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Nation-building & sport promotion: Is Pakistan cricket failing?

Updated March 23, 2015

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Mahmood Out...English bowler Peter Loader jumps for joy as Godfrey Evans dives to catch Pakastani cricketer Fazal Mahmood for a duck during the final Test against Pakistan at the Oval, 12th August 1954. The test lasted for five days and Pakistan won by 24 runs. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Mahmood Out...English bowler Peter Loader jumps for joy as Godfrey Evans dives to catch Pakastani cricketer Fazal Mahmood for a duck during the final Test against Pakistan at the Oval, 12th August 1954. The test lasted for five days and Pakistan won by 24 runs. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Analysts have tried to explain Pakistan’s cricketing success – and failure – as an overarching metaphor for the country’s weaknesses and strengths in the social, cultural and political arenas. The state has also, many a times, tried to use this much-loved sport as a tool for diplomacy and nation-building. Young men, meanwhile, aspire to play for the greenshirts as a lucrative means for upward social and economic mobility. The managers of the game also sensed a great deal of commercial potential in cricket, accrued through international games and broadcasting and advertising opportunities — until recently, that is. On the other hand, there have been question marks over Pakistan cricket’s ability to expand beyond the main urban centres, particularly in Punjab and Karachi. Avenues for moneymaking through cricket have also shrunk after a visiting Sri Lankan team came under attack in Lahore in 2009.

Left to right: Sibtain Naqvi, Asad Sayeed, Nadeem Farooq Paracha and Saad Shafqat — Syed Tahir Jamal/ White Star
Left to right: Sibtain Naqvi, Asad Sayeed, Nadeem Farooq Paracha and Saad Shafqat — Syed Tahir Jamal/ White Star

To discuss whether cricket helps promote national cohesion and whether it still holds the potential to earn Pakistan some much-needed financial resources, the Herald organised a forum in collaboration with Habib University in Karachi. The panellists at the forum included Asad Sayeed, an eminent scholar of political economy with an avid interest in cricket, Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a culture critic who has written extensively on cricket’s relationship with society, politics and money, and Saad Shafqat, a neurologist, writer and cricket analyst. Sibtain Naqvi, who oversees public and media relations at Habib University, moderated the discussion.


Sibtain Naqvi. Does cricket unite Pakistan or does it divide the country? How can cricket be considered a national sport if it does not really cut across provincial, ethnic, cultural, political and religious divides?

Asad Sayeed. It is the other way around. Cricket reflects the way Pakistan is. It reflects the way the Pakistani state and society have evolved. In the early days – that is, by the start of the 1960s – it was really a Karachi-Lahore sport. In Lahore, it was very much an elite sport. It was played by the Lahore Gymkhana Cricket Club [at Lawrence Gardens], in Aitchison College, in Government College. In Karachi, it was a middle-class sport and that had to do with the migrants from India who settled in the city after 1947. The Muhammad brothers, Javed Miandad and many other players from Karachi came from the same middle-class migrant background.

The first attempt to broaden cricket's base happened during the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government. Till then, cricket teams consisted of players mostly from Karachi and Lahore. It was only in 1968 or 1969 that a player was selected from East Pakistan for the national side and that too when Ayub Khan was in a lot of trouble in East Pakistan. Interestingly, the selected player was not an ethnic Bengali but played for Dhaka and was selected for a Test match being played in Dhaka. The first Baloch to play for Pakistan was [Karachi-born] Aftab Baloch. He was selected in 1974 and played two Test matches. In his last innings, he scored 60-odd runs and was then dropped. In 1976, Farrukh Zaman became the first Pakhtun cricketer to play for Pakistan. In the early 1970s, new cricket centres were promoted and Test matches were played in Hyderabad and Faisalabad. Soon afterwards, One Day International matches were played in Quetta and Peshawar. In those days there seemed to be an effort to expand cricket to different regions of the country. After that, the market took over.

Cricket has broadened to smaller cities and towns in Punjab and to the settled districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The districts producing national cricketers are the most developed districts. Regions such as Balochistan and all of Sindh, except Karachi and Hyderabad, still remain out of cricket’s loop. So do the southern reaches of Punjab. Even a Multan-based player, Inzamamul Haq, first found a place in Pakistan squad in the 1990s.

