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Smokers’ Corner: Faith in cricket

July 14, 2013

Much has been written about the spectacle of religiosity in the Pakistan cricket team. Most scribes who still write about it suggest that acts of religious exhibitionism by Pakistani cricketers began to wither away once the team’s captain, Inzamamul Haq, retired from the game in 2007.

However, while researching the phenomenon, I noticed that a number of writers who have written about the issue treated it as a sudden, overnight happening that crept into the team when Inzamam was made captain in 2004.

Perhaps the most complete and authentic account in this context recently arrived in the shape of a book: The Cricket Cauldron by diplomat and former chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), Shaharyar Khan.

Khan was made the Chairman of the PCB by General Parvez Musharraf, after the Pakistan team was eliminated in the first round of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.

Rameez Raja was made the CEO of the board. Khan came in when the Pakistan team had lost the services of a number of renowned players. The team had to be rebuilt almost from scratch.

Wicketkeeper Rashid Latif had replaced Waqar Younis as captain after the 2003 World Cup, but he didn’t last long. He was soon replaced by the classy stroke-maker, Inzamamul Haq.

Khan writes that contrary to popular belief, Inzamam was not the sole architect of the so-called Islamisation of the Pakistan cricket team.

Though between the 1970s and late 1990s, Pakistan cricket teams were famous (and at times notorious) for their flamboyant and colourful lifestyles and cricketing skills, Khan informs that it was actually during captain Waqar Younis’ tenure that the Islamic evangelical outfit, the Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ), made its initial moves to ‘Islamise Pakistan cricket’.

TJ’s first bona fide cricketing member, the dashing opener, Saeed Anwar (who had joined the outfit in 2001), was given the task by Waqar to use faith as a motivational tool. Anwar was also allowed to openly recruit other players for the TJ.

Khan, who was the manager of the team during the 2003 World Cup, first noticed this during a bus ride. The bus was taking the team to the ground where it was to play its first game of the tournament.

According to Khan, Anwar, who had begun to sport a long beard, walked up to the front of the bus and announced that ‘angels will descend and help Pakistan win the Cup.’ Everybody applauded.

A few weeks later when the Pakistan team had lost most of its games and was eventually eliminated from the tournament, Khan jokingly asked Anwar what had happened to the angels that he said would descend and help Pakistan win.

Without smiling back, Anwar sombrely replied that the angels hadn’t appeared because they (the players) were not good Muslims (!)

Khan then explains in detail why and how Inzamam, (despite the angels failing to stoop down), retained the tactic of using religion as a strategic tool to instill unity in the squad when he was made captain.

After joining the TJ, the new captain at once began to draft a number of players into the organisation’s fold and asked them to start holding joint prayers (in public view) and attend lectures delivered by various TJ preachers.

In an interesting confession, Khan claims that both Rameez and he initially encouraged the trend believing it to be a good way of fortifying discipline and unity in the squad.

However, Khan writes that in 2006 he became perturbed by the religiosity aspect when it grew two-fold and began to be used as a way for Inzamam to gauge a player’s loyalty to him.

Khan explains how many players began to grow beards and openly exhibit their religiosity just to be in Inzamam’s good books, whereas those players who refused to do so were ostracised.

The ostracised members did not only include wild, ‘party-animals’ like Shoaib Akhtar, but Younis Khan as well who preferred to keep his faith a private matter.

Khan also writes that Inzamam was weary of his vice-captain, Younis Khan, because the press thought that Younis would make a more positive and attacking captain than Inzamam.

Then there were those who were completely kept out of the squad by Inzamam. Players like Hassan Raza and current Pakistan captain, Misbahul Haq, were kept out because (according to Khan) as they had more education and exposure than most players and would not have readily fallen into the kind of religious conformism that Inzamam had instilled into the team.

Khan also relates how all-rounder, Rana Naveedul Hassan, and medium-pacer, Rao Iftikhar, suddenly grew beards to keep their place in the squad that travelled to the West Indies for the 2007 World Cup.

Pakistan was ousted in the first round of the tournament and Inzamam had to retire. Shaheryar claims that though Inzamam had left behind a number of TJ enthusiasts in the squad, only Shahid Afridi (who was recruited by TJ in 2005), Salman Butt (who didn’t join TJ but was a staunch supporter), and Mohammad Yousuf stuck to the Jamaat’s social and moral dictates.

Most other players almost immediately shed off their religious pretences with Rana even going to the extent of getting a stylish hair transplant and sticking a diamond stud in one of his ears!

Nevertheless, though refusing to use religion the way Inzamam did, players such as Afridi and Mohammad Hafeez have retained the practice of praising God during post-match TV interviews (albeit only when the team wins or they bag a man of the match award), This practice was first suggested by the TJ to Waqar Younis and then made mandatory by Inzamam.

Khan concludes by informing that today the team culture has become far more relaxed, especially under Misbah, who is an extremely private man and keeps his religious beliefs to himself.

The religious-minded players in the squad are free to practise their faith privately and nobody is forced to exhibit religion or mix it with cricket.