Keeping faith in cricket

The stranger went onto lead the prayers with reassuring control, all fourteen players lining-up obediently.
Published April 23, 2016

His freewheeling presence inside the hallowed walls of the dressing room intimidated them that sultry Lahore afternoon.

Just as they prepared to tackle this rotund, bearded chap in shalwar kameez, the skipper's hoarse accent halted them in ranks. "He is Naeem and he will lead the Zohr prayers today," he said in a tone dripping with authority, quelling any conflicting opinions that itched to get voiced on the occasion.

The stranger went onto lead the prayers with reassuring control, all fourteen players lining-up obediently to his 'call of wisdom.'

"He has a fabulous knack for azaan and is also a dear friend," explained the captain, sensing the edginess among players.

A tense post-lunch cricket session followed the mystifying dressing room congregation, as the bouyant Indians led by the dashing Sourav Ganguly threatened to create history on the field by vanquishing the home side for the first time in 53 years.

Two hours later, the Pakistanis regrouped for tea. And there he was once again, the captain's dear friend, waiting for yet another 'jamaat' in the well-guarded ambience of players' arena, this time for evening's Asr prayers.

A number of them declined the offer to join in, citing tiredness or mental fatigue for their reluctance.

"Nothing doing, all rise NOW," declared the burly skipper, much to the annoyance of players. Particularly furious were the two unbeaten batsmen at the crease, who had to undo their pads and safety gear to bow once again to this 'outsider' who introduced himself as a small time actor from Lahore television.

It was March 2005, the year prolific batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq assumed captaincy of the national outfit. Hailing from Multan, the city of saints, this son of a muezzen took little time in laying down the blueprint for religious reforms in the team.

The diligent players were asked, in no uncertain terms, to focus on their rituals in addition to the normal workload. Born-again Muslims such as the former Test opener Saeed Anwar and ex-singing icon Junaid Jamshed, with their preachy, revivalist rhetoric, became household names on cricket tours.

Amid talk of purity and spiritual uplift, parallels were drawn between religious practices and the way game should be played. It became increasingly evident that with the growing influence of religion and for skipper's overwhelming tilt towards it, players would make the grade more for their display of faith, abhorrence for the shaving kits and bird-watching rather than their ability to perform on the field.

In a bid to massage the skipper's ego, more and more players were seen sporting beards while 'Thanks to Allah' rapidly caught on as the motto of the Pakistan team.

That, clearly, was the beginning of a new trend in Pakistan cricket, a trend totally alien to the game in this part of the world which boasts such superstars as Hanif Mohammad, Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis who did the country proud with their achievements with no pretensions of being the torch-bearer Muslims.

Under Inzamam, however, the well-distinguished but fine line between moderation and extremism was clearly overlooked by this bunch of devout Muslims who had an air of disdain about them that smacked of disaster.

There were many like the Beaconhouse graduate Salman Butt, self-styled playboy Shoaib Akhtar and the level-headed Younis Khan who resisted getting sucked into the growing trend of fundamentalism in the side. Others, however, chose to follow it wholeheartedly, or so it seemed. That included people like the 'converted' Mohammad Yousuf, formerly Yousuf Youhana of Christian origin, who spoke of his sudden enchantment with Islam.

Many eyebrows were raised at Youhana's sudden change of heart and mind. While reports in media hinted at 'forced' conversion, the family members of the Lahore-born player held a violent demo infront of the Pakistan Cricket Board offices, accusing Saeed Anwer's brother Mazhar of 'foulplay' after he had ventured into a business partnership with Youhana few months ago.

There were others like Mushtaq Ahmed, Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzak, Saqlain Mushtaq and Ijaz Ahmed who claimed to have found the 'ultimate solace' in religion after years of turbulent times in life as they undertook regular' Tableeghi trips'.

Two definite factions had formed in the team – that of the religious and the not so religious - with the former being the dominant one.

And yet, the contrast in players' beliefs never prevented them from playing together, until the time they started to lose.

It was the nightmarish tour to England in the summer of 2006 that begun to lay bare the chinks in Pakistan armour. The historic 'forfeiture' that followed the infamous ball-tampering controversy at The Oval involving Aussie umpire Darrel Hair brought to light the dictatorial instincts of Inzamam whose arbitrary decision of not taking the field in protest cost Pakistan the Test which looked well within their grasp for most part of four days.