In class terms, however, cricket is no longer an elite or an upper middle-class sport. It is very much a lower middle-class sport with a great deal of interest from the working classes. It has become a source of upward mobility for lower middle-class and working-class boys, mainly from the small towns of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Naqvi. Politics has always gone hand in hand with cricket in Pakistan. General Ziaul Haq even used the sport for diplomacy with India. Do you think politicisation of cricket has spoilt the game?

Nadeem Farooq Paracha. You cannot divorce politics from cricket in Pakistan; they are interlinked and it will always be that way. When Pakistan got Test status, a senior player, Mian Saeed, was expecting to become captain but [Abdul Hafeez] Kardar became captain because he was close to [Justice A R] Cornelius, the then chief of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). Similarly, in 1964, Hanif Mohammad was the most suitable man to become captain but instead a very young Javed Burki was selected as captain because his father was in the army and was part of Ayub Khan’s government. Bhutto used hockey and cricket to reflect his government’s populism. Bhutto’s appointment of Kardar [as the head of the PCB] was also political because Kardar was among the founding members of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Also, when we are talking about politics in cricket, what sort of politics are we talking about?

Naqvi. Basically, how politicians used or are using cricket...

Paracha. That happens everywhere and in all sports. Recently, I was reading that some African nation won the African football cup for the first time and its president made use of it like it was nobody’s business.

Naqvi. Is this because developing countries which do not have enough to take pride in, latch onto sports as a source of glory?

Paracha. It is not specific to developing countries. It happens in many developed economies as well. Recently, in the London Olympics, the English team performed really well and that performance was used politically as well. The only difference is that in countries such as India, Pakistan and some African and Arab countries, it happens in a populist manner. The impact of politics on sport – and vice versa – is universal.

Naqvi. What were the reasons behind a huge surge in cricket’s popularity in the latter half of the 1970s?

Saad Shafqat. Simply put, the team had started winning by then. It really matters in cricket when a team starts winning overseas. In the mid-1970s, Pakistan beat Australia in Australia and beat West Indies in West Indies. In 1978-79, India came to Pakistan and we beat them. That [Pakistan-India Test series] became a very popular event. When the team started winning overseas, politicians started thinking of using it to bolster national self esteem. The cricket team of a poor nation going to Australia and defeating the Australian team on its own turf — that captured everyone’s imagination.

Saad Shafqat talks about the iconic 1977 Test Match played between Pakistan and Australia — Illustration by Zehra Nawab
Saad Shafqat talks about the iconic 1977 Test Match played between Pakistan and Australia — Illustration by Zehra Nawab

In the 1970s, we were fortunate to have some genuine stars such as Majid Khan, Mushtaq Mohammad, Asif Iqbal, Zaheer Abbas, Sarfraz Nawaz and Imran Khan. Even earlier, we had star players such as Fazal Mahmood, Kardar and Hanif Mohammad. Though Imran Khan made his debut in 1971, he came alive as a cricketer in 1977 in Sydney.

I think the Sydney Test was a watershed moment in the history of Pakistan cricket. If you make a line dividing Pakistan’s cricket performance before and after that Test, you will notice a dramatic difference. Pakistan cricket just took off after Sydney.

Pakistan had drawn the first Test in Adelaide but lost the second in Melbourne. Imran Khan had taken five wickets in Melbourne and tore his shirtsleeve off in the effort. He was still not recognised as a frontline bowler, however. Sydney had a green top wicket and those 12 wickets that Imran Khan took didn’t just launch his career; they actually launched a dynasty. Those wickets inspired bowlers such as Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Amir.

The third factor was the media. In the 1970s, cricket got televised in Pakistan. The print media also played an important role. With the publication of Cricketer magazine, people started seeing cricketers’ faces; some of them began to have a cult following.

All sports, including cricket, are pastimes — that entertain you. When everyone started finding tremendous entertainment in cricket, it just took off.

Oval test match 1954 — File photo
Oval test match 1954 — File photo

Naqvi. Are you suggesting that cricket did not become popular after Pakistan defeated England in the 1954 Oval Test due to the absent role of print and other media?

Shafqat. Yes, there was no television in 1954. There was a remarkable surge in cricket’s popularity even after the Oval Test. When I talk to people who followed the game then, they say there was tremendous enthusiasm. But being able to watch the cricketers play made a huge difference.

