Pakistan's greatest haals: a celebration

"It's coming, feel it?" Getty Images

In this edition of Rabbit Holes, Osman Samiuddin, Sidharth Monga and Ahmer Naqvi talk about Pakistan's greatest haals.

What is a haal? You know how sportspeople talk about "the zone"? The haal is like an entire team simultaneously being in the zone. But it's not the regular version - it's the zone on steroids, an almost spiritual experience. The long explanation is in this 2013 story by Samiuddin, which draws on parallels to spiritual states from the Sufi tradition of music, where the term haal is used. Since the publication of that article, haal has been embraced by sections of Pakistani fandom as a means of explaining seemingly transcendental moments in their team's cricket where, when almost certainly headed for defeat, they rallied in an inexplicable manner to bound to victory.

Osman Samiuddin, senior editor, ESPNcricinfo I am ready for this, facing up front-on, like Fawad Alam.

Ahmer Naqvi, writer on pop culture: Is this audio-only?

Samiuddin: It's writing on text-only.

Sidharth Monga, assistant editor: We are making text great again.

Naqvi: I had prepped such amazing one-liners. I have an entire chapter by CLR James to share...

Samiuddin: Good high-browing, bro. I'm here to share Dan Brown.

Naqvi: Okay, so first up I wanted to make a defence of haal, which Osman got embarrassed about and disavowed after the 2017 Champions Trophy win.

Monga: That will be nice, since the originator himself has disowned it before I could go after it.

Naqvi: Firstly, in that 2017 piece Osman breaks down the analysis of what makes Pakistan play like this. While that's valuable, it also implies that sport is only properly discussed when viewed as an exercise in production and efficiency. Secondly, leading from that, CLR James made a great point about how sport is, and should be, understood as art. More specifically, he says that cricket is a high form of dramatic spectacle:

"Its quality as drama is more specific. It is so organized that at all times it is compelled to reproduce the central action which characterizes all good drama from the days of the Greeks to our own: two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal but no less strictly representative of a social group. One individual batsman faces one individual bowler. But each represents his side… The dramatist, the novelist, the choreographer, must strive to make his individual character symbolical of a larger whole. He may or may not succeed."

So if we look at Pakistan cricket, and specifically haal, not as just sport but also a dramatic narrative - the haal is like the twist in the plot.

Samiuddin: You're both wrong. My state of mind was like, I don't know wtf is going on but here is some reason to them winning and here's also some non-reason to them winning this. And so actually it wasn't a walkback in 2017 as much as a walk-into territory, where I'm even less sure about things than I was when I first began.

Naqvi: I feel Pakistani players are most likely to see themselves as characters playing out someone else's script. And so any hint at a twist in the narrative is a great driver of belief and a release of pressure - a sense that they are destined to win. That they are the heroes in the story. Pakistanis see cricket matches as a drama and we await to see when it resolves. And sometimes an apparently resolved drama in its final act gets a twist. Pakistani players switch on, believing that God is scripting this and so they don't have to think for themselves.

Monga: I'd like to give them more credit for what they do. There is more thought, more planning and more smarts than that.

Samiuddin: So I think one of the things I tried to look at, and compare it to, in the original piece was what we call the zone in sports - as much to say that there is a sporting framework in which to look at it as well. For example, when Waqar Younis says this: "No, no, it's not flat. It's a waiting game. Sometimes in any game when the momentum goes to the other side, the fielding side becomes a bit flat. But we knew, back of our minds, every guy, Wasim, me, Inzi, Moin, even he could see and sense those small things, that there is an opportunity. Suddenly, jaan aa jati hain [you become alive]. When you have match-winners, when your bowler senses something, then your fielders pick up on it, they go along with them, you can see, you can see it in the eyes."

He's explaining it and breaking it down. Jaan aa jati hain means they suddenly switch on and focus, and they know what they have to do, which is what they've spent their entire lives practising in the nets and talking about (in their case, bowling reverse-swing yorkers).

