SO MUCH THAT IS MEMORABLE about Pakistani cricket seems to be embodied in the tape-ball. The tape-ball is a humble object, born out of necessity: a tennis ball that is first bandaged tight in electrical tape, and then deployed in pick-up cricket games across Pakistan. It is pressed into action amidst stark circumstances: cracked footpaths, maidans of congealed dust, crowded lanes and muddy farms—uninspiring surroundings that reliably produce inspired cricketers. Upon these inconstant surfaces, the tape-ball stays firm, skids, and leaps upon the batsman, filling a fast bowler’s sails with encouragement and sweetening him on the prospect of bowling ever quicker. Razor a slit into the tape on one side of the ball, and it will careen in or out late on its way to the batsman—a phenomenon linked to the physics of reverse swing, and thence to the burning desire to engineer this swing discreetly by picking away the tape with a fingernail. The tape-ball creates drama, and cricket in Pakistan is nothing if not drama.
As the tape-ball is to Pakistani cricket, so Pakistani cricket is to Pakistan itself. That latter metaphor is, let us acknowledge it, impossible to escape. Indeed, isn’t that part of the appeal of myth-making in sport? As we once did with armies, we look to sports teams to gauge the moral fibre of their members, and then we think we have a handle on the characters of their cities, or even their countries. What extrapolative folly this appears to be when laid out in cold, hard print—and yet, how tempting it is to be persuaded that the metaphor is watertight in the case of Pakistan.
So much that is memorable about Pakistan seems to be embodied in its cricket. To the outsider, it can look hopeless, barely held together by corrupt or impoverished governing bodies, its structures rickety and its psyche tortured. Giant wills and egos clash with frightening frequency. Individuals of mad talent emerge from nowhere, hum with promise, and then contrive to hobble themselves. Fortunes swing from month to month. Life is uncertain. Mood is everything. And yet, despite all this swirling chaos, the cricketers delight audiences, the team wins matches, the country soldiers on.