Naqvi. Will a quota system for team selection help to expand the reach of cricket in Pakistan? How does the interplay of money and politics impact that outreach?

Sayeed. Quotas exist the world over, including in sports, as a means for positive discrimination to bring those who have been left behind up to a level [where they can compete with others]. The South African cricket team has a quota for two players of colour. During Bhutto’s time there was an attempt at such positive discrimination in Pakistan cricket but that fizzled out.

Cricket is an expensive sport. There may be as much cricket enthusiasm in a small town such as Garhi Yasin in district Shikarpur as there is in Gulistan-e-Jauhar or Orangi Town in Karachi. But how can a child playing cricket in Garhi Yasin progress? For that to happen, you have to invest in cricket infrastructure in Shikarpur — either through the state or private sector. If we are asserting that cricket is a national sport, then possibilities have to be created for the integration of all parts of Pakistan into its domestic system.

Cricket is also the only visible thing in which Pakistanis compete internationally and are exposed to the rest of the world. That is where insecurities based on nationalism come in and become linked to a win or a loss on the field.

Naqvi. If cricket is so important for people, why don’t people running in elections promise they will make a cricket ground or a cricket academy in their constituencies?

Sayeed. If you are a politician, there is a pecking order of problems that you have to address. Cricket is much lower in that order. You must first promise to address other problems in order to procure votes.

Naqvi. How has rivalry between Karachi and Lahore affected the sporting and financial successes of Pakistan cricket?

Paracha. Even when most players were coming from Karachi and Lahore, the impact of the rivalry between the two cities was overblown. After reading what was written on the subject in the 1970s and 1980s in newspapers, I tend to believe the divide was more a media-generated thing than anything real. There used to be a Lahore City Cricket Association and a Karachi City Cricket Association and their job was to produce good First-Class players who could then play Test cricket. These two associations used to compete for funds from the government and both tried to make use of the media.

The Karachi press, for example, always alleged that the Lahore lobby was discriminating against Karachi-based players. But if you look at the first strong team that we had under Mushtaq Mohammad as captain – which defeated Australia and the West Indies – you will see that more than 50 per cent of its players, including the captain, were from Karachi.

Pakistan team lifts captain Mushtaq Mohammad on the shoulders —  File photo
Pakistan team lifts captain Mushtaq Mohammad on the shoulders — File photo

People talk about the rivalry between Imran Khan and Javed Miandad. Yes, there was something going on between the two but it was at a personal level. In the 1980s, Imran Khan wanted Karachi-based Mansoor Akhtar in the national team. He was a talented player but did not have the temperament to play at the international level. Saleem Yousuf, similarly, was a Karachiite. He was a very brave batsman and Imran Khan loved him.

It was more a battle between the media and the associations than between players. The differences between players had nothing to do with Karachi versus Lahore. They were more due to personality clashes and other reasons.

Naqvi. This city divide exists in India too: a couple of decades ago, it was quite visible between Delhi and Mumbai. Sunil Gavaskar was once booed in Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, promising never to play there again. I am sure there is a cricketing divide between northern and southern counties in England but no one talks about it. Here, this divide is entrenched in the public imagination.

Paracha. Differences among players may have always been there but they are not based on whether one is from Lahore or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They are based on what class background a player is coming from. This was true even in the past when there were tensions between Kardar and Hanif Mohammad. The latter always regarded the former as haughty, given his Oxford education. Hanif Mohammad, on the other hand, came from a middle-class family. It was the same with Imran Khan and Miandad. It was not a Karachi-Lahore divide; it was a class divide.

Very few people know that Inzamamul Haq as captain made sure that Misbahul Haq, a very talented batsman at the time, did not get into the team — because Misbahul Haq is more educated, more urbane than Inzamamul Haq. The differences between players have been more social than ethnic.

Naqvi. No international cricket has been played in Pakistan since 2009. We are the only sporting nation which does not play the sport in its own country. How has that impacted the popularity of the game, its status as a national unifier, as a source of pride and a money-spinner?

