PSL as a reflection of urban culture and politics

Cricket-inspired nationalism has become entrenched in the urban middle class, writes Sartaj Khan

PSL as a reflection of urban culture and politics
Six teams are lining up for Pakistan Supper League (PSL) season matches to be played both in Pakistan and UAE. Karachi, the biggest megalopolis in the country, is going to host the PSL final on March 17. Again, the teams participating in the fourth edition of PSL are representing six important urban centers: Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, Multan, Peshawar and Quetta. Moreover, teams representing these urbanites, like previous events, make up of national and international players and also include some local players. Gone are the days when cricket was associated with provinces and test matches in the country.

In Pakistan, like other South Asian countries, cricket is closely associated with growing phenomena of youth and urbanisation. According to the National Human Development Report by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Pakistan has the largest youth population in the world, with 64 percent in the bracket of 15-29 years. The urbanisation rate in Pakistan is also quite high in South Asian. At present, its cities are home to more than 39 percent of the total population. About 10 big urban centres, host to more than 54 percent of the total urban population, are joining battle in the PSL this season.

These major urban centers are leading Pakistan in almost everything – whether it is a role in the economy, or in perpetuating poverty and conflicts. In most cases, like megacity Karachi, cities lack playgrounds and young people opt for what is dubbed as ‘street cricket’ in holidays. If this is not helpful for coaching future test cricketers, it is at least ideal for limited overs matches, like twenty-20 or 10-over matches.

Just like team consist of players with diverse ethnics and national backgrounds, big cities also are now home to various ethnics groups and nationalities; labourers and professionals who migrate from different parts of the country and even from neighbouring countries in large numbers. In most cases, immigrants concentrate in a common neighbourhood but in work places and institutions where they mix with other people. Cities represent a culture of diversity. This diversity in metropolitans shatters old bindings of tradition. It can hardly be denied that both the cricket-inspired Pakistani nationalism and the political landscape of cities are now coloured in various shades of the national flag—less inclined to separatist tendencies.

Cities have changed Pakistan’s political DNA. In the last two decades, it is clear that cities are not just economic and commercial centers— they influence rural areas in dynamic ways. There is a link between the growing rate of urbanisation, the passion of youth for cricket and Pakistani nationalism. This makes PSL special for politicians and the ruling elite. For strategists, the fever and enthusiasm in young people for cricket and events like PSL should be fostered as a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategy. This is why the final of the PSL 2017 was the most successful event so far. Not only was the match played in Lahore - the cultural and literary hub of Pakistan - but also because it was played between Quetta Gladiators and Peshawar Zalmi, teams from war-torn areas of the country.

On this occasion, the then Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif had said, “We have to move forward despite terrorism. We will eliminate this menace.” Two months before the event was to take place, city experienced a terrorist attack on The Mall near Punjab Assembly. However, the nation showed esprit de corps against terrorism by participating in huge numbers in the PSL final.

The relation between the two must be gauged through the ruling elite’s prism, and the security situation in the country. It was a successful event that partially clears the air on international cricket in the country to some extent.

People who migrate from rural areas to urban centers are coming to terms with new realities of social life. The new middle class is less prone to separatist tendencies. When it comes to supporting the Pakistani cricket team against foreign teams especially India, Pashtun, Sindhi, Saraiki, Balochi and Kashmiri youths share common feelings of nationalism and raise slogans in favour of Pakistan and Pakistani players.

Pashtun youths celebrate the victory of the national team by firing guns in air and young students in Sindh distribute sweets in hostels. This was something unimaginable in the 1980s or 1990s. A new sort of nationalism has emerged, showing that divergences and convergences exist side by side in the complex social ecology of the urban centers of the country.

I remember when Pashtun nationalists from Awami National Party used to support Indian hockey and cricket teams in the 1980s. Now the same people are now enthusiastically supporting the Pakistani cricket team against India! The appeal is almost uniform among all stratum of middle and lower middle classes across the country in big cities. But to most observers, this is an exception, rather than the rule.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his party should take advantage of the situation. Cricket-inspired Pakistani nationalism has become entrenched in significant segments of the middle class as well as the lower classes of the urban population. Nationalist politicians know that they cannot stand to weather the storm, so they have opted instead to adherence to ethnic politics on one hand and on the hand shed the more radical separatist tendencies.

The author is a researcher based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @sartajku