Mea culpa first. I have to say I have not followed cricket since before I had facial hair. So I want to write this now from a position of ignorance and naiveté, before I lose these characteristics as I reacquaint myself with the game. For now I’m a stranger in a strange land when it comes to twenty-first century cricket, a gladiatorial circus under the lights when what I remember was a quiet picnic on a summer eve.

My memories of cricket go back to the era of Viv Richards, when it felt as close to magic as anything on earth: secretly listening to the commentary of matches in the West Indies at 3 am under the bedcovers, experiencing sportsmanship as not just a rhetorical tic but something palpable on the field, escaping the turmoil of my growing years for the sense of physical restoration. I always felt better when I played the game.

It all faded away though, and after an awkward moment of transition to baseball in America, I lost interest in team sports, and running became my thing. I like to exert myself to the point of utter exhaustion. Cricket doesn’t play well in America anyway: we’re a little too barbaric, impatient, in-your-face for the sport’s leisurely pace.

Cricket in fiction

My novel Karachi Raj is a remembrance of things past of the city and the country I knew once but which threatened to vanish altogether unless I made a valiant effort to capture it and put it all in a bottle. But genies will always escape, and perhaps all the characters in my novel are but genies trying to escape my control.

In Karachi Raj there’s an overbearing character named Haji Ibrahim, visiting his brother’s religious bookstore in Karachi’s Aram Bagh district and turning customers away with his petty interrogations. Haji Ibrahim tells a customer, a cricketer who has turned to religion and whom he accuses of losing a game in the West Indies: “Expert commentators… make you see the scene better than the players on the field.” International cricket used to be rare and exotic and hard-earned, and while I’m having fun with Haji Ibrahim’s ludicrous proposition, cricket did have a lordship over the imagination in those days.

While writing Karachi Raj, I wondered if I had enough cricket in the book; but even if I don’t explicitly mention the sport often enough, it’s always in the background, one of the eternal texts (I almost said tests) against which other narratives are written, one of those myths without an end.

I visited Pakistan during the 1992 World Cup win, but it didn’t really make an impression – perhaps because back then one expected Pakistan to win. In the following decade my interest was sparked by Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008), one of the great novels about cricket – or really, the alienness of cricket in America. In a burst of inspiration I got in touch with the international band of cricketers at Rice University but it felt like too much of a dip into the past, which I wasn’t ready for.

I’d finished writing the final draft of Karachi Raj by the 2011 World Cup, which was the first time in my adult life I checked in to see what cricket had turned into.

What cricket has become

I was shocked by all the transformation: colored uniforms, the Decision Review System (Snicko! Hawk-Eye!), powerless umpires, powerplays, huge television contracts, T-20 (T-20! what on earth was that?), a Pakistani team that thanked Allah at every opportunity and seemed straight out of central casting at Raiwind (the tablighi center), cricket all the time everywhere in the world, multiple multinational commentators for a single game, betting, match-fixing, spot-fixing, player bans right and left, permissible and impermissible degrees of flex for spinners, rules galore, cricket boards pulling rank like so many U.N. Security Council members, chucking (or not-chucking), futuristic bats, mercenary players who played all year long in some league or other and signed contracts at the drop of a hat, a truly globalized, spectacularised, monetised game saturated with advertising and hype (cheerleaders!), and a whole new management vocabulary (think tank, positive intent, leading from the front) – all of this resembling nothing like the pastoral pastime, with a distinctly amateurish whiff, I remembered.

If Pakistan can’t get England and Australia to visit, Namibia and Nepal can always come! As I write this essay, one of the articles on a website is headed: “Cricket in Color: Is Papua New Guinea’s team kit at the T20 World Qualifier among your favorites?”

Perhaps it would have been better not to get reacquainted with this prematurely aged, bling-splattered, sperm-drenched, heroin-ruined, gambling-addicted whore after all! I prefer to remember the virginal girlfriend whom I used to take to awkward picnics, which felt like mystery enough.

Distorted nationalism

Aside from the hoopla – making a fetish of technology, minute administration of time (fines for playing the game too slowly!), all of it the antitheses of what I consider to be cricket’s soul – the 2011 World Cup felt like a muddle of distorted nationalism. For poorer countries like the South Asian teams or the West Indies, cricket is inextricable from notions of national glory, a sweet revenge against the former masters.

Had the West Indies – the powerhouse of my time, and player by player superior to anyone I see in action today – declined because there were more opportunities for youngsters? Nationalistic passions play out in the digital era quite differently than in earlier decades.