Naqvi: Whenever you speak to players here, they talk so much about faith and I feel we kinda ignore that because it sounds silly. But lately I've been wondering that with haal if it makes more sense to understand it physiologically rather than intellectually because it is so visceral. And that brings us to stuff like being in the zone.

Samiuddin: And the thing about haal was that it was about the reader's/watcher's experience of these moments as much as anything - how they take it in, even more than how the players execute it. In the mid-'90s peak-haal era, Pakistan were in possession of a tactic that was modern, new, fresh - i.e. reverse swing - and they were the best exponents of it. And they exploited it.

Monga: Yeah, to us it is the most irresistible, all-consuming force to which opponents must submit. To players, it might just be a case of "New batsmen will always struggle against reverse swing. So it is about making sure we stay alive till we get one more wicket and then give it our all."

Naqvi: Speaking more generally also, I feel that most cricket sides view the game as a battle of outscoring, and so they won't pack their bowling the same way Pakistan does, and Pakistan have generally had weaker batting. I feel that offers a structural advantage that is open to being exploited should conditions or anything help bowling more than expected.

Monga: That is exactly why they were a much better side than India for so long.

Samiuddin: The thing that struck me was that it was about those rare occasions where the watcher was almost at one with what was happening on the field. It is a much more all-encompassing feeling than just a fan celebrating a team win. At least, I used to be able to feel it right inside me.

Naqvi: I think this is why the article did so well - the specific idea of haal and transcendence. I literally experienced it in Karachi, 2004, during Pakistan's chase of 350 against India . For like an hour, I felt I had no sense of my body or even self. I was one with a large unified creature made up of the crowd. It actually changed how I think about religion and faith and life, that experience.

Monga: The closest that comes to it is an Asian side defending a low total at home. The biggest sign: the close-in fielders catch everything. Like, everything sticks. Sri Lanka defending a low total at Galle is proper haal.

Samiuddin: *Pretends Monga didn't just commit the unforgivable blasphemy of suggesting any team other than Pakistan could haal.*

Naqvi: So imo Tests are hardly haal-worthy, because I feel a good haal is instant and decisive. But Bangalore '05 comes close. It starts with a pretty funny run-out of Sehwag that comes from Abdur Razzaq hitting the stumps. Look at the team when the run-out happens. None of the fielders are switched on. Bowler isn't at stumps. Silly point lazily pointing. It starts the collapse from nowhere. India were well set.

Samiuddin: I remember this because I was there, but I never remembered it as a haal. Because I think the target was never on?

Naqvi: Yeah, but given the nature of the match, huge innings and all, it felt like a draw 100%. Though this is also why I think a Test haal isn't likely - because you can't sustain intensity for as long. In T20s one bowler is enough to wreck the innings. Hence ODIs are natural home to haal.

Samiuddin: This is true. In that video, it is remarkable how switched-off Pakistan are at the exact instant of switching on.

Monga: But Waqar says we are not quite switched off; we give the impression we are.

Naqvi: Have to feel like that's him being defensive also - famously unprofessional athletes those guys.

Samiuddin: Also, Razzaq never hit the stumps directly in anything other than bowling. And that too to Tendulkar.

Naqvi: So I have another match example and possibly my favourite. Not that great a haal but a superb backstory. On the 1992 tour to England, tabloids print on the morning of the fourth ODI revelations by Allan Lamb, who says the umpires changed balls mid-innings in third Test because he had shown them the balls and it was clear Pakistan were cheating. This issue went to the courts and there are articles on how the ICC and the England board mucked things up.

Anyway, on to the match. England are five down, in control but not in command of the match, with Lamb on 55. Chris Lewis is at No. 9, so plenty of batting left. Lamb's wicket, off Mushtaq Ahmed's bowling, starts the collapse. Asif Mujtaba takes a ludicrous catch sans helmet or pads at short leg. Waqar sends the stumps flying to end the match, by which time you can see Lamb in the pavilion, already in regular clothes, having a drink.

Monga: Singapore final against Sri Lanka in 1996 is another haal. Aamer Sohail - what captaincy!

