On 16 December 2014, 12-year-old Waleed Khan lay dying in a pool of his own blood. A few minutes earlier, he was standing in front of his classmates as head boy of the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar, northern Pakistan, when six gunmen affiliated with the Taliban fired shots that would claim the lives of 149 people, including 132 children.
Waleed was hit eight times, with six bullets to the face. His nose and jaw were broken. He had swallowed several teeth. Around him lay the maimed bodies of his friends as gunshots and cries of anguish reverberated through the halls of his once peaceful school.
In that moment, he thought of his mother and father and how he’d never see their faces again. He thought of his brother and how he’d never play with him or hear his laugh. He thought of cricket, the one thing in his life that he enjoyed most of all and how cruel it was that he would never steam in with the wind whipping through his hair to send down another delivery as the young tearaway fast bowler he was. It was in that moment that he refused to die.
“I said to myself, ‘This is not how it ends, I have too much life still to live’,’” Waleed told New Frame. “I couldn’t stand the thought of never playing cricket again and so made a promise to myself not to give up until my last breath.”
Waleed had lost so much blood that it was a struggle to remain conscious. When rescue workers finally entered the school in search of survivors, their gaze passed over Waleed’s seemingly lifeless body. It took all the strength he could muster to force air though his weary lungs to create bubbles of blood in his mouth. This attracted the attention of a nurse, who whisked him to hospital where he remained in a coma for eight days.
Kept alive by the love of cricket
Waleed’s story – recorded in his own words in this year’s Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the cricket reference book published annually in the United Kingdom – is one of tragedy and triumph that few of us can fully comprehend. It is also the story of what happens when a sport transcends the confines of its boundary to reach in and touch the human soul.
Without any mawkish exaggeration, Waleed states that he would not be alive today were it not for his love of cricket. He now lives in Birmingham in the UK, where he is completing high school. This year, he was elected as a member of the UK Youth Parliament and is a regular motivational speaker when he is not opening the bowling for one of the three clubs he represents in the Midlands.
“None of this would be possible without cricket,” he said. “I live my life for my family, I live my life to honour my friends who are no longer here and I live my life for this game.”
‘You never know which Pakistan team is going to turn up’
Pakistan is a nation of juxtapositions, born out of the wreckage of colonial rule and a bloodied fight for independence. Its cricket team, representing more than 200 million Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Saraikis and several other ethnic groups, encapsulates the nation’s erratic and tumultuous past.
Try and keep track of the number of times a commentator mentions the inconsistencies of Pakistan cricket over the course of the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup. “You never know which Pakistan team is going to turn up” might sound like a well-worn platitude, but it nonetheless rings true.
This oscillation between the sublime – as seen in the almost unthinkable Champions Trophy triumph in 2017 – and the ridiculous – the recent 4-0 one-day international (ODI) series demolition at the hands of England is as good an example as any – may sit uncomfortably with fans of other nations. But for those who support the Shaheens, Urdu for falcons, it is a source of pride.
“I think Pakistan fans get off on it because the highs are so intensely high when contrasted with the depths of the despairing lows,” said Osman Samiuddin, senior editor at ESPN Cricinfo and author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket, which was recently recognised by Wisden Cricket Monthly magazine as one of the seven best books ever written on the sport.
“There is a gallows humour to it. Pakistan fandom is unique. They are simultaneously able to hold equal parts love and contempt for the team. It is joyous and painful. It’s a broad spectrum.”
A country led by its greatest ever cricketer
Samiuddin is reluctant to draw definitive links between the geopolitical history of the nation and the erratic form of its most treasured sports team, but they are too tempting to ignore. For one thing, Pakistan’s prime minister happens to be its greatest ever cricket player. The country’s 1992 World Cup-winning captain, Imran Khan, came to power after victory at the polls in August last year.
As a player, Khan was irrepressible. Handsome, masculine, outrageously talented; his peerless use of reverse swing supplemented a dazzling repertoire of strokes with the blade as he secured his place in the pantheon of greats across two decades.
As a precursor to his life in politics, one of Khan’s most memorable contributions to the sport was a brilliant piece of propaganda. After a 20-run defeat to South Africa in the 1992 World Cup, a game that included the iconic run-out of Syed Inzamam-ul-Haq at the hands of a diving Jonty Rhodes, Pakistan needed a victory against hosts Australia in Perth to stay alive in the competition. At the pre-match coin toss, Khan wore a white shirt with the image of a tiger on the front.
“I want my team to play today like a cornered tiger, that is when it is at its most dangerous,” he said before the game. Pakistan won that fixture and their next four to lift the trophy.
For Samiuddin, Pakistani cricketers, much like the rest of the country, produce their best performances when they are staring annihilation in the face.
