OWhen it started, this day was supposed to be an uplifting day. Australia’s return to cricket in Pakistan after 24 long years. The Rawalpindi Stadium outside Islamabad. A large crowd comes to see a touring crew go from abstraction to reality. Something historic, something to mark. It was a Friday, the focus of Muslim prayer, with an extended lunch break giving a spiritual heart to the day. There was also a poignant emotion, marking the loss of Rod Marsh. His death matched our rough calculation of life: 74 years lived, younger than many, but a beautiful life behind him with many misadventures survived.
So the lifting of the spirits remained. There was something of the circle of life and death, loving farewells in one direction as something new begins. This built up throughout the afternoon as crowds poured in after prayers to see their opening stand top 100 and then their next pair do the same. A century for Imam-ul-Haq, someone connected to history for better or for worse through his uncle, Inzamam. The past spoke through the present, even as Pakistan sought to move beyond its past.
The news falls: a bomb, a mosque in Peshawar, sectarian violence targeting the Shiite minority. A count of 30 deaths with more to come. And at the same time, for anyone driving through Islamabad, it’s an ordinary city, a pretty place with students, cafes and street markets bounded by mountains, not a place of terror. As some of its inhabitants have said, the world is full of horrors and beauties. The former do not belong only to our country, the latter also belong to us.
You then try to hold on to the uplift. It’s easier when looking at a teeming stadium, thousands in the graded seats cheering with each delivery, blowing their trumpets, roaring in approval at someone marching towards the pitch near the border. It’s easier when you talk to those in this city who tell you what this moment means to them. In this place, raw human happiness is all around. A tragic day and a wonderful day can happen at the same time, you might tell yourself. They do it every moment. It is the nature of existence.
Eventually, those of us covering the game piled into cars to drive home. We might think in caveat terms: that for cricket, at least, that day was something special. Something to warm the heart in a world that needs it, something to retaliate against the kind of people who only want to create cold instead. With the freeway humming under our tires, drowsiness adrift, we stared at the phones. I saw that the pieces of the messages began to form a whole. Blinked and saw it still there. On the day of farewell to a beloved player, here comes another. Shane Warne, heart attack, 52.
This does not correspond to any calculation. It may be a generational bias, but anyone who has seen Warne play can define their generation by it. Those of all ages became kids again in the 1990s and 2000s, watching a magician whose only job was fun. Not for the poor souls at the other end of the pitch, but for everyone watching. Warne was the game, while making it something new. Warne was still there, the standard no one could aspire to. Warne was, quite frankly, meant to live forever. He will, in a way, but now comes the shock of realizing he won’t either.
In the corners of the corridors of the Rawalpindi stand, people knelt on carpet squares and faced Mecca. In the stands, the crowd was multiplied by 10 after the noon mosque. High up in one of the light towers, a huge raptor – a falcon or a falcon – occasionally left the portico to circle on the ground, moving in huge stiff-winged arcs to hunt for prey , riding the currents across the field as his shadow kept pace below. Life goes on, and death goes on, and they move together, one and the same. When Imam finished his long grind towards his first century of testing, he burst into a celebration of rolling limbs. He hugged Azhar Ali. Then he walked away to kneel in the setting sun, his forehead leaning against the cool green grass in prayer.