier on the eye.

But if your Karachi rule is true and Miandad is the best example of it, then Basit Ali must be it's greatest caricature. On the outside, he had the paan-chewing street fighter look down pat. All it took was one glare from Shane Warne and the guy crumbled, never to be heard from again.

Ahsan said...

KK:

Given their athletic traits, we have a surprisingly few number of Pathan cricketers. Almost never more than 2-3 in a team. I wonder why that is.

I really liked Kaneria when he came on to the scene. But then Akmal ruined his career.

Anon1138:

Rashid was a victim of politics. If he had kept his mouth shut about match fixing, he would have played twice as much as he ended up doing.

I agree with both you and Zubair that it is hard to identify young Karachiites who should have been given more chances, but that may simply be because we haven't heard of them. No one really pays attention to domestic cricket in Pakistan anyway.

Bubs:

When they came on to the scene, I really thought Basit would have a better career than Inzi. Guess I was wrong about that one.