Pain and Pride – Two conflicting emotions at play as Pakistan bid farewell to its T20 World Cup dreams
Another World Cup, another heartbreak. Another knockout match against Australia, another gut-wrenching loss. Almost as scripted, as engraved in history, as replayed in nightmares, Pakistan was once again knocked out of the T20 World Cup by none other than the mighty Australia. Pakistan’s knockout bully since 1987. But pain is not the only emotion at play as Pakistan exit, there is pride shining bright too.
When the Pakistan cricket team arrived in the UAE for the T20 World Cup about a month ago, they had little to lose and lots to prove. If you would have said then that this Pakistan team was about to take the tournament by storm, many would have raised their eyebrows in question. And rightly so, perhaps considering the hurdled path Pakistan had trodden upon in the days leading to the World Cup. Imagine the worst possible scenario surrounding a team preparing for the World Cup then put Pakistan in the picture. Imagine coaches resigning, international teams abandoning and cancelling tours, CEO of the cricket board resigning, a new chairman taking over and last minute squad changes except of course, the Pakistan team was not imagining this but living this reality. Definitely not the dream preparation for the T20 World Cup.
On paper, a few months ago, Pakistan’s preparation plans for the T20 World cup looked sorted. New Zealand was scheduled to tour in September-October to play three ODIs and five T20Is while England was scheduled to arrive in the mid of October to play two T20Is. But all went haywire when New Zealand suddenly abandoned their tour just before the first ODI was to be played citing security concerns. Subsequently England pulled out of their tour. Two weeks later, the PCB CEO also resigned. Trouble. But like often witnessed in the past, trouble is the Men in Green’s best friend. Always bringing out the best in them.
For their first match of the tournament, Pakistan stepped on to the field on October 24 at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium to take on their arch-rivals, India, in a much anticipated encounter. Pakistan won the toss and chose to bowl first. As the Shaheens took the field, the fans behind the television screens laid out their prayer mats praying for a miracle. Pakistan had never beaten India in a World Cup match before. But what the Pakistan fans did not know was that they were in for a pleasant surprise. Shaheen Shah Afridi struck in the very first over to dismiss Rohit Sharma with an LBW. Usually, when the Pakistan team takes a wicket in the first over you know they’re onto something. And surely they were. Wickets kept falling at regular intervals for India with Afridi alone dismissing their top three. Credits to Kohli however, India ended their innings on 151-7. All eyes were now set on Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan, who Pakistan fans knew were key if they were to chase this down. And the two maestros took it upon themselves to chase it down all on their own. The team and the fans were overjoyed. They had struck gold. The decade-long mental block was over. Pakistan had finally managed to beat India in a World Cup match and that too with 10 wickets. Relief, bliss, delight and euphoria for the Pakistan cricket team and the fans.
The captain, however, had his eyes on the prize and was not ready to get carried away with the historic victory. “Don’t’ get overexcited,” Babar said in a speech in the dressing room after the match. “We should be focused on winning the World Cup,” he reminded the players to make sure no player takes this victory as enough of an achievement. Perhaps that is when, with their beloved captain, the fans started to believe that maybe, this could be their tournament.
Next came another much-awaited clash, Pakistan against New Zealand. With New Zealand having abandoned their tour of Pakistan recently, the Pakistan fans were desperate for revenge; a win against them. And their team delivered. Kudos to Haris Rauf’s spectacular bowling and a finish by Shoaib Malik and Asif Ali, Pakistan bagged another soul-satisfying win. There were celebrations outside the stadium and back at home in Pakistan. Pakistan had taken down two of the strongest teams in their group and the fans were over the moon.
Pakistan against Afghanistan was the next match on schedule. While Pakistan did begin well in that one too, it went on to become a thriller with Pakistan requiring 24 off 12 and set batters already out. And once again it was Asif Ali taking on the reins in his hands to finish the game with an over to spare. Pakistan now had a finisher. The heads were turning, the experts were talking and Pakistan was making it to everyone’s top favorite teams for the title. Pakistan who had been isolated just before the World Cup, had everyone talking about them, admiring them and backing them.
Pakistan’s next two fixtures were with Namibia and Scotland that the Pakistan team also easily managed to win and become the first team to qualify for the semi-finals. Unlike beliefs and expectations when this Pakistan team first walked into this tournament, Pakistan were miles ahead of all the other teams having won all of its group matches.
India, one of the favorites to lift the trophy, the team with perhaps the ideal practice on the UAE pitches given their Indian Premier League (IPL) had only recently ended, were already out.
