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Sultan: Learning cricket to reconnect with my dad
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Sultan: Learning cricket to reconnect with my dad

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Pakistan T20 World Cup Cricket

Cricket fans watch a Cricket T20 World Cup semifinal match between Pakistan and Australia on a screen at a market, in Hyderabad, Pakistan, on Nov. 11.

I’m 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 for me to learn.

Plus, there weren’t any easy opportunities to watch professional matches. You had to subscribe to a special satellite service, and I wasn’t compelled enough to make the effort.

That changed last month: For the first time ever, Pakistan beat India in the cricket World Cup, knocking their rivals out of the tournament in the quarterfinals.

I witnessed an eruption of joy oceans away that rippled all the way to suburban St. Louis and pulled me in. Remember the jubilation when the St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup? Imagine if they had beaten rivals with whom they had fought four wars. Honestly, there’s no rivalry in American sports that comes close to the nationalistic stakes raised when these two geopolitical rivals meet on the pitch.

Pakistani sports journalist Faizan Lakhani explained to me that cricket is like a religion and 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 drawing me to the sport. A year ago, my father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin 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 an underserved school district. He drove nearly an hour each way on Houston highways to get to work. When COVID-19 hit, he stopped teaching. When the cancer hit, he stopped driving and going out much at all.

Pain, fear, isolation and illness all did a number on him, and it took a toll on our relationship. We’ve always talked regularly about news, politics and sports, but my dad withdrew into a kind of survival mode, and our conversations halted.

Pakistan’s Cinderella run in the World Cup was the most interest I’d seen him take in anything since his diagnosis.

I missed my dad, and I was looking for a way to share some joy with him again. So as Pakistan’s next match approached — a semifinals showdown against Australia — I turned to a friend whose father had played for the Pakistan national team in the ‘60s and ‘70s. 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 lined up neatly: The bowler is the pitcher. The wicket keeper is the catcher. The batter is the batter. An over is kind of like an inning, but not really. With the aid of a few drawings, and my friend pausing the TV to explain some plays, I caught on to the fundamentals.

Moreover, I caught the excitement of the game and the spirit of the competition.

Pakistan lost that match in a heartbreaker — a dropped catch and 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 showed up 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 pivoted to talking about the match.

“I understand cricket now, Abu,” I said. But what a disappointing ending.

“That’s just cricket,” he said. He would have loved to have seen a win, but that’s how the game goes. He reminisced about the advice his college coach would give the team. I asked some questions about the strategy and players.

It was the longest and most upbeat conversation we’ve had in months.

Lakhani had told me that even though Pakistan lost in the semifinals, for many fans, the team’s win over India felt as great as winning the whole thing.

When I got off the phone with my dad, it certainly felt like we had won.

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