So, Pakistan has apparently lost its first two matches in the cricket World Cup. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth as enraged citizens across the country vent their frustration at the team. Overnight, everyone has become an expert; some blame the PCB, others point fingers at the players, and still more mutter darkly about shadowy forces at work in the world of match-fixing and organized gambling. In the quest for scapegoats, anyone will do; Moin Khan’s head is presented on a platter for visiting a casino, and rumours of Younis Khan’s imminent removal from the team abound. Amidst the frenzy of speculation and soul-searching, television screens and billboards across the country continue to display images of simpering cricketers acting as shills for companies selling carbonated beverages. The irony of athletes touting drinks associated with increasing levels of obesity around the world is probably lost amidst all the flashing dollar signs.

I have never been particularly enthralled by the sight of two dozen sweaty men throwing, hitting, and chasing after a small red ball. The same applies for other sports as well; the endless fascination people have with the antics of men and women competing to possess and use tiny objects in massive fields and arenas continues to elude me. I am sure it is fun for those who are good at this sort of thing, and I can see why people might find it interesting, but I remain baffled by the emotional responses sports seems to trigger, as evinced by the deep-rooted passions associated with the different tribal identities sports teams inspire. I am constantly mystified by the profound sense of loyalty and attachment many friends and colleagues in Pakistan have towards foreign football clubs, and also find myself unable to share in the collective, almost existential fervor that accompanies a cricket match with India.

I am told that sports brings people together, uniting them through the propagation of transcendental values revolving around fair play, competition, skill, and camaraderie. I am also told that sports can be a powerful and effective panacea in difficult and turbulent times, helping to forge a sense of collective identity that can bridge the divides that fracture society. Yet I remain skeptical. At a time when we are experiencing the corporatization of everything, with access to public space and services, as well as everyday interactions and relationships, increasingly being mediated by companies bent on having us define ourselves through what we consume, the close relationship between cricket, sponsorship, and business makes it difficult to reconcile a belief in merit, level playing fields, and hard work with a relentless and shameless quest for profit. Cricket is a commodity like any other, marketed and packaged to boost revenues and optimize returns on investment; the affinity for different teams and players is as much about attachment to a ‘brand’ as it is admiration for talent.

All that might be true for clubs and franchises, but what about national teams and patriotic pride? Again, the superficiality of the whole enterprise, and the transparent manufacturing of jingoistic sentiment, ultimately amounts to nothing more than an ephemeral instance of collective solidarity that does little, if anything, to address the concrete problems society faces. Other than leading one particular individual in Pakistan to believe that heading a world-beating sports team in 1992 automatically entitles them to lead the country, cricket is little more than a shallow distraction, an opiate that detracts from a reality defined by inequality, deprivation, and exclusion. Like the aspirational lifestyles peddled by the marketing departments of the corporations that sponsor it, cricket derives much of its appeal from the idea that it can make things better; just as using the right brand of cooking oil can bring you domestic bliss, and the correct choice in insurance coverage will change your life, having faith in your team and watching them triumph (especially against an imagined primordial ‘enemy’ like India) is cause for good cheer and celebration, and shows that life might not be so bad after all.

Except that it is. The nation might unite to support its team, but that does nothing to change the underlying ethno-national and sectarian tension that continues to inflame politics from Peshawar to Karachi. Misbah-ul-Haq might lift the World Cup trophy a few weeks from now, but what will that really mean for the tens of millions struggling to eke out an existence on a daily basis? The PCB might get the reform it allegedly needs but will that have any real bearing on broader issues concerning institutionalized nepotism, rent-seeking, and corruption in Pakistan? The mass hysteria that accompanies a match with India might seem like fun and games, but does it not also give voice to some of this country’s baser instincts and sentiments, couched as it is in a narrative the reinforces tired old tropes about the clash between a narrowly defined Muslim identity and the Hindu ‘other’? As very large numbers of people invest ever larger amounts of time and emotion in cricket, presumably while holding a bottle of their preferred fizzy sugar-water, one cannot help but wonder what might be accomplished if all that frenetic, ferocious energy were to instead be directed towards understanding and addressing the pressing problems faced by this country.

Will Pakistan win the World Cup? Are the PCB and team management to blame for the team’s shambolic performance? Can the rifts within the team be dealt with in time for the remaining matches? I neither know nor care, although I suspect the world will keep turning regardless of how these questions are ultimately answered. Call me a joyless curmudgeon but cricket is a colossal waste of time, a platform for corporate exploitation fuelled by pernicious nationalism and sustained by the attentions of an increasingly distracted and disenchanted citizenry seeking relief wherever it can find it.