Shehzad and Dilshan: Leaps of faith

Published September 13, 2014
Dilshan and Shehzad
Dilshan and Shehzad

I was fuming when England’s cricket board recently admonished the English team’s Muslim player, Moeen Ali, for wearing a wristband as a protest against Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians.

Like any reasonable human being, it was obvious that Ali too found Israeli military action against Palestinian men, women and children disgusting. To me, he had every right to quietly exhibit his support and sympathy for the besieged Palestinians and use an international forum like a Test match to do this.

However, after my initial anger cooled down a bit and I gave myself enough room to (a bit more objectively) scrutinise what had transpired, I eventually did end up grudgingly accepting the English board’s explanation in this regard.

According to an understanding between the board and the players, sensitive political and religious issues are to be kept away from the playing field. This was not always the case in sports but the results of allowing sportsmen to use sporting events to highlight their political beliefs have been rather thorny.

From pre-match prayers to prostrating yourself in thanks to God, religion has slowly increased its involvement in sports, particularly cricket

They have certainly not gone on to benefit the political causes that had been highlighted by the involved sportsmen and sportswomen.

More importantly, such acts may have been undertaken with noble intentions, but they usually mutate into becoming actions that start to look and sound rather offensive when triggered by those who misconstrue them.

When black American athletes began to strike the ‘black power salute’ at the 1968 Mexico Olympics (to show solidarity with the radical black civil rights movement taking shape at the time in the US), many of their fans saw the act as something that was gallant.

But by politicising an international sporting event (and the kind of media coverage that the involved athletes enjoyed), they set a precedent that then saw a group of radical Palestinian militants take hostage a group of Israeli sportsmen during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The sportsmen were killed in the tense stand-off, and though, in theory, the Palestinians might have been justified in trying to internationalise their melee against Israel, what they actually ended up doing was to demonise a legitimate struggle against an oppressive state.

After exhibiting my anger over the Moeen Ali issue, I wondered how highlighting a state’s brutality on the cricket field was not the right thing to do but (as in 1970), doing the same against the then South African government’s racist and apartheid policies was?

But, of course, the truth is, banning South Africa from playing international cricket at the time was not really due to individual cricketers flaunting symbols of protest against apartheid on the cricket field.

The banning mainly boiled down to the actions of the governments of cricket playing countries criticising the inhuman racist policies of the old South African state, and on the many anti-apartheid protests that took place outside the cricket stadiums in England and Australia in 1970.

A majority of cricket fans are simply interested in how a player performs as a batsman, bowler and fielder … the job he’s paid to do.

Fans of some cricket stars might also get interested to know about certain non-cricketing aspects of their favourite player’s life. But as long as these remain to do with what the player’s favourite dish, movie or colour is, they are free of anything that might compromise the player’s or someone else’s image or credibility.

In Pakistan, though the cricket board has always been rather stern about restricting the players from exhibiting their political sentiments in public, something was missed in this context when some players began to introduce a more exhibitionistic aspect of faith into the team.

When in the early 2000s dictates of the faith as preached by the apolitical Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ) began to be promoted by some players, the board ignored it, since it had nothing to do with politics.

But the missed bit here was that it had to do with something far more sensitive: religion. Especially in an era where the Muslim faith was imploding from within and being severely scrutinised from without.

There was nothing wrong in players like the great Inzimamul Haq, Mohammad Yusuf, Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq suddenly deciding to sport large beards. After all they were serving Pakistan cricket with distinction just as the brilliant stroke-maker, Hashim Amla, and the heavily bearded Moeen Ali are for South Africa and England.

The point is if one plays his cricket well on the field, nobody should be bothered whether he becomes a preacher off the field or a raving party animal — as long as his non-cricketing antics remain off the field and do not negatively affect his form or the game.

Two of Pakistan’s greatest captains, Mushtaq Mohammed and Imran Khan, sternly followed this thought and policy. But in the early 2000s when Inzimam was made captain and joined TJ, he found himself almost compelled to bag as many players as possible (to join TJ) — so much so, that some players began to accuse him of ignoring and ousting those cricketers who refused to follow his lead in spiritual matters.

Things got even worse when Inzimam and many of his new recruits then made it a habit to exhibit collective religious ritualism on the field. In the distant past I have spent some time in the TJ myself, and I remember the organisation fervidly decries moral hypocrisy.

So my question is, sure there was nothing wrong as such in the Pakistan team holding collective prayers on the grounds of India or England, (or sometimes even on planes!), but what would have happened had, say, a touring Indian side decided to hold puja on Pakistani stadiums or English players decided to hold a mass there?

Can you imagine the outcry in the local media and in the religious circles?

The Pakistan board finally introduced a clause in the players’ contract that barred the players from discussing religion or politics on the field when reports began to emerge during the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies that most TJ players were bunking training sessions to go out and find new converts among the West Indians!

Before that Mohammad Yusuf had already approached New Zealand captain, Denial Vettori, and some Australian players and asked them to convert. Only the fact that these players politely refused saved the Pakistan board from suffering discomfiture. What if the approached players had taken offence and reported the matter to the ICC?

Before jerking one’s knee to claim there was nothing wrong in what Yusuf was up to, do try to imagine the reaction of a Pakistani player had an Indian cricketer or an Australian player asked him to convert to Hinduism or Christianity.

Though Inzimam’s departure and the relative action taken in this context by the board did make the new breed of Pakistani cricketers concentrate solely on the game (at least on the field), the recent gaffe by Ahmed Shehzad in Sri Lanka proves that things are still not quite back to normal.

During a recent ODI against Sri Lanka, Shehzad was caught on the camera asking Lankan batsman, Dilshan, to convert to Islam or he’ll burn in hell. Though, just like Vettori, Dilshan did not report the matter, since the video of the vocal mishap went viral on social media, the Pakistan board rightly decided to hold an inquiry.

First of all, Shehzad has breached the clause in his contract that debars him from discussing religion and politics on the field. He has done no great service to his faith by sounding like a half-literate and self-righteous little brat.

And was he not saying this to a player who was part of a team who continued to tour Pakistan despite the threat of terrorism that it faced?

A team that was actually attacked and almost killed in Lahore in 2009 by those who also thought the Lankans would burn in hell?

Now imagine how Mr Shehzad would have reacted had Dilshan asked him to convert to Buddhism? The answer to this is just too obvious.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 14th, 2014



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