Saturday, June 20, 2009

Destiny Beckons: Previewing the Pakistan v.s. Sri Lanka Final

In his biography of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Stanley Wolpert described an incident which occurred a few days after the landmark Lahore Resolution was passed by the Muslim League in March 1940.

An unnamed party clerk came upon the Quaid in the hallways of the Lahore HQ of the League and ceased the occasion to sound out his pessimism and misgivings regarding the Two-Nation theory and establishment of an independent state. It seemed impossible in the face of a strong Congrss and a League which still stood divided between its pro-Congress and pro-British factions. All the odds seemed stacked against the accomplishment of this task.

To this, the Quaid is said to have replied: “This is not a task, an assignment or a mission. This is our destiny. This is something which we were meant to have and, be it now or years from now, it is something which cannot be denied to us. It is our destiny to achieve this – we just have to wait for the right time.”

For many Muslims, the time was then.

For all Pakistani cricket fans, the time is now.

Anybody who tells you that this tournament doesn’t matter is a jackass. Anybody who disregards the importance of these matches due to the nascence of the format is short-sighted. Hell with them. We, the embattled Pakistani cricket fan, know how much this means to us. How much it has already meant to us.

I’m going to give all the pessimistic Pakistan cricket fans the benefit of the doubt by declaring this:

In the back of our minds, we all knew that there was every chance we’d get here.

I don’t know what it is about this campaign, but it’s struck all the right chords. Even when we were being thrashed in the warm-ups, our minds wandered to the “cornered tigers” speech. There was just too much going wrong with Pakistani cricket for us to simply bow out in ignominy.

Pakistani fans are a catious, conservative lot. We’ve had our hopes dashed on far too many occasions to place any concrete faith in our fortunes.

But this time it’s different.

Be it Gul’s law-of-averages defying pin-point yorkers, Afridi’s mercurial genius, Akmal’s raw brilliance, Ajmal’s understated flair, Aamir’s youthful daring, Alam’s unquestionable promise, Younis’s unpredictable canniness or whatever you want to use to describe Malik, Razzaq and Misbah. The stars have aligned for us. We feel it in our deepest recesses and it’s only our inherent culturally ingrained conservatism and cynicism which restrains us from voicing it.

This is a team of destiny. And we’re on the cusp of something incredible.

Sound familiar? In using the concept of destiny, I realize I’m borrowing a catch word/phrase from the Barcelona Football Club’s recent campaign. But when you have two of the best midfielders in the world, two of the best strikers in the world and the greatest footballer in the world at your disposal, isn’t success an inevitability rather than destiny? Barcelona did everything to put themselves in a position where they were destined to achieve some level of success.

Pakistan don’t have the luxury of circumstances. How could anything over the last two years be construed as positive steps towards a manifest destiny? Shoaib Malik captained the team into a mire. Naeem Ashraf alienated some of our best players. We’ve been rocked by constant drug scandals. A visiting team was freaking shot at. We’ve lost our status as a cricketing venue. Think about that. A powerhouse of a sport not being allowed to host any sort of international fixture. We play next to no competitive cricket for long stretches during the international calendar.

How could anyone say that getting to the T20 final is inevitable form the above facts. There’s something more to it than pure luck or chance.

It’s our destiny to be here. We deserve this. If not because of the facts I just mentioned, then because of the multitude of facts I haven’t. How the hell did a team whose followers have lost all hope, whose governing body may even have considered withdrawing it from the stage, whose country is rocked by suicide bombing and political and religious strife – how the hell did such a team get into the final.

Didn’t I just make my point? It’s our destiny.

A friend of mine is a real destiny-buff. I don’t usually buy into the whole predetermined course of events thing, but this friend has a particular approach to the concept of destiny. According to her, once you “account for karma” then one’s destiny is, pardon the circularity of the logic, inevitable. At the time, I thought it was one of the stupidest things I had ever heard. Today, on retrospect, I owe her an apology. I don’t know if I’ve interpreted her correctly, but basically, everything which has happened over the last couple of years has lead us to this moment.

