Pakistan v West Indies, nations bound only by cricket, in need of a hint of meaning

Ahead of the start of the series in the UAE, Osman Samiuddin looks at the relationship between Pakistan and West Indies cricket.
West Indies captain Carlos Brathwaite and his team have bee training at the ICC Academy in Dubai ahead of the start of the series against Pakistan. Tom Dulat / Getty Images
West Indies captain Carlos Brathwaite and his team have bee training at the ICC Academy in Dubai ahead of the start of the series against Pakistan. Tom Dulat / Getty Images

What better captures the idiosyncratic geography of the ties that bind cricket than a contest between Pakistan and West Indies? In the normal course of world affairs, these two countries — or one a country, the other a region of countries — have almost nothing to do with each other.

There are no cultural or economic ties as such, barely a diplomatic presence between them in each other’s lands, no politics that bind them together, and no diaspora providing insight into how the other lives.

If it were not for cricket, Pakistan and the countries that are West Indies could have existed on this planet without ever having to come across each other in any meaningful interaction.

It is to the credit almost solely of cricket that the two have established an idea of fraternity, a sense of a shared history. In the unusual instance of the citizen of one country meeting a citizen of the other, we know they could at least skirt the outlines of a conversation: Hanif Mohammad’s Bridgetown epic; Gary Sobers’ world record or the injustices of his travels to Pakistan a year later; the great forgotten battle of 1976-77 between two emerging sides; and most memorably the trio of series from the mid-80s to the early 90s that constituted, effectively, the world championship of cricket.

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And who knows, earlier this year with his mentorship of the Quetta Gladiators in the Pakistan Super League (PSL) and contributions to Islamabad United’s triumph, Viv Richards and Andre Russell respectively may have opened up new, unimagined vistas for future interaction and influence.

Because until the PSL, for a number of years even cricket was beginning to struggle to find a reason to bring the two together, as if keenly aware that really nothing ties them together.

This series upon us now, for example, will be the first time Pakistan has hosted West Indies for a Test series in 10 years. As a comparison, 2006 was also the last time Pakistan hosted a Test series with India — at least, with India, one can fall back on the ol’ historical state animosity as a reason for not playing.

What reason for not hosting West Indies in that time? And as corollary, what does it say about a sport that only 10 countries play and in which you can have such sprawling, random gaps in scheduling between two countries?

Well, there is a reason, which is that no one much profits financially by its occurrence (not that profit should be the only reason for anything to exist). Indeed when first the idea of a Test Cricket Fund was mooted, whereby the richer members contributed to a central fund that would subsidise those Test series that are otherwise economically unviable, a Pakistan-West Indies series may well have been one of the test cases they had in mind.

Both boards will happily use those funds, given every January and July, to lighten the economic deadweight of this series. But the problem with subsidies is that though they can be the easiest solution to a problem, they are rarely a complete one.

Lowering the cost to stage a series is not the same thing as giving it a reason to exist in the first place. This is not to argue that this rivalry, or a few others, does not need funds. They do. But much more they need context and meaning, something that places their existence in a bigger picture — a league, or a play-off, or a series that has a meaning on other results on the other side of the globe.

Ultimately what significance there is to this series lies in the Dubai Test, which will become only the second to be played as a day-night game. That, at least, will give it some relevance and bring some attention; both boards should be lauded for pressing ahead with it.

Otherwise the mind wanders nervously to the other Tests on this tour, likely to be played out in stadiums in front of minimal crowds.

Ranking points are at stake, an International Cricket Council (ICC) press release will no doubt remind us — and Pakistan possibly playing their first Tests as the top-ranked side will bring a sense of occasion to it. A whiff of the history of these matches might linger, providing perhaps some hint of meaning.

But more than ever before, in this climate of Test cricket trying to give itself more meaning, we may get to the other side asking ourselves what was the real need for these two sides to be playing each other.

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Published: September 18, 2016 04:00 AM

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