He does it as a reflex, grabbing the remote as the first shouts of “out hai” fill the room. He had already stood up a few seconds earlier, and now he reaches out to the table and picks up his escape route. His holds the remote from the top, and his fingers instinctively align themselves around it. This is not so unique – after a while, none of us look at our remotes. We develop a tactile relationship, feel our way through the little bumps and ridges which give us our moorings and navigate the edges to discern which family of buttons our finger rests upon. Some, like the mute and the channel changers become well-worn after time, their plastic smoothened and softened and no longer bearing the symbol painted as its identity. Yet no button is used as often as the power button, and it is that red topmost circular blob above which his index finger gently hovers. He stands, his finger hovers, and he waits.
Physics is quite beautiful. I say that now not with any trace of eagerness or nerdy evangelism, because ever since it stopped being a mandatory subject I haven’t paid any valuable attention to the study of physics, sometimes to the point of perversion. But parabolas, which were so agonising and infuriating to calculate and learn, are simply wonderful to observe. A ball flying into the night sky carves out a parabola that allows you to witness the laws of physics in their grace rather than derivations. Flat sixes provide thrillingly low parabolas, while good hits make jolly, generous ones. This though, was neither. It tore up into the sky at almost 90 degrees. Like the previous shot, the final glimpse of his body before the camera panned up to chase the ball seemed to confirm that he hadn’t played a cricket stroke – he had just heaved. It was a heave that we have seen more times than we have seen anything else. Certainly that parabola – that skinny, needly parabola which seemed to be destined to collapse back onto itself – was one we had all seen ad nauseam. And quite clearly, that parabola was why his finger was hovering.
The night before the match I managed to tell two groups of people (a Whatsapp group and a dinner party) about the first time I consciously realised what cricket meant in our society. The story is too good to serve as a tangent here but it involves watching a match at school. We were getting too noisy so one of the teachers turned off the TV. We shut up, she switched it back on and the TV’s first shot was of Javed Miandad walking back to the pavilion, and the teacher burst into tears. Javed the batsman’s ghost hung above the Mirpur night, the echo of his Sharjah six suddenly perceptible again. It was the six which defined – nay, redefined – a rivalry. The climactic six (and non-six) is a feature of this rivalry, and it was patented by Miandad. This was not quite the same thing (Javed’s was off the last ball of the 100 overs and he had scored most of Pakistan’s runs) but as I pointed out to Subash, this wasn’t Javed. This wasn’t our best batsman ever. This was 376 innings where about 320 have been massively disappointing. This was a team that has had the wood on us for a decade. This was the reason that the believer’s finger continued to hover, ready to snap off the electric supply and silence the screen before the inevitable, crushing disappointment took hold.
During the Champion’s Trophy, Misbah had once made a sharp stop at short extra cover. An English journalist tweeted that Afridi would’ve done the same using jazz hands. He got a lot of retweets. It had been a long time coming, but the rest of the world had begun to be split amongst those bemused and those revolted at how our country didn’t appreciate Misbah. It was completely, utterly justified too. Misbah remains criminally underrated. But it doesn’t end there – we are asked instead to submit to a dichotomy. Supporting Misbah means denouncing Afridi, or so the narrative unfolded. The world was prepared to accept us as mercurial, but backing Boom Boom was just stupid.
As Martin Crowe said, “I don’t understand Pakistan. Not at all.” Yet Afridi seemed to make sense in Pakistan and to Pakistan. Afridi sells us phones, wrist watches, banks, soft drinks, designer clothes, fairness creams, polio drops, shoes, sports goods, mobile connections, antiseptic soaps, shampoos. One company has an ad for chewing gum with animated animals aping his \o/ celebration. Less than a year ago, a massively successful film called Mei Hoon Shahid Afridi (I am Shahid Afridi) was released which was based, quite literally, on the idea of the man. When others see this, they think that anyone dumb enough to buy into such evidence-free mythology must be stupid.
They think our finger doesn’t hover. Of course it hovers!
