How do you prove your love to your country? In Pakistan, this question is often invoked. Many complain about how a certain few get to hand out patriotism certificates and question others’ devotion to their homeland. In Pakistan, loving Pakistan means never criticising it. It means never ‘disrespecting’ its institutions (not an abstract but increasingly codified idea). It means never telling anyone about anything bad that happens here.

Take Malala Yousafzai. She is easily the most beloved Pakistani on the global stage, a celebrity so profoundly popular she is instantly recognised by her first name, like Beyoncé or Messi. Malala, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is also loudly hated in Pakistan — particularly by those with much power to shape public opinion — because she reminds people that we don’t educate our girls very well and have problems with terrorism. So, even though she represents a story so beautiful it melts the world’s hearts, it isn’t good enough for Pakistan. Even as she clearly reiterates, in her passionate speeches and goofy humour, her love for Pakistan, it’s deemed unacceptable.

But the problem is that love doesn’t come with boundaries or ultimatums. It isn’t even guaranteed to bring happiness. Love builds you up but also breaks you down. It can’t be bound by notions of etiquette or propriety. Love doesn’t come from uniformed authorities deciding what is or isn’t allowed. Ultimately, it’s an act of self-discovery, of figuring out who you are and what it means to love.

And, in that sense, nothing shows Pakis-tan its own true self clearer than cricket. The Pakistan cricket team is a repository of extreme hate and anger — from players’ houses being pelted and their families harassed, to legal injunctions being filed and parliamentary inquiries launched. Hate and anger that leads to a young boy asking the captain on video why he looked like an overfed swine. Hate and anger that leads to the team’s plane back home being diverted to avoid riots. Pakistan cricket shows Pakistan some of its ugliest sides.

The Pakistan team is also the inspiration of some of its greatest humour, from dark gallows to infectious joy. As Pakistan was losing to India in the World Cup, Indian social media was posting collections of Pakistani memes and tweets and marvelling at our consistently hilarious takes. On one of the subcontinent’s most popular social media platform, the video app TikTok, you’ll find working-class Pakistanis using pots, pans, brooms, shovels and much else as props to recreate funny scenes from the same match. In fact, during the match against Australia, sublime footage of one Pakistani fan’s disappointed reaction became an instant meme, so much so that the World Cup’s official media was interviewing him by the end of the game. Pakistan cricket shows Pakistan how we find joy in the face of sorrow, how we laugh even as we cry.

Pakistan cricket shows Pakistan the many ways we fail as a society. As our team shows inferior skills and abilities, it reminds Pakistan of how much our social development lags. As our team finds itself mired in fixing scandals, it ignites our national obsession with feeling that corruption is inevitable to us, and the root of all our problems. As our team shows off its unprofessionalism, unpreparedness or nous, it reminds us of how our institutions are similarly incompetent. As our team slides further down the game’s global hierarchy, it echoes fears that we as a country are being left behind in a rapidly changing world. Pakistan cricket shows Pakistan everything it lacks, and the work needed to fix it.

Pakistan cricket is also the recipient of Pakistan’s greatest hopes and dreams. Our team’s historic propensity to stun the world with unlikely, unpredictable wins underlines a national belief that our people are short not of talent but opportunities. Our team’s ability to frequently make the world fall in love with it fuels hope that, one day, the world could love Pakistan just the same, instead of viewing it with ignorance. Our team’s long-standing tradition of reinventing the game and thinking outside the box inspires the dream that, no matter how bad things are now, Pakistan can turn it all around. Pakistan cricket shows Pakistan that it can still have faith in itself.

Pakistan cricket represents the clearest representation of the country’s failures and the grandest sense of its potential. It is hated viciously and wildly, without major repercussions or oppression. It is loved ferociously and blindly, without requiring any prompting or propaganda. It is an idea of Pakistan that can be shared widely, that can’t be appropriated by any one group or identity. At its best, Pakistan cricket is Pakistan in love — the story of Pakistan cricket is a story of a passionate, turbulent and epic love. Long may it continue.