There are, given modern media and the frequency of terrorism, a few norms you can trace in the wake of any attack: The nascent mentions of “an incident” or “explosions reported” that creep onto 24-hour news tickers and Twitter; the shaky first photos of dust and blood uploaded and soon appropriated by mainstream outlets that confirm your worst fears; the retweeted pleas for information about silent loved ones; a friend or ex-colleague or that bloke you met on holiday marked safe on Facebook. Things differ somewhat in terms of Western responses and coverage if a bomb detonates in Baghdad or Lahore rather than Brussels, but there is naturally no difference in grief for those affected.
There is also normally, given the game’s monopoly of the calendar, a televised cricket match taking place somewhere during or in the aftermath of such an atrocity. This might be an international or some domestic T20 involving a franchise whose name you're not entirely sure of but, due to the demographics of cricket, it nevertheless still puts you in an odd place. The recriminations from the dust and blood have started and with them the angry accusations. They are not directed at those of us who are non-Muslim, but we still find ourselves at a peculiar juxtaposition.
From many angles your senses are assailed by people telling you all those, to a man, of this faith are vessels of evil, yet there you are, watching followers of it cheering in stands, bowl yorkers and strike boundaries. There you are listening to them commentate, posting stats about strike rates, calling you out on Twitter for being a bit rude about Umar Akmal. You’re in the middle of a weird crossroads, being urged to conflate those who inhabit a huge part of your life, those with whom you share a sport, with murderers. You don’t, of course, need cricket to reject such generalisations, but it certainly highlights their crassness.
Cricket is everywhere. There is a particularly abhorrent scene, among the plethora of horrors highlighting Islamist intransigence and extremism, in Hemal Trivedi's documentary about the Red Mosque's damaging influence in Pakistan. You witness some of the boys who have been placed, and then indoctrinated, in a radical madrassah who wish to watch the 2011 World Cup semi-final between India and their country, but are barred from doing so by their teachers. You see them furtively crowding round TVs in the streets of Islamabad, desperate to view the game but, knowing the cameras are on them, fearing to look as if they are taking an interest. One of them succinctly puts the reason why in relation to the adults, such as they are, which govern their lives in the medieval hell to which they've been brainwashed into believing is existence: “They will beat us if we watch.” There is plenty else in that documentary, which incorporates the attack on a Peshawar school but was made before the godless slaughter in Lahore, to make the heart shudder but, as a cricket fan and teacher, this particular part made me sneer with impotent rage. The denial of sport's joy in the name of dogma, the theft of youth, it is just child abuse cloaked in scripture. That children should face the threat of physical assault for wanting to watch a cricket match. It is utterly, utterly repulsive.
For most of us, however, it is almost self-defeating to draw attention to how largely irrelevant religion is to our interpretation of cricket because by doing so risks undermining the whole point. Yet it can surely not go unremarked that whenever innocent people’s worlds are destroyed by bombs and then the world as a whole listens to the spiteful bombast that follows, cricket really doesn't, in the nicest way, pay any heed. Afridi retires, quips flood Twitter. It is just seen as cricket. A British Muslim extracts his side from a pickle against a team containing Muslim refugees. It is just seen as cricket. A Muslim born in Pakistan opens for Australia. It is just seen as cricket. Everything is, largely, just seen through the prism of cricket, not through the prism of the religion to which so many of its participants and fans belong and which those who kill misuse as a fig leaf for their murders. Faiths in cricket, even in these volatile times and despite terrorism’s lasting effect on the game itself, are as irrelevant as skin colour.
Every time terrorism floods over the media, with the retributive anger it understandably provokes and undoubtedly aims to create, cricket and its polite subjugation of religion’s significance is, if nothing else, there. Whether you are a liberal or conservative, an atheist or believer, a frothing jihadi or Donald Trump, cricket is indisputably there, high-profile on timelines and TV whatever the repugnant horror with which it shares the news.
Cricket, with its uniquely mixed crowds and protagonists is there lingering, a reminder that people still focus on something of common bond when the world’s absurdity is urging them to move further apart. This lofty fact is not, of course, going to stop either the bombs or the bombast, but if you're utterly sickened by both then it is comforting to remember cricket’s even plateau of praise and condemnation. A plateau where Muslim players are mocked with impunity but without bigotry by fellow Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and, while it may sometimes show social media users as a little rude, it is also indicative of a certain strength in the face of divisiveness.
The question cricket should perhaps ask itself is whether, as a sport, it should just quietly enjoy its largely successful absorption of religions or, in the present climate, have the temerity to be more vocal. Should we hope cricketers might speak up a little more when they hear blanket abuse of those millions of Muslim fans who adore them? Should we hope that cricketers, in positions of such reverence and influence over the young and easily influenced, might speak out even louder against extremism than some do already? Well in fact, on the latter point you don't have to, because, although it is clearly not a cricketer’s job to stop bigotry or prevent terrorism, many from many teams have taken to social media individually to condemn the horror of recent events. It is easy to dismiss such comments as compulsory, but we really shouldn't.
Cricket, all of us, should recognise the game’s privileged and pivotal position. It is the sport, given the prominence and integration of Muslims within it, which more than any other shows up the fallacy of the beliefs of fanatics with bombs and would-be leaders with idiotic prejudice instead of policies. It might seem grasping and trite if you live in a progressive Western city, even those affected by terrorism, to vaunt our sport's pleasant indifference to the posited religious divide of our times. If you live in one of the Pakistani cities affected on a regular basis by extremist violence, it might seem even more of a vacuity. But really every time a Muslim walks out onto a cricket pitch, with team mates of their faith, others or none, every ball is a defiance of the pubescent, Breivikian certainty to which any extremist smugly clings. It does, if little else, make these idiots, in madrassahs or on Fox News, look a bit foolish.
We have all, in Europe, Asia and beyond, sat around these last three weeks watching cricket on the global stage. Watching a sport which, even if it does not herald or shout about it, really kicks the balls of those such as Trump or the mullahs of the Red Mosque who would seek to represent the planet as a dichotomy. There will be two British Muslims representing England this afternoon in the World T20 final and to many, brilliantly, that will really mean very little, as does the fact one of the world's premier sports, brilliantly, generally swishes by with its inclusiveness going unnoticed. But to those cricket-loving children in Pakistan, those children imprisoned by extremism trying to steal a glance at a TV set on a street corner, it will mean a great deal. And it should say to all of us what it will hopefully prompt even their corrupted, stolen minds to think: That this diversity is real life. That this is cricket. And that this, regardless of everything those full of hate might try to tell us, is simply normal.