“This fatalism focuses the mind like nothing else in Pakistan culture,” he said. “The genius of what Imran did was it reached the younger players. It freed them from worry. There is a calming acceptance one feels when the options are reduced to just life or death. When there is no choice but to succeed, Pakistani cricketers tune in and find that magic within them that is otherwise dormant in ordinary scenarios.”
Pakistan vs India, sport’s greatest rivalry
On the world stage, Pakistan considers itself a perennial underdog in the shadows of its gargantuan neighbour to the east. India has more World Cup titles, a much larger population and the world’s fifth-largest gross domestic product. On the field they’re led by Virat Kohli, the game’s most eminent superstar.
In New Delhi, ultra-nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi won the elections that will keep him in office for another five years by a landslide, a move that, according to The Guardian, will “make bigotry the defining ideal of the republic”.
This is a challenging surface on which to play for Khan, who has navigated politics with a much more measured approach than he did his captaincy, even if he would have you believe otherwise.
“He is more pragmatic now,” Samiuddin explains. “He is less dogmatic, although he likes to come across as someone who is driven by ideologies. He dog-whistles about minorities when it suits him and he plays on the fact that he was a strong leader on the field and uses his cricketing past to his advantage.”
Indeed, in a recent speech on economic reform, Khan found time to speak on the need to alter the current domestic cricket setup.
Recent violence in the disputed Kashmir region, where the two countries share a border, claimed the lives of 40 Indian security personnel following a suicide car bombing in February. The incident has once again cast a pall over their impending clash in Manchester in the UK on 16 June. More than 400 000 people applied for a ticket in the 26 000-capacity Old Trafford Cricket Ground, emphasising the significance of this event. Samiuddin fears that things could get ugly.
“I’m weary of the mounting jingoism and the distasteful nationalism on both sides,” he said. “The environment is going to be as bad as any we’ve seen since Kargil [a previous conflict in Kashmir that saw thousands of combatants on either side die in 1999]. Stupid questions are going to be asked by journalists and players are going to be forced into wading into the political debate.”
The ICC’s double standards
That seems inevitable given recent history. Shortly after the February attacks, India played in camouflage-style caps in an ODI against Australia. “It’s a special cap,” Kohli said. “This is to pay respect to the martyrs and their families.”
When England’s Moeen Ali wore wristbands that said “Save Gaza” during a Test match in 2014, the International Cricket Council (ICC) acted swiftly and banned him from doing so ever again. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ICC were conspicuously accommodating of the Board of Control for Cricket in India over the Indian team playing in statement caps despite Pakistan’s objections.
Whether Pakistan’s players are politically astute enough to handle an eager press on the prowl for a defamatory remark is unclear, though they have experience in serving the dual role of ambassador and athlete. When terrorists opened fire on a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009, the rest of the world refused to play cricket in Pakistan until Zimbabwe visited for two ODIs and two T20s in 2015. In the intervening years, Pakistan has not hosted a single Test or ODI fixture, with only a handful of T20s to satiate their fans.
For 10 years, Pakistan’s cricketers have been nomads, seeking refuge in their temporary home of the United Arab Emirates. They spend the majority of the year away from friends and family and some have said that this distance has created a disconnect between the team and its supporters. Samiuddin disagrees.
“If anything, it has made cricket even more embedded in the national psyche,” he said. “Because this great tragedy has happened on the game, its results take on greater meaning. Wins are celebrated with greater enthusiasm and when foreign players visit [such as AB de Villiers and Shane Watson, who competed in the Pakistan Super League this year] they are made to be even bigger heroes than they are.”
A sense of duty in playing for and supporting Pakistan
Samiuddin is uncomfortable comparing cricket to a religion. That is understandable given the impact extremists have had on the nation. Instead he uses the Urdu word majboori, loosely translated as “a compulsion”.
“Pakistanis can’t help but play and follow cricket,” he explained. “It goes beyond an addiction or a religious devotion because those imply some sort of choice. It is as subconscious as breathing, though there is also a sense of duty in there as well.”
On Sunday 19 May, explosive hitter Asif Ali announced on Twitter that his 19-month-old daughter had lost her lengthy battle with cancer. Despite this tragedy he declared he would still represent his nation at the global showpiece. Perhaps it is compulsion that is driving him forward.
It is compulsion that has kept the game alive despite the decades-long isolation. It was compulsion that helped Imran Khan spur his young cornered tigers to the summit of the game. It is compulsion that endeared the great all-rounder to a new generation of Pakistani citizens eager to step out of the shadows of corruption, terrorism and Indian nationalism. It was compulsion that saw a 12-year-old boy cling to life when death looked a certainty.
“Cricket is my superpower,” Waleed Khan, now 16, said. “I still have nightmares of the attack and I often cry for my lost friends. But whenever I’m feeling depressed, I pick up my bat or ball and I go to a happy place. When I play cricket, I live in the moment. I believe I was given a second chance at life for a reason. For millions of people in Pakistan, cricket is the most meaningful reason for living.”