Last time we left England, it was in a mixture of shame and disappointment. A major test match forfeited because a captain refused to let his country’s name be sullied. Not that it mattered anyway because sullied it was through the downfall of two of our best bowlers. We tragically lost a coach, murdered by 11 Irish upstarts. Yet we persisted. We lost Afridi as a batsman, but gained him as a bowler. There was a mass exodus towards the ICL, yet we retained Umer Gul who grew in stature. A reshuffling of the established order took place, a reliance on youth, and we were suddenly, almost unbelievably, in the finals of the first T20 World Cup. Brought there on the shoulders of a middle order batsman who contrived to somehow ensure defeat just when you sensed victory was destined. But it wasn’t our time then. The story after that you know. And now we’re back where we started. Back where things started going wrong for Pakistan cricket in the first place.

THAT, is fucking karma! We’re meant to come here. It’s just so damn perfect! We were meant to come here to finally put the ghosts of Darrel Hair and the Oval forfeit to rest. Hell, we even managed to vanquish the Irish on the way here. The only thing left is for Younis to promote Misbah over that fuck-up Malik and let destiny redeem him for his error last time around. It’s all falling into place. There is something about this team which will not be denied. It’s our destiny to be champions. Too much has gone wrong in the last couple of years for it to be taken away from us now.

One more thing Ms. Destiny said to me: “fate only helps those who help themselves”. Hardly an original thought, but poignant nonetheless. I know I’ve said a lot of abstract stuff about destiny, but we can’t go into the final expecting to win because we boast a phenomenal head-to-head record against the Lankans. We need to work towards achieving that destiny. This will NOT be a cakewalk by any means. If Gul is the Prince of death-bowlers, then Malinga is his younger step brother in waiting for the throne. Murali and Mendis are more than a match for Indian batsman which makes one shudder to think how anyone other than Younis will handle them. Their batting powerhouses are formidable and in Dilshan they have the best batsman of the tournament by far who will most probably kill Razzaq. The amount of runs Razzaq leaks to Dilshan and Jayasuria is key to our success because I KNOW our spinners and Gul will not disappoint. If we bowl, we need to get Jayawardene, Dilshan and Jayasuria. If we bat, we need to maximize the number of runs we get in the first couple of overs before Malinga and the spinners take over but still keep ticking along at around 7-8 an over during the middle period of the innings. Misbah needs to be sent higher up the order to account for his sins of the past. Younis has to reverse sweep the crap out of the M’s. And Afridi has to be Afridi.

It’s that simple.

Our destiny is staring us in the face. We just need to help ourselves get to it. It’s calling out to us. It wants us to claim it. This is our time.

Come what may in the final, this IS the new dawn for our team.

I fucking love Pakistan cricket.

p.s. If Sri Lanka do beat us, it doesn’t change the fact that as a nation, we are by FAR better looking than them.

p.p.s. The first paragraph on Wolpert and the Jinnah story was all a lie. I made it up to lend some gravitas to the piece. Hell, it COULD have happened.

Friday, June 19, 2009

7 Reasons Why Younis bowled Fawad

Cricket can be such a fickle game.

In the 17th over of South Africa’s run chase, Younis tossed the ball to 23 year old Fawad Alam for his first over of the tournament, not to mention his first over in international cricket for 7-8 months.

If Alam had picked up a lucky wicket or two, very likely since the Saffies had to go for broke at that time, Younis’s move would have been hailed as a masterstroke. Rather than be confounded by its perplexity, we would have been awed by its creativity.

Sadly for Younis, and Alam, such an outcome didn’t come to pass. Luckily for Younis, nothing hinged on that over and Pakistan ended up with a spectacular victory against a team which used to beat us for fun even during our 99-00 heydays.