Shafqat. The terrorist attack in 2009 [on the Sri Lankan team] really was one of the biggest crises to hit Pakistan cricket. Since then no international cricket has been played in Pakistan but it is not as grave an issue as is made out to be. During World War II, there was no cricket for seven years. But as soon as the opportunity presented itself at the end of the war, everything went back to normal.

South Africa and Sri Lanka have had no international cricket for close to 20 years. Once they were allowed back in, they were right where they had left off. South Africa nearly made it to the final in 1992 world cup when it came back to international cricket after a hiatus of more than two decades. We, at least, can still play [at venues outside Pakistan].

We don’t appreciate enough the opportunity that we have in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is a tremendous godsend. The facilities there are fantastic; there are a lot of Pakistanis over there too. When an interesting One Day match happens there, crowds, mostly Pakistanis, fill up the stadium.

Is the lack of international cricket affecting the popularity of the game? You can find an answer by gauging the popularity of the World Cup in Pakistan. An even bigger question is whether it is affecting our ability to produce good players. Going by the examples of Sri Lanka and South Africa, I don’t think our ability is declining. People are still attracted to the game: it is a tremendous influence on our society and it is also growing, cutting through social barriers.

But, yes, there has been a financial setback. If we handle our UAE arrangements properly, however, we can still make money from the game.

In the domestic circuit, we need to start getting a little more innovative. We can follow what has happened in football by moving towards local leagues. We could come up with a very innovative cricket league. I am not saying that we should reproduce the Indian Premier League (IPL) but we can have a league of the seven major regions in Pakistan – four provinces, Gilgit-Baltistan, tribal areas and Azad Kashmir – and can invite a team each from China, Nepal, UAE and Afghanistan. This way we can really have a fantastic league, generating a lot of interest.

Given all the sports channels, we also have the media infrastructure in place to broadcast that league. If it is done the right way, we can create a very interesting cricketing atmosphere. And it can also be financially very lucrative.


Audience members listen on as the discussion unfolds — Syed Tahir Jamal/ White Star
Audience members listen on as the discussion unfolds — Syed Tahir Jamal/ White Star

Abid Hussain. In the past two years, we have seen Pakistan cricket become as democratic as it can get, allowing players from various socio-economic backgrounds to come into the team. In terms of geographical representation, however, there may still be many gaps. Why is that?

Paracha. Selectors do not sit and say that we are going to pick one guy from an upper middle-class background and one belonging to the lower middle class. What I am saying is that tensions between players have more to do with class differences or social backgrounds as opposed to ethnic or geographical differences. Recently there were also sectarian differences within the team — I am not talking about Shia-Sunni differences but those between Barelvis and Deobandis.

Sayeed. Cricket is still an elite sport in the countries where it originated. The working-class sport in England is football; in Australia and New Zealand, it is rugby. Only in South Asia is cricket a genuinely popular sport. It wasn’t this way about 30 years ago. Class barriers have been undone by the sheer popularity of the game — and also perhaps by the default setting of other sports becoming less competitive and Pakistan not doing well in them.


Farjad. Why are we not able to promote cricket in the rural areas of Sindh and Balochistan?

Shafqat. When we adopt a pastime, we have to be able to relate to others pursuing the same pastime. People in rural areas of Sindh have been quite distant from the mainstream Pakistani ethos. The same is true for Balochistan.

Sayeed. All we need is a proactive approach which is sympathetic to these areas — but cricket has been neo-liberalised. Whichever segment of society is doing well economically is going to play cricket and excel at it. If the state is serious about cricket’s status as an integrating force then the state has to play a proactive role in promoting that status. The state cannot leave that to the market, which self-selects those who are already better off. Either cricket is a binding force for the provinces or it is a sport for those who are a better off than others. It cannot be both.

Paracha. The Pakistan cricket team once consisted of mostly Urdu speakers and Punjabis because these communities were the first ones co-opted by the establishment or the state. Pakhtuns began to be co-opted in the 1970s. It was also during this time that they, as a community, started taking interest in cricket. It started with Imran Khan. Although he is from Punjab, he has Pakhtun roots. His rise as a player and as captain played a big role in the initial popularisation of cricket in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa.

