On Monday, Unpredictable PakistanTM will take on tournament favourite England at Trent Bridge in a match where anything could happen. No matter that Pakistan has lost their previous 11 ODI matches, the country’s longest losing streak in the format. No matter that England beat the Pakistanis 4-0 at home in an ODI series only last month. No matter that the English are odds-on favourite to lift the World Cup trophy next month.
Anything can happen because of the 1992 World Cup. The Cornered TigersTM, you know, who came back from the brink to lift the trophy. And then who can forget the 2017 Champions Trophy where Pakistan once again upset the odds to register a shock turnaround. Those two glorious wins must mean that every time Pakistan suffer a bad loss at the beginning of a tournament, we must hark back to the past and warn everyone that the switch is about to go off. The men in green are set to swamp everyone.
That should be a ridiculous assertion right now. Anyone who has watched Pakistan lately would have witnessed a team that does not score runs fast enough while carrying passengers who masquerade as fast bowlers. When the Sarfaraz Ahmed-led side faced off against England in last month’s ODI series that was meant to prepare the visitor for the upcoming World Cup, it managed to cross 300 in three out of the four completed matches. In the other game, Pakistan scored 297. And yet, it lost every match as England’s destructive power with the willow made a mockery of the Pakistani attack.
On Friday, in their opening match of the World Cup, Pakistan showed a different face which was even meeker than before. A barrage of short-length deliveries had the Pakistani batsmen in all sorts of trouble and they could muster only 105 runs. This was against a West Indies side that had come into the World Cup with its bowling identified as a relative weakness.
But when you are playing a team in freefall, even the most mediocre of resources can appear greater than its sum. This is not to argue that Pakistan cannot recover from their rut at this World Cup. But it is a possibility that currently exists beyond the margins of reasonable expectation. Since the last World Cup, Pakistan has been a middling team at best when judged on most parameters of 50-over cricket. In light of such mounting evidence, to think that Unpredictable PakistanTM is about to strike is a work of wishful imagination.
However, myths cannot be weakened merely by facts. They derive their effective power from the stories we tell ourselves and the notions we reinforce. Unpredictable PakistanTM is one of the myths that endures, a self-fulfilling notion that derives its strength from the 1992 World Cup more than anything else.
The assumption relies on easy stereotypes that often escape our scrutiny. To call a team unpredictable is to suggest a side that is unable to be managed by the coaching practices that are acceptable today. The ethics of this pervasive culture of professionalism in sport is defined by a call to consistency, an ideal at odds with unpredictability. If any team is not consistent by nature, then that means its motivations and drives cannot be harnessed by ‘modern’ coaches.
In popular culture, a Pakistani cricketer is often stereotyped as a figure worthy of ridicule. The mocking reactions are a response to a variety of things, from poor English to poor fielding. Pakistani cricketers are often described as possessing a careless attitude towards fitness. If a player does turn out to be successful, he is assumed to excel in spite of the dysfunctional setup. Yet, Pakistan continues to be seen as a producer of great fast bowlers like it is a producer of cotton. If the product is a talented youngster, he has probably committed age fraud.
Of course, if you were inclined to justify these stereotypes, you could. After all, all stereotypes arise from a modicum of truth. However, they can often lead to a strengthening of these labels and act as obstacles for rational inquiry. Orientalist frameworks assign the value of ‘knowledge’ to these stereotypes. Unpredictable PakistanTM certainly carries the imprint of Orientalist thought.
Cricket’s imperial origins inform our understanding of the sport to this day. Of course, the sport has undergone a seismic shift from the heydays of imperialism. But the cultural history of the game weighs down heavily. Cricket was one of the favoured tools of the imperial forces because it reinforced the superiority of the white English male who was projected as just, reliable, and consistent.
The cultural hegemony that the British Empire came to assert over their subjects was informed by moral superiority. None of the predominantly white cricket teams have ever been defined by their unpredictability because the figure of a white man represents the apogee of rational thought. He is not prone to wild swings of temperament.
It is, instead, the Pakistanis or the West Indies at the ongoing World Cup who are likely to be painted in this light. Many of their current cricketers are not considered to be model professionals because the standard is set by white men who continue to see themselves as the custodians of the culture or spirit of cricket. The question of race prefigures the sport’s world view – from Jofra Archer’s inclusion in the English team to the figure of the brown spinner (R. Ashwin) deceiving the morally upright white Englishman (Jos Buttler).
No matter how their World Cup pans out, the tragedy of Pakistan is that any of their triumphs will be seen through the lens of their defined unpredictability. The low-hanging fruit is tempting and it ensures that we do not dig deeper to understand the rhythms and dynamic of Pakistani cricket. It is not that the onerous task has not been undertaken. Osman Samiuddin’s The Unquiet Ones was a much-needed meditation on cricket and Pakistan.
Yet, the myth retains its potency. Even today, it is suggested that Pakistan could complete a turnaround when ‘the switch’ flicks on and passion flows through their players. The truth is that all international teams are passionate to win. Heart and drive may give you an edge but it is unlikely to win World Cups.
Teams will still be wary of Pakistan because they have some of the most talented players in the world, and not because their supposedly genetic unpredictability is about to receive a turbo boost. The argument against Unpredictable PakistanTM may look silly if the team goes on to upset England on Monday but to suggest that the Pakistani cricketers were more likely to cause a surprise is to essentialise them. It would be called lazy at best, or casual racism at worst.
If cricket observers are very keen to look for an unpredictable team at this World Cup, then they could direct their gaze towards Australia. It was a side in freefall even before Steve Smith and David Warner were lost to suspensions and found their form almost out of nowhere before the duo returned. Since the turn of fortune, Australia has won nine ODI matches in a row. Now, the Aussies are World Cup favourites in the eyes of many experts – The confidence posed in Australia’s prospects takes its energy from their five World Cup titles, among other factors. One may even call it a relatively benign stereotype. Teams with an illustrious history are not naturally bound to produce winners.
In light of their mixed results over the past couple of years, it is difficult to say which form the Australians will bring to this World Cup. They are decidedly unpredictable. However, the Aussies were never the Cornered TigersTM. So, the mantle of unpredictability must rest on Pakistan.