Naqvi: In a sense, the captain is a novelist who has a great plot point but must find a way to pull off a good scene, not just a few good pages. This was the match of the fastest fifty by Sanath [Jayasuriya]?

Monga: Yeah. Lol, chasing 216, an opener scores 76 off 28 and you still lose.

Sohail did prove the captaincy point. He had silly points and forward short legs even when SL were rampaging.

Naqvi: Talk us through why this is haal.

Monga: Jayasuriya alone has got close to half the target - the game is gone. His wicket is not evidently a great piece of planning - "holed out", says Wisden. And then the switch is flicked on. Sohail starts to play it as not a 50-over game but one in which he has to bowl out Sri Lanka. Bowls Saqlain [Mushtaq] with all the close-in fielders, with the score at 96 in nine overs. And the team is not even selected for the conditions. Sri Lanka choked them with four spinners; here it is only Saqlain and Sohail himself. The finale is Ata-ur-Rehman taking three wickets in five balls on a spinner's pitch.

Samiuddin: That it is Ata is the surest sign that cricket rationale has gone out the window.

Naqvi: I have this line in my notes - haal is when good tactics collide with high drama. Though the best way of judging if it is haal or not is watching highlights - you can spot it in the crowd and players, and comms even.

Monga: To me the biggest prerequisite of haal is that the side looks clueless before a certain (often chance) event, and then it switches on and tactics, circumstance, execution all come together and you know the result well before it has happened.

Samiuddin: So this was one of my favouritest games when I was growing up. I used to watch highlights on repeat all the time and until very, very recently didn't even realise that it is like the exemplar of haal. I was doing a What We're Watching piece (during lockdown, a series on what we watched on YouTube) and this game came up, because algorithms. And just from looking at the scorecard, you can tell it has all the elements:

1. Defending a low total.
2. Opponent a crazy-strong team, two-times World Cup winners and one-time runners-up at that point.
3. Said opponents cruising to target, 105 for 2, Richie Richardson being brutal.
4. Hello, comedy run-out. Richardson, gone at the non-striker's end after a bad throw back to the bowler, Shoaib Mohammad, who nearly falls over trying to get it, then doesn't see where the stumps are but recovers and takes the bails off.
5. Mudassar Nazar dismisses Viv Richards.
6. Shoaib, who makes 34 off 83 balls, ends up with 2 for 43.
7. Muddasar is MoM, with three wickets, and is playing, it seems, as a bowler. He was due to bat at ten.

West Indies went from 105 for 2 to 165 all out. Against Mudassar and Shoaib. Not Akhtar but Mohammad.

Naqvi: What is the feeling when Richardson goes? In the stadium, fielders, comms, for you as a kid?

Samiuddin: This is the thing - growing up on it, I just felt it was the most natural thing to happen, that this is how cricket matches were won. And comms are kind of playing along - it's a Channel 9 production, so the regular great broadcasting is there. Richie Benaud with quips, Tony Greig the hype master, Bill Lawry too, and I think Tony Cozier as well.

Naqvi: Would it be fair - and I turn to CLR again here - to feel that the way Pakistan won such matches also somehow represents what works best about our society?

Two quotes from him: "The cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance", and "I am equally certain that in those years social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games". So, watching such matches, did audiences feel they represented their own reality - an ability to suddenly summon unlikely resources against the odds for brief moments?

Monga: Yeah, and you have a good day for a change, so instead of brooding over the other problems that persist, you choose to celebrate - enjoy that good day.

Naqvi: Yes! And hope that another one can come just like that.

Samiuddin: Monga, give an Indian haal example.

Monga: MS Dhoni. It was a tri-series final against Sri Lanka. He was playing despite injury. India were nine down. All done and dusted, but he took it to the final over and then spooked Shaminda Eranga. I was on the match report and I think 80% of it was about that over. Not necessarily a haal but an example of one man going nuts.

Samiuddin: Actually there's another batting haal I remember. Abdul Razzaq's hundred against South Africa - I had to rewrite that report big time. So clearly batting haals are so unusual that they require entire rewrites.