Many of us took the position that he just wasn’t a batsman any more, that the last glimpses of it came in late 2005 at best. We asked him to be judged on his bowling alone, where we pointed out his drift or his economy or his ability to deliver his overs quickly. We demanded that the stuttering top order be blamed instead of him, we asked that everyone consider his experience and his enigma as virtues. When he stole the 2009 World T20 and stormed us through to a memorable win, we secretly prayed that he retire so that his memory would become untainted.
Retire he did, only to turn it around, and hence give the punch-line posse more ammunition to work with. The retirement jokes could now join the age jokes (Why was Afridi not in the U19 squad? He missed out on the minimum age eligibility by a few days) and the ball biting jokes and the error percentage jokes and the brain-like-a-sugar-mouse jokes. With each utterly daft and moronic shot, the jokes would get snider still, the punchlines now carrying implications that the fans were just as pathetic as the shot selection. And like everything else, we took it in because even the most bitter joke wasn’t quite as tragic as the idea of supporting him was.
Wrap your head around it.
376 matches. 17 years. An average of 23.
Why was he still around? Why did he stay for so long? Why was he still the most popular star in the team? The answers for each of these questions seemed to represent the worst of humanity – ineptitude, nepotism, corruption, the thrall of celebrity, the chilling stupidity of belief.
But the hovering index finger suggests something else. It suggests that we know – we get it. We are only the pressing of a well-worn button away from turning our backs, from hanging our heads and punching the walls. We are only as detached from reality as the miniscule amount of effort needed to depress the power switch. We are almost, almost¸ on the same side as you are. We are perhaps not rational, but at least we are cynical towards our own belief. We are almost, almost¸ cowardly.
So why does our finger hover?
Is it because we believe in the impossible? No. That is for fans of Federer and Guardiola – those who believe that perfection only appears illusory but is in fact something which can be attained. Or perhaps belief in the impossible is for fans of Nadal and Ferguson – those who believe that defeat is a choice and one which can be refused.
We are neither of these, because we don’t believe in the impossible – we believe in the ridiculous.
The reclusive genius and comic book visionary Alan Moore once said the following:
“My basic premise is that human beings are amphibious, in the etymological sense of ‘two lives’. We have one life in the solid material world that is most perfectly measured by science. Science is the most exquisite tool that we’ve developed for measuring that hard, physical, material world. Then there is the world of ideas which is inside our head. I would say that both of these worlds are equally real – they’re just real in different ways. The concept of a world of ideas, yes it’s intangible, it can’t be repeated in a laboratory, but pretty much the evidence for it is all around us. In that, every detail of our clothing, our mindsets, of the buildings and the streets and cities that surround us – that started life as an idea in someone’s head.”
Using Mr. Moore’s logic, Afridi then is the most ridiculous idea that exists in our intangible world of ideas. It reflects itself in a variety of things in our society, and yet when spoken out loud it is dangerously irresponsible. It is an idea which makes no sense in the world that science interprets for us; an idea which seems to defeat the very purpose of why civilisation and progress exist. It is an idea which is almost insulting to the idea of humanity itself. It is an idea which is infantile, and yet that is what we want from him – to make us children again.
This isn’t quite a form of escapism. As much as he himself is a man-child, we want from him only the wonder that one get as a child. Buzzfeed quite accurately described children as little drunks, but they don’t perceive themselves as such. Instead, they are repeatedly in awe and wonder of a fascinatingly complex and beautiful world which they are discovering for the first time. It is the most intense, invigorating, life-affirming experience any one of us ever have, and it is the chance to relive it for a moment again that causes the finger to hover.
Because science, rationality and the error-percentage meter all tell us to press down on that button. Or better yet, not care about the button at all. After all, the man being filmed knows – we all know – that we are being watched. His friends are not filming the match – they are filming him to see how he reacts. They are filming him to laugh at the idiocy of his belief. And that’s why he keeps that finger so very close, so that the inevitable moment can be dealt with as much denial as possible.
He braces himself. The finger hovers. The ball crosses the rope.