For Pakistan, I noticed the sharply different class origins of cricketers compared to the Oxbridge aspiration of the Majid Khan and Imran Khan caste, almost a rebuke to the aristocratic demeanor as though it were not fit for these times. Of course, playboy Imran Khan would be bearded Imran Khan if he played today.

The 2015 World Cup was the first I observed diligently, and I have been a bona fide follower since then. This last World Cup felt even more garish, more dominated by powerful commercial interests, more obsessed with technology and rules, more reluctant to let the rhythm of the game have its way. Bowlers seemed to have been rendered impotent, as though spectators cared only for street batting displays. Cricket is trying ever harder to be other than what it is.

Thanks to YouTube I’ve been catching up on my years of ignorance, how we got from there to here.

What’s religion got to do with it?

A player like Yousuf Youhana, with his evidently tortured soul – and his ability to play the game with a degree of nonchalant elegance as perfect as anyone who ever played – embodies the enigma of contemporary cricket for me. He would fit right in with the characters in Karachi Raj who are often all too conscious of their origins, and can be chameleons, steeped in indefinable melancholy yet transparently innocent, committed to style as a virtue.

A country becomes more integrated in the global landscape and gives in to the new rules of spectatorship, as everyone tries to figure out the appropriate roles for themselves amidst the decimation of the old rituals. The ambitious individual with a burden of class or identity to overcome can break under the stress.

What must have been the pressure on Youhana when he found himself, a Christian, operating in a cricket team run according to the tablighi regimen? His solution was to convert to Islam and outdo the tablighis in his open expression of religiosity. Then his career ended, too early I imagine. What made him so intolerable, apparently, to the powers that be, despite the fact that he bent over backwards to be one of them during the desperate politics of the last decade? His conundrum is everything I tried to capture in Karachi Raj, he is one of my people.

And as for the international fraternity of Muslim players – in teams like England and South Africa – since when did it become de rigueur that they must all present a religious demeanour? Viz., Imran Tahir, more than a touch metrosexual in the past, but now sporting a beard.

If it were up to me I would do away with all the rigmarole. I would end the deviance known as T20, because the lowest common denominator always erodes skills and drives the sport to its crudest level. There would be no rules in one-day cricket, let the batsmen and bowlers and captains and umpires figure it out. If you ended up with scores of 150, that would be fine with me, I don’t need to see wannabe AB de Villiers (though I love him) in every game.

I would get rid of the DRS, which makes a mockery of umpires on the field, as teams challenge anything they can as a matter of ritual. I would give up all the advances in flashy technology to leave it to players to acknowledge when they hadn’t taken a catch or walk back to the pavilion in marginal cases if they knew they were out. And if they don’t, they don’t, it’s supposed to be a test of character.

I know none of this will happen and cricket will keep going down the path of other radically commoditised sports, yet I find it interesting that cricket’s underlying spirit still comes through despite the shortsightedness of governing boards and corporate hucksters. Cricket still seems impermeable to the fascist spirit in sports. Once players take the field they seem to rise to the essence of the sport. The magic of cricket seems impossible to kill: it’s like writing or art, when you give in to the flow you find yourself better than you actually are, both in terms of your creation as well as the person behind the creation.

What hasn’t changed

Other things don’t seem to have changed. Cricket remains the ideal expression of national character: Pakistan, striving to get by on talent alone, India, practical and no-nonsense, England, a touch of emasculation forever tainting them, Bangladesh, insecure and desperately trying to prove themselves, Australia, trash-talkers who somehow retain the monopoly to enforce ethics on others.

It’s a great irony for me to be married to a Bengali woman at precisely the time Bangladesh – um, excuse me, mini-Australia! – seems to have come into its own and Pakistan appears to be in terminal decline due to international ostracism. My wife’s uncle Hafizur Rahman (Sunny) was the wicketkeeper for the Bangladeshi national team before they had Test status, so cricket is in her blood.

Of course the mutual history of the two countries (formerly one country) is shabbier than that – a tragic, irredeemable history that the overturning of cricket hierarchies fails to sweeten even a bit. The fact that I picked this moment to get interested in cricket is just the gods getting back at me for ignoring the sport my whole life.

Cricket, should I get closer to you, or leave you well enough alone? You’ve grown up while I looked away, yet buried in your botox cheeks and collagen pout is the youthful smile I still remember. You still make me feel good. Now, if only I could understand what Yousuf Youhana was all about!

Anis Shivani’s debut novel Karachi Raj has been published by HarperCollins/Fourth Estate.