x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Pakistan's fandom like none other

As the fortunes of this cricket team continue to ebb and flow, so do the mood swings of their most devoted and passionate followers.

The unexpected exit of Zulqarnain Haider, the wicketkeeper, threw Pakistan cricket into turmoil just when the team were thought to be doing OK in the one-day international series against South Africa.
The unexpected exit of Zulqarnain Haider, the wicketkeeper, threw Pakistan cricket into turmoil just when the team were thought to be doing OK in the one-day international series against South Africa.

As the fortunes of this cricket team continue to ebb and flow, so do the mood swings of their most devoted and passionate followers

Say you spent two recent nights among arguably the world's most enchanting fanatics. Say you loitered outside cricket ovals in Abu Dhabi and Dubai interviewing Pakistani cricket fans and soaking in their avidity.

Say you met a man who walked an hour in late-afternoon heat without a ticket just to stand outside the stadium or a man with a professorially long beard who warmly supplied you a cricket tutorial. Say you met 10 to 20 other men, all genial and hopeful.

Say you came to think that while you remain impartial in general and ever more so with age, you began to yearn for some considerable Pakistan victory to soothe their wretched cricket-viewing year of 2010.

With that backdrop, well, the week at hand could seem to visit fresh frontiers of grimness.

It could make you realise that while sport at any moment might seem to have accessed unsurpassable concentric circles of grimness, things could always be grimmer.

It might leave you impressed that even given sport's hard-won knack for plummeting into grimness, it still can slather on fresh coats of grim.

One thing, for sure: the televised sight of Zulqarnain Haider ambling through Heathrow has become one of those look-away moments, cringe-and-wince moments, cannot-think-about-it-right-now moments.

Everyone has his or her least-favourite nadirs in the oft-wretched 21st sporting century; this would rank among mine.

Can you run it by me again? You mean that just when a national team in a woebegone year had squeezed out a few droplets of joy for its dedicated fans, one of the players fled in the night from an international event in Dubai to a concept of safety in London? He feared threats over orders to corrupt a match?

He retired from the national team at 24 and requested asylum?

Man, that's grim.

Yet some could deem it only another exotic thud of grimness in a year that has included - inhale here - the continuing inability to play at home, an horrific tour of Australia, hearings to explore the horrific-ness of that tour, dissension between players and management, an horrific tour of England, three players suspended indefinitely for alleged match-fixing during that tour, upcoming hearings to address that horrific-ness, plus all manner of other disruption and cacophony.

Beneath all this somehow, you find devoted fans, rapt fans, marvellous fans in whom you find the exultation, the whingeing, the mania, the rashness, the vows to quit watching, the breaking of the vows to quit watching - in other words, all the entertaining aspects of fandom.

"Pakistani people are so much emotional," said Shahid, a fan who willingly schooled a neophyte outside Dubai Sports City. "They forget very easily and they love a lot and they dislike a lot.

"When you make a very good performance, they will throw flowers on you and if you make a shameful performance they will make fun of you. They will throw tomatoes on you."

All the while, they dwell in their team's capricious tendencies as Shahid outlined while working outside the stadium for Dubai Electricity and Water Authority. "Our team can do the worst and can do the best every time," he said. "You never know what will happen. It can beat the best team in the world and it can lose to the worst team in the world."

Another fan, Daryafat Khan, ascribed real importance to the upticks in Pakistan's performance during this series with South Africa, believing they lent some hope considering the flooding and terrorism that have lent life at home unfathomable sadness.

Days after he said that, Pakistan levelled the one-day internationals with South Africa at 2-2, and the appeal included picturing Daryafat and Shahid and others, excited again. Next, after all the thuds in all the sports in the tiresomely corrupt era, a wicketkeeper flees in the night across two continents?

Really? Really? Once you start hoping for some sort of victory that will let you imagine these people with mirth in their countenances, the Zulqarnain saga becomes unusually lousy.

Yet persist in caring they will because, as fan Abdul Rehman said outside the oval in Abu Dhabi, it would take centuries and generations to quash the zeal.

They will continue to watch with the reasonable prospect of further astonishing sagas on the scarcely attainable level of a wicketkeeper fleeing town and country right smack amid a series bound for its deciding match.

"People will always watch the match even if they win or lose," Shahid said, "because I tell you the nation is always full of optimism. We are always optimistic."

You might even add "brave".

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae