I am fluent in most American sports, but one international game has eluded me.
I’ve always been curious about cricket — Pakistan’s national pastime — especially since my father played it growing up and in college. But it seemed too complicated and intimidating to learn.
In addition, there were no easy opportunities to watch professional matches. You had to subscribe to a special satellite service and I wasn’t forced enough to bother.
That changed last month: for the first time ever, Pakistan defeated India in the Cricket World Cup, beating their rivals from the tournament in the quarter-finals.
I witnessed a burst of joy oceans away that rippled all the way to suburban St. Louis and pulled me in. Do you remember the cheers when the St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup? Imagine if they had defeated rivals with whom they had fought four wars. Frankly, there is no rivalry in American sports that comes close to the nationalistic stakes raised when these two geopolitical rivals meet on the field.
Pakistani sports journalist Faizan Lakhani explained to me that cricket is like a religion and a unifying force in the country.
“Families sit together to watch; they pray together for Pakistan to win, and celebrate together,” he said.
I enjoy a good bandwagon jump as much as the next fair-weather fan, but I had another motive that drew me to the sport. A year ago, my father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cancer cleared up after months of immunotherapy treatments, but the lingering effects changed his life.
Before the pandemic, he was a full-time substitute teacher in a disadvantaged school district. He drove nearly an hour each way on Houston’s highways to get to work. When COVID-19 hit, he stopped teaching. When the cancer hit, he stopped driving and didn’t go out at all.
Pain, fear, isolation and illness all had a major impact on him, and it took its toll on our relationship. We’ve always talked about news, politics and sports on a regular basis, but my father went into a sort of survival mode and our conversations faltered.
The Pakistan Cinderella race at the World Cup was the biggest interest I had seen him since his diagnosis.
I missed my father and I was looking for a way to share some joy with him again. So as Pakistan’s next match approached — a semifinal showdown against Australia — I turned to a friend whose father had played for the Pakistani national team in the 1960s and 1970s. She invited me to watch the match with her and offered a cricket tutorial as we watched.
I asked her to explain the basics using baseball analogies. A few things neatly in a row: The bowler is the pitcher. The wicket-keeper is the catcher. The batter is the batter. An over is a kind of inning, but not really. With the help of a few drawings and my friend pausing the TV to explain some plays, I understood the basics.
In addition, I caught the excitement of the game and the spirit of the competition.
Pakistan lost that match in a heartbreak – a missed catch and a series of runs shortly after. I had messaged my parents during the game, but I didn’t hear from my father until hours later, when his name appeared on my caller ID for the first time in months.
He started by apologizing for being out of touch. I wasn’t prepared for that, so I quickly turned around to talk about the game.
“I understand cricket now, Abu,” I said. But what a disappointing ending.
“That’s just cricket,” he said. He would have loved to win, but that’s the game. He reminisced about the advice his college coach would give the team. I asked some questions about strategy and players.
It was the longest and happiest conversation we’ve had in months.
Lakhani had told me that although Pakistan lost in the semi-finals, for many fans the team’s victory over India felt just as great as winning the entire match.
When I was on the phone with my father, it certainly felt like we had won.
(Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis journalist studying parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy kids. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.)
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