We all know what Sindhis and the Baloch are going through. It is possible that they see cricket as a sport patronised by the state and, for that very reason, are repulsed by it. Cricket is not popular in Balochistan, not because people do not understand it but perhaps because they associate it with the oppressive ideology of the state. They are not playing the game perhaps because they lack opportunities but also due to political reasons. Just like the Pakhtuns, we may begin to see Sindhi and Baloch players as the two communities become integrated into the national mainstream.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha responds to a question
Nadeem Farooq Paracha responds to a question

Shaheera Maslani. Don’t you think many talented players don’t pursue cricket as a career because the concept of merit-based selection is missing?

Shafqat. There may have been a number of very talented players who get discouraged early on. What you see in the team is the tip of the iceberg. For every Shahid Afridi who has made it, there are probably a hundred who got discouraged somewhere along the way. We need to become better and more organised at identifying such people. Firstly, we need to be good at finding talent through an organised talent hunt system. Secondly, we need to be good at encouraging talent.

Sayeed. What borders on scandalous is that there is no talent scouting happening. In an internationally competitive sport, you don’t have room to be consistently nepotistic. Unlike the army or the civil service where you are never going to be tested on an international forum, in cricket you will not only be tested but also judged. It is in the interest of everyone to put their best foot forward. The reason we are unable to do so is because we are not sufficiently professional.


Mustafa. Many people say India is behind the recent ban on some Pakistani cricketers. Your comments?

Shafqat. The International Cricket Council (ICC) has been reorganised and the Big Three – Australia, England and India – get to decide how to allocate the world’s cricket resources and how to devise the playing calendar. The team to whom they have decided to give the most resources and most matches after the Big Three is Pakistan. We are the biggest of the smaller members of the ICC. Harbouring negative views is not helpful.

Just drive around town on a Sunday morning and see all the cricketing games taking place on the street and the grounds. You will not find one bowler with a proper action. If the ICC is banning our cricketers, it is because we are not properly training or correcting our players before they come into our national team.

Sayeed. Sport brings out the best in people in terms of effort but it brings out the worst in people in terms of nationalism. One needs to be very wary of sporting emotions; they have a spillover effect in other aspects of life.


The Pakistani team cheers during a match in Australia in 1977 —  Dawn File Photo
The Pakistani team cheers during a match in Australia in 1977 — Dawn File Photo

Mahnaz Nawab. Is lack of education among players responsible for problems such as match-fixing? Why are our players not better groomed to represent their country properly on a global platform?

Sayeed. Cricket has been declassed and the team is just reflective of that. If we all agree that this is a good development, then why do we need the players to speak in perfect English?

Naqvi. When George W Bush came to Pakistan, Salman Butt was taken to meet him — he wasn’t the captain [or even a senior player] but he could speak perfect English. Eventually, he was found involved in spot-fixing.

Shafqat. It bothers us that players representing Pakistan on a global arena are so scruffy or that they can’t talk properly or that they are not presentable. But that is the reality of our country. The players are what we all are.


Guest. Do you think the infusion of religiosity in Pakistan cricket team in the early 2000s has impacted the cricketers’ performance?

Paracha. Religiosity was reflective of what was happening in Pakistan in general and among the lower middle class in particular. In his tour report of the 2007 World Cup, cricket team manager Talat Ali wrote – and the team’s media manager P J Mir endorsed it – that most players were spending more time preaching and finding converts than actually planning or practising. Poor Bob Woolmer [who was the team coach] initially supported religiosity because he thought it was uniting the team, but in the end he was becoming sick of it because one player or the other would have to go out to pray or preach, which started having an impact on their performance.

Religiosity also impacted cricketing culture in the sense of what Ahmed Shehzad did in Sri Lanka last year, telling another player that he would burn in hell. The players became overtly concerned about religious issues. This kind of impact has lingered on, although under Misbahul Haq it has become a private thing.

Naqvi. If you bring in religion-driven fatalistic thinking that every outcome is ordained, how does that impact the game?

Sayeed. This is a slippery slope. How much do you compromise on your professionalism and how much do you leave the outcome to chance or fate? That in itself is reflective of the way we work in our daily lives, mixing human intent with God’s will by using expressions such as InshaAllah (God willing). The difference is that in cricket you are internationally competing; you are being judged at a different level.


Naqvi. That wraps up our discussion for today. We have run the gamut from politics to regionalisation to commercialisation to religion; it has been a wonderful talk.