Cricket and the country| Rafia Zakaria

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PAKISTAN needed a victory — there is little doubt about that. The past year brought unspeakable challenges: a pandemic, regional conflicts boiling over, famine and joblessness and so much uncertainty across the world. Cricket stopped when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. and so did the diversion that the game provided to the cooped-up and to the suffering. The year 2021 brought back some signs of life, but they were feeble. When Pakistani cricket attempted to make a decisive comeback in Pakistan, a likely fake message sent to the New Zealand cricket team about to begin playing in Pakistan crushed the dreams of so many cricket fans. England also pulled out.

All that is in the past now. The story of the past couple of weeks or so has been how a team of very young players, led by the ever calm and composed Babar Azam, led millions to the sort of jubilation that they had been denied for a very long time. The first win against India was tremendous, but the subsequent wins against New Zealand and Afghanistan proved that it was not a one-off or fluke event.

The wins have done more than just delight Pakistanis who are physically present in Pakistan. The country’s particular reputation as a labour-exporting nation means that millions of its cricket fans are spread all around the world. As is visible in the telecast of the matches, so many are expat workers in places like the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East. Then there are still more in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. For all of these Pakistanis, cricket matches are a moment in which they connect with the country they had to leave in order to get employment. Deprived of home itself, a cricket victory is the best of home.

The diversity of this particular audience is evident on various digital platforms, where fans from Pakistan join others from all over the world in post-game celebrations. Groups on WhatsApp are one category of these, the messages constituting a bouquet of the international reach of a national sport and its dramatics.

The re-emergence of a world-class Pakistani cricket team is likely to be a gift not only for Pakistanis in Pakistan but also for those overseas.

The recently launched platform Twitter Spaces, which allows people to join a sort of public chatroom where speakers take turns, is another that seems to be providing a flourishing venue for celebration. Aatif Nawaz, one of the commentators of BBC Sports, has hosted one after each of the three matches. The delight and banter of fans from far corners of the world, all united by a game, is very endearing to listen to. Included among these are also second-generation Pakistanis, who themselves may have never actually lived in Pakistan. Speaking in English and Urdu and a mixture of English and Urdu, they retell the story of the match like a golden fable passed through the ages as a national legacy.

These digital exercises in faraway togetherness, made possible by cricket wins, perform other functions as well. According to figures from 2020, Pakistan outdid both India and Bangladesh in the number of workers that it sent abroad (competition obviously is not limited to cricket). In summer this year, the Ministry for Overseas Pakistanis reported that Pakistan had become a regional leader in ‘Manpower Export in 2020’, sending almost 225,000 workers abroad, a number that exceeded the export labour of both India and Bangladesh in a pandemic year.

The most common destination for Pakistani workers was Saudi Arabia, which saw over 136,000 workers migrate there in 2020, followed by the UAE and other GCC countries. These workers added to a total of over 11 million Pakistanis who already live and work abroad. If these numbers are adjusted to include those who have taken their families with them, it likely amounts to a figure that is probably close to 25m people. The foreign exchange that they send back home to Pakistan is now over $2 billion, a huge lifesaver for a cash-strapped economy that is forever falling short of foreign exchange.

The pandemic has been particularly difficult for this population. The intricate and complex Covid restrictions in place in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and nearly all other parts of the world mean that even though travel has once again become possible, it is still arduous, expensive and risky. This means that the past two years have seen families split apart, expatriate workers missing various occasions that would have otherwise been a short flight away, others being stuck either at home or more likely wherever it is that they are working. In retrospect, for a labour-exporting country, a global pandemic is a disaster, even greater than the one faced by all other countries. It means that the jobs made bearable by jet travel are suddenly rendered unbearable and out of reach because of a sudden and unpredictable catastrophe.

Record-breaking labour mobility (a better term than ‘manpower’) has been a gift for Pakistan. The re-emergence of the Pakistani cricket team as a highly competitive world-class team is likely to be a gift not only for Pakistanis in Pakistan but also for those who reside overseas. Coming together for a game re-energises bonds and memories in a way that perhaps nothing else can. The poor labourer working to clean floors in Saudi Arabia or serving burgers in Dubai may not have a whole lot to look forward to; but a cricket match provides one occasion for that. Watching one’s team shine makes all sorts of people in all kinds of situations keep their chin up and deal with the world with more spring in their step. One cannot allot a numerical value to this lift in spirits, this hopeful increase in self-esteem; Pakistani cricket fans would argue that it is because it is quite simply priceless.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2021