Monday, August 28, 2006

SPORT: Saving Pakistani cricket from the jaws of victory ...

Back in the mid-80’s, when I was still in high school, a record company executive turned comic named Billy Birmingham produced his first parody of TV cricket commentators. Calling himself “The 12th Man”, Birmingham’s CD’s featured legends like Ritchie Benaud and Tony Greig using language unfit for reproduction here, not to mention some excellent spoofs of Pakistani cricketers’ names (Wasim Akram was “Was-he a-Crim” and Javed Miandad was alternately “I-broke-me-hand-dad” and “Jar-vegemite-for-me-and-dad”).

The recordings were hugely popular on both sides of the Tasman. Birmingham even won an Australian Music award, beating such big Aussie music names as Midnight Oil and Crowded House.

In receiving his award, Birmingham mused:

The fact that someone like me could receive this award and beat all those big names really says something about Australia. Though exactly what it says, I’m not exactly sure of!
And seeing photos of Pakistanis burning effigies of an Australian empire appearing in Australian newspapers certainly says a lot about Pakistan. Though at this stage, I’m not sure what.

Of course, this isn’t the first time effigies and flags have been burnt in Pakistani streets. In February, at the height of the Danish cartoon controversy, I wrote in the New Zealand paper The Dominion-Post (which published all 12 cartoons):

In my birthplace of Karachi, frenzied Pakistanis hit the streets with protests that did more damage to the Pakistani economy than to anyone in Denmark … Then again, some of these men … will protest each time they think a Pakistani batsman is given out “lbw” unfairly.
Not much has changed. Except that this time the burnings and protests concern the religion that people across the Indian sub-Continent are passionate about – cricket.

No amount of religious or political controversy can captivate the people of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka more than a game of cricket. Particularly if their home side is playing. I’ve seen this on numerous trips visiting relatives and family friends in Bombay, Karachi and Lahore.

Indians and Pakistanis are known for their hospitality. Uncles, aunts and cousins line up to take you shopping or site seeing or even to check out potential marriage partners. (Yes, having an Aussie passport gives you that instant edge in the marriage market!)

But when the “kirkit” is on, good luck if any relative sets their eyes off the TV set and offers you a cup of tea.

A journalist friend told me she did some freelance work in Peshawar and Islamabad following September 11 2001 and in the days leading upto the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. She witnessed Western journalists almost tripping over themselves covering a few thousand pro-Taliban rioters or attending the latest press conference from the Taliban ambassador.

A few thousand pro-Taliban protestors? In Pakistani cities like Karachi with a population in excess of 11 million? Yeah right. Sounds as significant as one of Imran Khan’s ex-girlfriends.

And what were my friend’s Pakistani journalist colleagues doing? They were too busy glued to their TV screens watching and admiring the fine form of the touring South African side. She later told me:

The way they spoke about Alan Donald, I almost thought he was a Western convert who’d joined al-Qaida!
Cricket really is an obsession among Pakistanis. Virtually all my Indo-Pakistani uncles, from Sydney to Christchurch, are obsessed with the game. Discussions and even full-scale arguments happen over the performance of a batsman, with overweight and middle-aged men who look like they’ve never set foot on a field suddenly speaking with the authority of expert coaches and selectors.

Almost as funny as watching Pakistan’s not-exactly-underweight cricket captain Inzamam-ul-Haq saving his team from the dangerous clutches of certain victory to the relative safety of the dressing room and defeat by forfeiture. But hang on - did I just hear someone scream out “bookies”?

And if Pakistan’s cricketing fundamentalism had a Grand Mufti or Ayatollah, it would have to be former fast bowling legend (and playboy) turned conservative politician Imran Khan. Describing Aussie Umpire Darrell Hair as a “mini-Hitler”, Imran is now quoted in London’s Daily Telegraph calling upon Pakistani players to sue.

And if they pay me enough, I’d be happy to represent them.

Still, I guess it’s better than Imran calling for the Australian High Commission in Islamabad to be burnt down. His litigious suggestion might have had legs but for a joint statement endorsed by the Pakistan Cricket Board which reads: “In accordance with the laws of cricket it was noted that the umpires had correctly deemed that Pakistan had forfeited the match and awarded the Test to England.”

But will that stop Pakistan’s cricket mullahs from their wild protests? Will it stop the burning of Hairy effigies? And will it stop my uncles from issuing instant cricket fatwas at dinner parties? As if.

A Jewish friend once joked with me that Israel is a nation of 4 million Prime Ministers and 1 citizen. Pakistan, a nation also built on the basis of ethno-religious heritage, is a case of having 179,999,988 coaches and selectors and 12 players. And so my advice to Kiwistani cricket fans who, like me, find themselves unable to understand this typically Pakistani dummy-spit is simple - go figure!

(The author is a Karachi-born and Sydney-based lawyer and proud owner of a full set of “12th Man” CD’s. A version of this article was first published in the Christchurch Press on 25 August 2006.)