Naqvi: Do you guys think you wrote better in the high of the moment or struggled to capture the magic?

Monga: During the last World Cup, I was thankful for some absolute chaos in games, because then I wrote in the moment and surprised myself with the end product.

Naqvi: A writing haal (and I don't mean that as a joke). I think that is the beauty of what Osman captured in that original article - for all the talk of tactics, it's really about the moment we get to experience something that elevates us beyond the mundanity of life.

Monga: In that World Cup - Wahab Riaz against Afghanistan was a haal. And he nearly didn't play, he told Saifi, I can only give you my bowling hand's service and the other is f***ed. And then he has to go and bat. And then he hits that six.

Naqvi: Hahaha, what a great quote.

Monga: This is from my piece:

"Wahab says he wants to have a bowl before he decides [to play or not]. After bowling a few deliveries, Wahab tells Sarfaraz Ahmed he can commit a 100% to bowling but can't promise the same with his batting and fielding. Sarfaraz asks him again if he can bowl. Wahab says he can. Sarfaraz doesn't think twice. He is in. Wahab feels twice the player. That his captain wants him in desperately."

Naqvi: I have a grand theory on what constitutes haal:

- Must be quick and sudden
- Must come from the least plausible moment in the match
- Must involve comedy or an unexpected moment
- Must be apparent to both teams, and at least the Pakistani commentator and ideally the viewer watching first time on YouTube highlights

Monga: Must only seem possible to Pakistan after the comedy/unexpected event has happened.

Samiuddin: The comedy/unexpected event of being Pakistan.

Naqvi: It's actually freaky how this comedy/sudden moment is common to all the potential matches you'll find. Like, for me, it's a mark that this is gonna be haal. Also, once WinViz-type measures improve, you could measure haal a lot better - the dramatic nature of swing in the WinViz prediction, taken over x games type of thing. How often is WinViz confounded?

Monga: We can actually patent a haalmeter right now.

Samiuddin: Haal > WinViz.

Monga: Our measure is: "Haal? Scene on hain?" And then we answer in percentages based on our feelings and instinct.

Naqvi: Osman, you mentioned the first match in this series, but this feels very haal. South Africa were 151 for 3 chasing 172, then 162 all out.

Samiuddin: I see run-outs in this too.

Naqvi: Yes, but the death blow is Wasim bowling Jonty. And here's another haal measure - look at the celebrations for each wicket. It's a crescendo - from barely celebrating Jonty to an angry send-off for Dave Callaghan, to slowly believing for the Errol Stewart wicket.

Samiuddin: In this the comedy is on South Africa. Check out, towards the end, how Cronje survives a run-out only to be run-out in comic fashion right after.

Naqvi: Haha, yes. OMG this was so exciting. I didn't know where comedy would come from and then it arrives in the form of irony.

Samiuddin: Asif Mujtaba, btw, with the throw for the Meyrick Pringle run-out.

Naqvi: Yes, and he hits, confirming Pakistan's fielding is on fire. And the way that Waqar collected that throw…

Samiuddin: "The old proverbial, the cat among the pigeons" is how the broadcaster describes it after the game is over. And the very next game that comes up is the Waqar 5 for 25 in that series.

Naqvi: Non-binding haal qualifier - sex appeal of main bowlers. Early '90s Wasim-Waqar was sex on toast!

Samiuddin: Fazal Mahmood from The Oval, '54. Big Sarfraz Nawaz from '79 Melbourne.

Naqvi: The MCG crowd in that Test is wild!.

Monga: Big Sarf reminds me of one completely unverified story on him. A junior player, who is not yet a Pakistan cricketer, has gone to the team hotel to meet someone who is rooming with Sarf. He just knocks once and enters, and you know how sometimes the toilet door is behind the room door. In this case the door is open, and on the toilet is Sarf, "syah nanga", stark naked, eating a burger.

Naqvi: Hahaha.

Samiuddin: On that high note, we should leave it there.

Naqvi: This was a lot of fun!

Monga: See? Better than actual talking.