But there was much more to the rationale behind Younis’s decision than simply exploiting an opportunity for picking up cheap wickets. We all know Captain Younis has a unique approach to the game, thinking far ahead of the current situation – a Galileo of his time if you will. In his inventiveness, Younis is so far outside the box that the box is just a dot on the horizon to his maniacal eyes. His decision to bowl Alam makes perfect sense, given the circumstances and the way he gauged the situation:

1. He wanted Alam to scuff up the old ball by being hit around to facilitate reverse swing.

Its hardly rocket science. Batter a ball enough, and its bound to start swinging. The South Africans werent going for their shots and Younis needed the ball to develop some roughness in order for it to start reversing. Hell, he outright pointed out this strategy at a press conference where he bitchslapped that cry baby Vettori by reminding him that a ball could wear and tear by constantly being smacked around and being hit into the stands. And he needed a bowler who would help him accomplish that. Malik is way too senior to be sacrificed in that manner. So the onus fell on Alam. Who responded admirably under pressure to keep the run-rate down. He'll bear a lot of brunt from short sighted Pakistani fans. But he'll know that he did the job asked of him. He gave the ball every chance to reverse once it got back into Gul's hands. And Gul needed every advantage since...

2. Umer Gul was concussed.

Did anyone see Gully’s head smack the turf when he spilled a halwa catch off Aamir’s bowling. The thud on impact jerked his entire body. There’s no doubt that Gully was seeing stars, further evidenced by his lackluster first two balls. Younis didn’t want to put too much pressure on Gul’s fragile cranium at that point so he had to opt for someone else.

3. That someone else couldn’t be Shoaib Malik.

Shoaib Malik can keep the runs down when the asking rate is just around a run-a-ball or slightly more – basically, where the batsman don’t have to go out of their way to smack him around. If they’re looking for a bowler to outright hit out of the park – Malik is their man. He can’t beat the batsmen through the air. He sucks at darting the ball in. Younis was probably sure that Malik would be expensive at that point and I’m absolutely positive Malik would have leaked as many runs as Alam. Additionally, Kallis had already had a sighter of Malik’s one over, so why not just go for something new since it’s our inherent unpredictability which got us this far in the first place. Younis is always thinking two overs ahead of the match, which is why…

4. He actually gave Alam that over to warm up his throwing arm to effect those last over run-out(s).

Say you’re Younis Khan. You know your team is inches away from pulling off something special. You’re racking your brain about South African failures in the past and wondering what you can implement from those instances. Your mind harks back to the most famous South African debacle: the 1999 WC semi against the Aussies. You realize the South Africans are prone to frenzied running in the final over, making them vulnerable to sharp fielding. So you want your best fielder to be patrolling long on/off and be ready to fire in a great throw. Who’s your best fielder? You can’t trust Malik because he found his wife on the internet. You want Shahid close by getting under the batsman’s skin. Gotta be ALAM. But Younis is as cunning as he is farsighted. You don’t want to make your strategy too obvious. You need Alam to secretly warm up his arm. Here’s a thought: give him a bowl! And what’s more, that’ll give you a chance to subtly move him FROM point TO long on/off without the batsman noticing and second guessing your plan. You, Younis, are fucking brilliant!

You’re saying no normal person thinks in such convoluted terms? Well that’s why you’re sitting at some boring office job with your life beginning and ending with your family and friends. That’s why Pakistan won’t remember you and you have added nothing to society and culture. When you and I die, no one outside our circle will remember us and we’ll be forgotten after a generation. Younis will live on. Younis has made something of his life even though his family couldn’t afford to give him even a quarter of the opportunities we were privileged to have. But the few chances Younis did get, he took them. Something we didn’t have the balls to do. So 50 years from now, someone will say: “Hey, remember when Younis gave Fawad that over during the T20 World Cup? What a dick.” And someone will respond: “Hahaha, yeah that was nuts. And then he gave Alam the last over in the final against Sri Lanka and we still won that tournament. Man, I wonder if that’s what gave Alam the confidence to go ahead and score consecutive hundreds in test series verses South Africa and Australia as well as marry Shakira. Anyway, I’m off to watch President Younis’s latest address to Parliament and the Senate”.

