Blog: Cricket in Pakistan - More than just a game | Opinion | DW | 19.03.2015
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Blog: Cricket in Pakistan - More than just a game

Pakistan's cricket culture is in full bloom because the country made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. This inspired Nadeem F Paracha to analyze the special brand of superstition and "hyper-nationalism."

I consider myself to be quite a rational and enlightened person. That is, until or when I am in front of the TV and watching a high stakes game of cricket involving the Pakistan cricket team.

In such a situation I become a passionate Pakistani nationalist and at times, a bit superstitious.

For example, I only light myself a cigarette when a Pakistani bowler dismisses a batsman of the opposing team, believing that if I smoke during any other period of the game, Pakistani bowlers would not be able to get any wickets.

Of course, since I am a smoker, I want the wickets to fall at regular intervals, because when they don’t, not only do I get agitated due to cricketing reasons, but my mind and body, which are used to receiving regular bursts of nicotine, start to go weird (to put it mildly).

No wicket means, no cigarette. No cigarette means, me getting anxious. Me getting anxious means, me getting more irrational and thus even more superstitious. It becomes a vicious circle that’s hard to escape from.

My irrationalities in this respect are rather mild compared to what Pakistani society as a whole goes through whenever the country’s cricket team is locked in an important cricket match, series or tournament.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha

Nadeem Farooq Paracha

International parallels

But this is not entirely a Pakistani thing. I was traveling across Europe during last year’s football World Cup, and watched matches (involving the countries I was traveling through) in bars.

I noticed many men in the "more rational" Western societies indulging in various silly superstitions, believing these would actually determine the course of the games.

The funniest was when a middle-aged German man at a bar in Prague told me how during the 1974 World Cup, he did not go to the toilet during the final, which saw Germany facing the Netherlands. He believed that if he got up during the tense game to go to the wash-room, Germany would lose.

The funny bit was that he was guzzling large amounts of beer during the game and felt he would explode if he didn't visit the toilet. But he stayed put, believing his sacrifice would actually help Germany win!

"I could have exploded and drowned in my own stuff," he told me, now laughing about it. "But, hey, Germany won!"

Another universal trait in this context is the emergence of über-nationalism in sports-crazy societies during crucial games. There’s that famous 1969 incident in which El Salvador and Honduras actually went to war over a football match between the two countries, and how some Dutch men threw out their TV sets when Germany defeated the Netherlands in that same 1974 football World Cup final.

The final was important for the Dutch; especially to those who had witnessed German armies invade Netherlands during World War II.

India Pakistan rivalry

However, I believe the level of the nationalism is far more intense during cricket games between Pakistan and India. The two South Asian countries that were partitioned in 1947 amidst bloody riots between the region‘s Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, have already fought four wars (1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999).

Though India and Pakistan have yet to go to war over a game of cricket, there is much commotion on TV channels, the streets and on social media sites. Effigies of players are often set on fire in the streets of India and Pakistan if one team defeats the other.

Also, barbs, gibes and taunts, some bordering on outright xenophobia, are regularly exchanged on social media sites between hyper Pakistanis and Indians during the matches.

What’s interesting is that even the most rational and "sober" elements from both sides get involved in the figurative blood-letting and become overt patriots during an India-Pakistan game. I know I do.

So God help those who decide to sound "level-headed" by quipping that "it's only a game," or worse, "in the end cricket won."

Such a person is immediately denounced for being an imbecile who has no clue about the amount of ego, passion, patriotism and even politics that fans usually invest in a Pakistan-India match.

Pakistan’s main source of pride

This element of cricketing passion has gotten more pronounced in Pakistan, mainly due to the vicious spat of religious and sectarian violence that has engulfed the country, triggering a sense of isolation, confusion and desperation in the strife-ridden society.

Ever since the early 1980s, when Pakistan, under a reactionary military dictatorship, plunged into the Afghan Civil War (at the behest of the US and Saudi Arabia), the country’s achievements in the fields of science, arts, culture and sports, have been steadily eroding.

For example, the country’s once thriving film industry collapsed; Pakistan stopped producing renowned scientists; its indigenous music genres began being neglected; and sports such as hockey and squash, which had been internationally dominated by Pakistan, began to drastically decline.

Cricket was suddenly the only thing that Pakistanis were still proud of.

In an environment in which this once promising country found itself being increasingly treated as some kind of a secluded banana republic ravaged by religious extremism, cricket became that one vital link that the country still had with the international community.

It is true that the Pakistani state has begun to retaliate with force against terrorists and religious extremism, and enterprising young Pakistanis have taken it upon themselves to revive the country’s cultural scenes and industries. But cricket remains the one activity that still connects the emaciated country to the outside world.

This is why when the national cricket team fails to deliver, a sense of panic, depression and anger runs across the nation. Fans feel betrayed and even more isolated. So to prevent suffering such feelings, acts of superstition, hyper-nationalism and even religion are often evoked during important cricket games.

There is not enough space here to relate the many examples of the above, but let me conclude by providing you with a more immediate one.

My mother, a Masters in Economics and mostly progressive in her thinking, always commits to offering special prayers to the Almighty during an important cricket match involving Pakistan. So much has started to ride on how the national cricket team performs and represents Pakistan in the world at large.

Well, Eisenstein may be right in suggesting that God does not play dice, but to millions of Pakistanis, he certainly influences cricket games.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha - popularly known as NFP - is one of Pakistan's most famous satirists and cultural critics. Paracha writes regularly for DW English on Pakistani and South Asian politics, culture and arts, which you can read on our website and also on DW's Facebook and Twitter pages.