Cricket fever has overtaken Pakistan ahead of Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final against India, with the country’s numerous other pressing issues temporarily being forgotten. The clamour over political assassinations and CIA agents has faded, while even wicket keeper Kamran Akmal’s many missed catches have been forgiven (for now).
In a country where cricket is almost as much of a staple as rice and roti, Pakistanis are not so much eating and drinking cricket as agreeing not to eat and drink at all. Facebook is being utilised to send mass invites encouraging people to fast on the day of the match. And while there may be a touch of humour to the plan, many fans believe the sacrifice is a way of metaphysically and spiritually contributing to their team’s performance.
It may have been a while since the peak of Pakistan’s cricket fever – coinciding with its World Cup victory in 1992 – and the team may have been tainted by the recent spot-fixing scandal involving Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, but the prospect of playing India has revived the Pakistani people’s resilient faith in the game.
And Pakistani cricket has enjoyed some success recently; its women’s team won last year’s Asia Cup, while its blind cricket team has also collected honours.
Large screens are being erected in parks and public places to broadcast the match to an eager public. One will even be placed on the stock exchange building in Islamabad; a main double boulevard will separate the spectators from the building but they will likely be too engrossed in the game to be troubled by the steady flow of traffic.
It may seem a far cry from the 1950s and 1960s when people who had no radios at home would gather in the streets, in cafes and at kiosks to listen to live broadcasts of matches, while youngsters would turn blackboards into scorecards for the crowds, but the sentiment and hype surrounding an India-Pakistan match remains much the same.
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Although Wednesday has not officially been declared a national holiday, many workers and students have given themselves the day off.
And it is not only those inside the country who are gearing up for the game – the fervour unites the Pakistani diaspora with their compatriots.
Twenty-year-old Mohamed Said, an advertising student at Michigan State University in the US, created a Jesus-inspired image of captain Shahid Afridi and says: “If there’s one thing that brings Pakistanis together from all corners of the world, it is cricket. I’m apologetic to say that not even the natural disasters brought Pakistanis together in this way.”
Twenty-two-year-old Komail Naqvi, a student at Canada’s University of British Columbia, has adapted Afridi’s definitive victory pose to the classic Vitruvian man and says: “I am a die-hard Pakistan team fan, but during the course of this World Cup I have been really missing home. Sitting amongst friends and family in Pakistan generating an electrifying atmosphere – there is no alternative compensation for that.
“Being half way around the world from Pakistan, I tried to contribute to the ‘jazba’ [passion] in whatever fashion came to mind – primarily via Facebook.”
One Facebook group has even been set up to urge people to participate in a mass prayer for Pakistani victory – almost 126,000 people have joined to date.
Local news channels are also dominated by reflections on cricket and the sport’s impact on diplomacy. It is the first time Pakistan will play in India since the 2008 Mumbai attacks and in an unprecedented move, Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, has invited Yusuf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, and Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, to attend the game – continuing a tradition of ‘cricket diplomacy’ started by General Zia-ul-Haq, the then Pakistani president, when he attended a game in India in 1987.
Said says: “It’s something positive after so much negativity you see. It finally gives you a reason to put up the Pakistani flag as your profile picture.”