Imran Khan. -File photo

Pakistan cricket is probably filled with the most inspired, interesting, frustrating, amusing, baffling incidents of selection than any other country.

Though it champions itself on merit, it lags behind other countries when it comes to a level-playing field for all citizens.

Though consideration of religion should be far removed from the arts and sport, if not from every profession and walk of life, it is a fact that there is a clash of civilisations and religion, race, caste and colour — undeniable catalysts.

South Africa for a long time had apartheid affecting its selection but not any more. New Zealand has managed an Indian or two, especially from the Patel family, while England of late and Indians most of the time have had Muslims even in leadership positions, such as Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Azharuddin and Nasser Hussain. Sri Lanka has played Tamils like Muralitharan even during the long civil war in the north with them but if I remember clearly, David Heyn was the last white men to play for them in the mid-seventies; since then the only ‘white men’ in their ranks have been the foreign coaches like Dav Whatmore and Tom Moody, though all from Bhuddists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians have featured in their sides.

Zimbabwe went from white to black within weeks and came up probably with the first reverse racism in cricket, if not sporting, history. They now have arrived at some semblance of racial balance. The West Indies for a long time had a white captain despite a team full of phenomenally talented natives from the Caribbean islands, until the late Sir Frank Worrel took over in 1960 from Alexander. Since then you don’t see any white men in the side, perhaps because the settlements were wound up by the 1950s and went back to England. But they have had some players belonging to religions other than Christian. A Muslim, Inshan Ali, played for them in the 1970s and Indian descent has been well represented, especially from Trinidad & Tobago.

Admittedly Australian choices still carry an accent of subliminal racism, as it is the only country in the world to have played no Asian or black player, other than Usman Khawaja who has become the first Muslim and full South Asian to represent Australia, after about 130 years of playing Test cricket.  Dav Whatmore has also been counted as one, being born in Sri Lanka. But with Usman’s induction there is a role model for other pessimistic immigrant youths from the subcontinent to have hope. It won’t happen quickly I feel but the Asians now have a dream.

Jason Gillespie is the only acknowledged Aboriginal person (though his mother was Greek) to become a Test cricketer. Otherwise no indigenous Australian has played cricket for the country.

So what then has held back minorities from Pakistan from gaining a permanent foothold in the team? After the likes of the late Wallis Matthias in the 1950s, the ones to have played the longest for Pakistan have been Danish Kaneria and Mohammad Yousuf, with the latter converting to Islam midway through his career. Today Pakistan and Bangladesh are probably the only countries to have all singular religion teams.

I would think that the reason is the flight of the minorities rather than their plight, though the accent on Islamic demonstration was perhaps at its peak from 2004 to 2007 when Inzamam led the team. I remember someone once asking him around late 2006 how Rana Naveed was doing. Inzi replied: “Good. Woh bhi abb darhi nikal raha hai.” You’d think it was one of his famed witty replies but believe me the man was serious in his answer.

I said flight because Pakistan, already having a lower percentage of minorities than other major cricket playing countries, has seen a heightened wave of emigration since the 1990s of Hindus, Parsis and Christians. Their involvement in cricket is a far cry from the Bombay Quadrangular (later Pentangular with addition of ‘Rests’) where they came in as full-fledged teams in themselves. It’s taken a while, and there was a time when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Alvin Robert Cornelius, was for a few years the Chairman of Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan (BCCP) as the PCB was known then.

The declining population of minorities and the increase in the Muslim population has naturally resulted in the law of probability favouring Muslims coming into the Pakistan cricket team. I feel it is by default rather than by design. This is a shame because any sport is more than the act on the field or arena; it is an amalgamation of all aspects of society of one country on display to the world and highlights which of them are more welcoming than others. That is where the west takes the lead over the east, where you are unlikely to find a Caucasian in a Chinese, Japanese or Korean team.

But within our own there has been this fault line between the sons of soil and the diaspora, again I feel by accident than for any ulterior motives. This has often resulted in selection controversies and complaints of favouritism, even nepotism. The Akmal brothers immediately come to mind for this generation, even though none of them have been in a leadership position to call the shots. But the clear influence and collusion has been there.

There are several ways in which this can be arranged and one is to ‘rig’ the trial game. This sort of match happens now but rarely. But Wazir Mohammad once told me an interesting story about such an arrangement. Once in the 1950s when a tour squad was to be chosen, there was a standoff in the selection of a batsman and also a spinner. So it was decided that the final selection would be made based on the trial match.

Wazir recalls that he and his Karachi colleagues saw that Fazal and Mahmood Hussain were bowling half volleys to the batsman they wanted to go on tour and he ended up making a hundred while the contender from Karachi was put to sword with vicious bouncers and yorkers at high speed.

