Sports is a pretty decent profession, and not just because it is the most profitable cocktail of play and work. It pays well, keeps fit, doesn’t require any education, and offers plenty of opportunities to shine. Professionalism in sports is defined as ‘all play and no work’. Sounds like the ideal choice of profession for young people with ambition and vigour. And yet, millions of children in Pakistan are wasting their time in school, running chores for the school master, or his wife, simply because our society has no sporting culture.
The early schooling system keeps churning out losers, year after year, because we have no education culture either, and also because we keep inducting losers as teachers, year after year. Kids who have it in them, prefer being out playing under a burning sun supervised by a mad street coach, over learning the 10 points of a pre-partition resolution, carefully separating them from the 14 points of an Indian leader, and comparing them with the 20 points of a viceroy. And then wondering if there is any point to it, since thousands of classrooms are searching for an answer everyone already knows: that we are good and others have been bad to us, that our struggles have been legitimate, our oppressors were in the wrong, and we are now in the right hands. Pak sar zameen shadbad.
The scrawny youth whose exposed skin has turned polished bronze, on the other hand, is learning the real life skills in the shabby grounds that double as neighbourhood waste dumps. He or she may not be able to solve a basic trigonometry problem but they are generally healthier and happier than those who can. And if they have hunger for reaching the next level, perseverance, eagerness to learn, and can persuade their parents that one day they’ll start earning and when they do, it’ll be quite a handful, they turn into the Hafeezes, Afridis and Razzaqs, as we know them. They are totally self-made.
Very few get into the top club at an early age, like Raza Hasan did. A majority has to rough it out for a long time before they get their chance, like Misbah and Ajmal did. Some get a big break and then squander it childishly, like Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Amir did. And some never make it big and instead take to criticising those who do, like Rameez Raja does.
The dashing men we see sporting Pakistan colours today are the little boys who begged older bhaijans to have a chance with the bat and ball while playing street cricket, they borrowed money and gear to play at club level, and they stole Sunday mornings and week day afternoons throughout their youth to practice and be good at the only thing they wanted to do in life: play. Unlike other boys their age, they missed out on unhealthy food, alcohol and drugs, hanging with friends and doing motorcycle stunts all night, being lazy, and being a good student, because they were consumed by sport.
But we – the passive sports watchers, the active critics, and the extremist fans – tend not to see the little boy in them when they put on the green jerseys and jog into the field to compete with another team. Instead, we turn them into mascots of our collective ego and demand the impossible of them – to play well every time and to win every game, particularly against India. There are things like playing conditions, the form of a player, morale of a team, administrative support or the lack of it, psychological strengths and weaknesses, personal circumstances, coaching issues … that we do not want to concern ourselves with.
The so-called fans set winning or losing as the yard stick, and care the least if every player put in the their best in a match they lost, or won a match on a fluke despite being mediocre. We, as a nation or community, do nothing to make or encourage sportsmen but we are always eager to break and discourage them when we have an opportunity. When the team loses we get angry, we feel hurt, and get personal in our attacks on players and the team management.
What we do not want to see or hear about is that the cricket board isn’t really trying to kill cricket; the selectors have their reasons to pick and drop players; the captains have to make decisions on the field, and their objective is not to lose the game; players go out to get runs and wickets not to be overrun by the opposition … that cricket is still largely a game of chance. Bad things happen, and they happen to the best of teams. Look at the way the mighty Australians were routed in the last two games in the World T20 in Colombo. And we may not remember that it was Pakistan that exposed Australia’s weaknesses and gave them their first beating in the Super Eights.