Oh, you think the suggestion that Younis might one day lead our country politically is far-fetched do you? Well not if you consider the fact that…

5. Younis gave Fawad an over to ease communal tension in Karachi.

The facts behind this argument are as clear as day. In fact, we’re stupid not to consider it. Alam is Urdu-speaking. Younis is Pathan. Younis is all about brotherhood, love and having “fun”. Younis just wants everybody to get along, which is why the tension between the Mohajirs and Pathans in Karachi is particularly unbearable for someone like him. He feels he has to contribute to easing the hostility between the two sides which is why he gave the Urdu-speaking chap his chance in the sun. What better public display of communal togetherness than a Pathan trusting a Mohajir in a time of crisis. It’s like something out of a movie. Sure, you can turn this around and say that by putting an inexperienced Mohajir player in a pressure situation, Younis risked doing more harm than good when that player inevitably failed. Fair enough. But Younis acts on impulse. And his initial impulse is always a positive one. And if there’s one thing Pakistan has come to accept from this tournament, it’s that they’re at their best when it comes to relying on their instincts. Which brings me to my last, perhaps best, reason for bowling Alam in the last over.

6. Just go with the unpredictable flow.

Pakistan’s approach to this tournament can be likened to Christian Bale’s movie career. Everyone knows that Bale has all the natural talent in the world but he refuses to stick to the safe route of conventional studio dramas and chances his acting chops with risky roles which could break his career. “American Psycho” could have killed him. Instead, it made him Batman. But for every Batman, there is a “Reign of Fire”. For every “Machinist”, there is a “Swing Kids”. But why should he stop taking chances in the roles he chooses? He holds an eminent position in Hollywood due to most of those risks paying off so why toss the philosophy out the window.

Likewise: Pakistan. Would ANY other team have responded to a peripheral batsman’s failings by promoting him to one-down? Most teams wouldn’t have chanced Afridi as a central batsman, let alone trust him with that kind of responsibility. And I for one am glad we aren’t most teams. It’s what makes being a Pakistan cricket supporter so fucking special. It’s the one unique thing we have in sports. Our natural drama. And I’d absolutely hate it if our team became as formulaic as the Australians or the South Africans or as inflexible as England. To love Pakistan is to love the romance of chance. In a game of poker, we are the eternal first timers. Totally unpredictable; always rethinking our strategy without a clear understanding of the mechanics; capable of flashes of brilliance yet, more often than not, vulnerable to moments of stupidity. So please, take the good with the bad. If you love Pakistan cricket, the Fawad Alam decision was totally in character with the spirit we play the game with. I’m glad Younis is making moves like the Alam decision – it reinforces my belief that we’re playing cricket the best way we know how. I say open the batting on Sunday with Alam and Gul and

7. Because Salman Butt is an asshole.

Yeah I only said 6 reasons. But I’m being like Pakistan – unpredictable and impulsive. You know what IS predictable about Pakistan cricket though? Salman Butt’s lame-ass batting at the top. This guy is a bane to Pakistan cricket. He doesn’t know how to accelerate. He sucks at being a good anchor because he can’t rotate the strike. And he’s the reason Alam didn’t bowl a better over. Butt has been keeping guys like Alam out of the team for years now. If we had dropped Butt like a year back, maybe Alam would have gotten more exposure and, thereby, would have been better equipped to bowl such a crucial over. But no – the management refuses to drop Butt because he can string together a few sentences worth of English. As Afridi showed the world yesterday, you don’t need a broad vocabulary to get your message across in this game. All you need to do is be able to blow an obnoxious kiss and have at your disposal a solid, hearty “Inshallah”!

Bring on the final.