Later that night he said he sat with a couple of batsmen from Karachi who were already well-established in the team and made their own plan. When Nasim ul Ghani, the spinner they were backing, came on to bowl they played to miss and from the boundary line it appeared he was unplayable. It was tit for tat and both got into the side. As they say: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

But perhaps it was at its height in the years leading up to 1970. The cricketing fraternity, especially from Karachi, felt hard done by the Mohammad brothers who some felt would sacrifice the cause of fellow Karachiites for one of their own. Hanif and Wazir were said to be there on merit from Test No 1 but inducting Mushtaq at the tender age of 13-plus in the 1958 series against West Indies to face the likes of Wes Hall, and then Sadiq in the late 1960s, did reek of nepotism. Both the younger brothers would probably not have made their debuts when they did had they not been the siblings of Hanif; and the same can be said of his son, Shoaib.

They did well and may well have played Test cricket eventually but the bloodline did speed it up. Sadiq in fact was made into a left-hander by the elder brothers because they felt that it would be an advantage over other contenders.

Imran Khan has himself documented in his autobiography that he was selected purely on nepotism; his cousins Javed Burki and Majid Khan were the main reasons he made it into the squad for the 1971 tour of England. According to him he didn’t even have a proper bowling run-up and wrote that if it had not been for his cousins he wouldn’t have been on the plane.

The selection has also been influenced by where the captain comes from. When Imran became captain he was vehemently opposed to Iqbal Qasim and gave blind support to Abdul Qadir; When Miandad became captain for the first time, he pulled in Taslim Arif over Wasim Bari. And almost every time the two exchanged leaderships, it would be Iqbal Qasim in under Miandad and Bari in over other wicketkeepers, until he retired in 1983.

But Imran had an eye for talent, it must be said. The selectors had kept on ignoring Inzamam ul Haq even though he was scoring runs by the dozen in first class cricket. Mushtaq Ahmed and Waqar Younis, who played with Inzi in UBL, urged Imran to have a look at the lad himself. Imran called him over during net practice before a Test and after watching him for a few minutes said to the guys: “Yeh tau Viv ki tarah khelta hai!” Viv Richards of the West Indies was of course the ultimate compliment and someone Imran has said was never scared to look him in the eye. Imran then bowled to the young man himself and picked him immediately for the games against the touring West Indians.

Such fairytale entrees are not limited to the Gaddafi Stadium. When the Australians were here in 1980 and Miandad was leading the country for the first time at the young age of 24, the Pakistanis were having net practice on the morning of the match. Ilyas was supposed to make his Test debut as an off spinner. But someone came up to Mushtaq Mohammad the coach and introduced a chap named Taufeeq Ahmed, saying he bowled off spin and can give the batsmen some good batting practice as it was supposed to be a turner at the National Stadium. He was a club cricketer from Malir and had not yet played first class cricket.

A couple of hours later Taufeeq was playing in the Test, after turning the ball square in the nets and getting batsmen bowled out, including Zaheer Abbas twice.

There have been some comical situations; Salahuddin Ahmed recalls that in a Test in the ’90s, he and his fellow selectors had decided to play Saqlain Mushtaq despite a lot of pressure from Majid Khan, then CEO of the PCB, that Arshad Khan from Peshawar was a better choice. Indeed Arshad was a classic off-spinner with a deceptive loop but Saqlain was considered a safer bet. The team was signed off on the eve of the match but when Salahuddin saw the side walking out on the morning of the match Arshad Khan was one of them and no sign of Saqlain. To his credit Arshad remained a threatening bowler but Saqlain eventually proved himself the wilier of the two.

Such behind-the-scenes manoeuvring has been rampant in selection of Pakistani sides and I have mentioned just a few from the previous century as most of this generation would be unaware of these instances; some of which bordered on the extreme. Sadly, I feel it has gone from bad to worse, as influencers have become more emboldened by the lack of accountability and no care for self respect even when their tilt toward a relative or friend’s son is known to all. That in fact has been the reason why team spirit has broken down no matter what is claimed; it’s who has more clout in the corridors of power that determines who is in and who is out.

There will be rare instances when lads like Asad Shafiq will break through like a grass blade through a pavement. Overall, however, nothing will change until we remove the constant gardeners. And many of the cheated have hummed the opening verse of the famed ghazal by Qamar Jalalvi: “Kab Mera Nasheman Ahl-i-Chaman Gulshan Men Gawara Karte Hain….”

The writer has been writing on cricket since 1979, and has edited The Cricketer International (UK) Asian Edition as well as authoring two books on World Cup Cricket history. He sits in as cricket analyst on various channels.