England, the other favorites, the team that looked formidable had also lost a game in the group stages.
It was Pakistan, the team that was written off, the team that was hardly anyone’s favourites when the tournament began, setting the tournament on fire. All the players (ex and current), all the experts, all the analysts were predicting Pakistan as one of the finalists and ultimate favorites for the title.
To fans, at home in Pakistan and around the world, it all felt a little dreamy. Despite little prior international practice, all the obstacles, their team had managed to put up all-round performances. Every match so far had seen a new player bagging the player of the match award with their most consistent performer, their captain, Babar Azam, yet to receive one. A 5/5 record backed with every player stepping up and performing meant everything was going their way. Fans were jubilant. Ecstatic. Elated. Hopes were rekindled. Another T20 World Cup trophy seemed to be on its way.
But come the semi-final, and the idea of facing Australia in a knockout match had the fans becoming a little uncomfortable. Generations of trauma was associated with facing Australia in a World Cup semi-final. 1987, 1999, 2010 – three decades and every single time Australia had managed to put an end to Pakistan’s World Cup campaign. The thought of meeting Australia in a semifinal again triggered lots of painful memories in fans of all ages. But little comfort was found in the fact that this Pakistan team had a lot of promise, had already overcome the mental block of beating India in a World Cup match so maybe this could be their chance to finally beat Australia in a knockout match.
Finally the big day arrived. Australia won the toss and chose to bowl first. Flashback 2010. Pakistan put up a good score nonetheless, albeit 15-20 runs short given the start they had but a target of 177 still looked like a fightable score considering it was a semi-final. But of course the opponent was the mighty Australia. Despite a first over madness from Shaheen, Australia looked keen on chasing the target down. Warner’s fearless 49 off 30 balls set the tone for the chase. Even though Pakistan seemed to have bounced back in the game when Australia were 96-5 in the 13th over thanks to Shadab Khan’s 4-fer but it was only a matter of time till Australia pushed themselves back into the game with an outstanding partnership between Matthew Wade and Marcus Stoinis. Six overs and Hasan Ali’s dropped catch later, Australia had chased the target down with three consecutive maximums to seal their win.
It was 2010, all over again. Shoulders down, aching eyes and faces pained, the Pakistani players took a moment to digest what had just happened. Fans at the stadium and those behind the television screens went numb seeing a replay of one of their most terrifying nightmares, a harrowing past and a deep rooted fear becoming a reality again. Children of tender ages cried their eyes out having seen victory snatched from their team. First time scars tend to have that kind of an effect. It was all too familiar for the older fans but very new for the young ones. Devastating and shattering for both nonetheless.
But wait, what was that? Did we see the Pakistan fans smiling in the face of defeat? Oh yes, we did. Did we see the Pakistan fans flooding social media with love for their team after losing the all-important semi-final? Yes, we did. And why not? The team had been brilliant throughout the tournament. A bad day could not take away the beautiful memories of the good days they had in the tournament. While the Pakistan fans suffer in pain of what could have been, they are rejoicing on what has been.
This team had given them the best ten or so days of their lives as Pakistan cricket fans. Victories over victories, triumphs over triumphs, and this team had rekindled hopes in the hearts of Pakistan cricket fans that had perhaps been extinguished in what transpired before the World Cup. The fans beam in pride, fighting for and defending their team wherever need be. Their team might not have won the World Cup but they have won hearts. Hearts of their fans and the rest of the world. They had shown vigor, they had shown resilience and they had shown spirit. The team had displayed exceptional game play in the field and an even better conduct off the field. From the instance of asking their fans to not taunt the New Zealand cricket team, after they lost to Pakistan, to visiting the dressing rooms of the associate nations, making them a part of their birthday celebrations after their games, this team had given it their all on and off field. The fans had seen everything. The world had admired their team for their splendid demeanor. The associate nations were grateful for their kindness. The fans had witnessed it all and the fans are not going to let this defeat take anything away from their team.
The pain remains, the scars deepened perhaps but there is this sweet sense of satisfaction of seeing the team come together as a unit, back each other up and look out for each other. The captain’s motivating speech in the dressing room after the defeat instructing the team to stay united, learn from the defeat and move on only confirmed the fans’ beliefs that indeed the Pakistan cricket team was on the right track. It is a very young team (eight of the players in the Pakistan team were playing their first ever T20 World Cup) that has a long way to go and with the intent they have shown in this World Cup, a trophy glory is only a matter of time. The fans were and are behind the Men in Green. Their eyes may be teary but their hearts are full. And they are ready to back their men through thick and thin.