The batsman at the other end, your captain, says something to you but it doesn’t register. It doesn’t matter, it can only be some inane observation. The bowler returns to the top of his mark, licking his fingers and massaging the red ball. Here he comes again. Watch the ball. It’s tossed up. Move forward, bring the bat in a full arc and connect. There, it is now a red dot hurtling through the sky, over the bowler’s head, out of the ground for a six. The perfect shot. Suddenly, the heat doesn’t matter. Your captain’s prattling doesn’t matter. The bowler’s prior performance doesn’t matter. Your name is Asad Haider, you are nineteen years old and you are the best batsman in the world. That is all that matters.
‘That Asad Haider is the best batsman in Nishtar Park.’ ‘Arre choro yaar. That boy can only play on these dead pitches. Besides, he’s a bloody charsi. Always high as a kite. No proper coaching either. He wouldn’t survive five minutes on a real turf wicket.’
‘Still, I’ve never seen anyone with such a natural eye. And just look at the grace in his shots. And the pitch isn’t easy. The old concrete slab is falling apart. It’s not easy to maintain your technique on that surface.’
‘Arre, who ever heard of a six-foot-four-inch opening batsman. All the great batsmen were short men. Gavaskar, Bradman, Miandad. That’s what makes them compact players. This boy should have been a fast bowler with his height. But saala lazy hai. He doesn’t want to work hard. Just wants to bat and smoke charas.’
A third voice pipes up. ‘He’s nothing more than a khatmal goonda. Goes around the area with his little band of khatmals, shutting down shops and threatening the traders every time the Fiqah-e-Jaaferia decide to call a bandh.’
‘Saale badmaash khatmal thugs. Such are the times we live in, that every time something happens to one of them anywhere in the city, these pups who’ve barely started shaving start bossing around respectable people. At least, we didn’t have this kind of thing when Bhutto was still alive.’
‘Bhutto was a Shia too. He didn’t do anything to restrain them.’ ‘Yes, but all this started when Zia put his hand on the mullahs. Then this lot started acting up.’
‘It was the bloody revolution in Iran. That’s when things started going bad. Besides, these fellows have the biggest mullah. That fellow Khomeini.’
‘Don’t you dare blaspheme against the Imam! We will tolerate a lot of your rubbish but we will not accept any insult against the Imam. And you better be careful. Half of us living around Nishtar Park are Shia.’
Aleem Siddiqui walks into the small makeshift pavilion that has been set up under a bright red shamiana at the very moment that the cricketing debate turns into a sectarian confrontation. His trademark polyester shirt is plastered to his back and two huge sweat stains expand like ink blots under his armpits. It is not just the heat that makes Aleem sweat. It is fear as well.
Getting between the two offensive debaters, he ensures that neither will be able to deck the other. ‘Excuse me, sirji, I am very sorry but can someone please point me to where Asad Haider is? Has he left the ground already?’