Despite some outstanding feats from Yousuf, Younis, Hafeez and Umar Gul in the series, the tourists succumbed without a fight, often giving the impression of having ice rather than blood in their veins at crunch moments.

A disgruntled Pakistan Cricket Board chairman, Shaharyar Khan and his deputy Abbas Zaidi privately scoffed at the shift in focus – from cricket to religion - of the Pakistan team but lacked the courage to take the bull by the horns.

"It was a sensitive issue which not only bothered then PCB chief Shaharyar but also coach Bob Woolmer who felt the team was gradually losing its passion for the game and was found lacking in aggression and firepower when most-needed," said a senior PCB official requesting anonymity.

In spite of the England tour debacle, the trend continued unabated as Inzamam and Company blocked all attempts of thwarting the same, moving swiftly to crush any opposition that ever came along.

Suddenly, the critics could see a pattern emerging. Young Salman Butt, one of the best players in the country, was constantly seen languishing on the sidelines, not for any lack of form but for his candid comments in Abu Dhabi about being out of favour for not sporting a beard.

Then there was the case of Shoaib Akhtar who refused to tow the 'hardline' or accompany the players to Raiwind where huge religious congregations are held annually.

The whispered mutterings of younger players including Shoaib Malik, Kamran Akmal, Imran Farhat and Rao Iftikhar on having little or no choice at prayer times or about muted independence on tours abroad surfaced from time to time.

A record-breaking twelve players and officials performed the Hajj in 2006 with the core group of Inzamam, Saeed Anwar and Saqlain completing a hat-trick of the Islamic ritual with Junaid Jamshed in tow.

In October 2006, the scenario took a drastic turn. With makeshift skipper Younis Khan resigning in a huff on the eve of ICC Champions Trophy, Shahrayar Khan's dwindling empire was finally brought to the ground.

Enter Dr Nasim Ashraf, a US-based nephrologist and President Musharraf's close aide, to take over the reins of Pakistan cricket. The tough-acting PCB chief announced his arrival with a bang, restoring Younis as skipper for the high-profile event in India and sounding a warning to Inzamam against influencing players with what he termed as 'religious extremism.'

This, indeed, spelled trouble for those who until now had succeeded in reshaping realities to manipulate things their way in Pakistan cricket team.

In dredging up virtually every available support to keep the trend going, Inzamam then pulled off the most unlikely induction of former Pakistan leg-spinner Mushtaq Ahmed into the side as assistant coach at the expense of his childhood friend, Waqar Younis.

Yet another player with strong religious leanings, Mushtaq despite his dubious background of being in league with the bookies during the late 1990s, was named for the South African safari, much to the dismay of Dr Ashraf who was reduced to a by-stander as the burly skipper twisted the PCB's arm to get his way in the wake of his appointment as leader till the World Cup .

Graeme Smith's South Africans annihilated Pakistan amid rumours of discontent among players and further reports of 'Tableeghi tours' taking place alongside the matches.

Manager Talat Ali minced no words in his post-tour report by saying that Woolmer has lost all respect and effectiveness in the dressing room with Mushtaq calling all the shots including team meetings, nets sessions, etc.

Unfortunately, no lessons were learnt from the South African tour fiasco and while Pakistan struggled to put 15 fit players together for the all-important World Cup in the West Indies, the spectre of fundamentalism and match-fixing again started to raise its ugly head.

With team morale at an all-time low and with younger players getting increasingly disillusioned for being browbeaten by the ruling lobby into taking up the rituals, the critics never gave Pakistan a chance in the mega event.

What happened in the Caribbean, though, was not envisaged by the worst of Pakistan critics. A loss to minnows Ireland sent Inzamam-ul-Haq's army crashing out of the first round, making it the country's shortest, most pathetic campaign in World Cup history.

Coach Bob Woolmer's shocking death bamboozled the cricketing world soon after and almost entirely shifted the focus from the growing influence of faith in the team.

While personal freedom of practising religion and holding beliefs is to be respected at all costs, putting up a show of religious fervor by a handful of high profile public figures seems pointless in a country of 180 million Muslims.

Cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties but the uncertainty that dogs the game in Pakistan must end since fans are pining for the reassuring simplicity of cricket and cricketers to make a comeback, once and for all.

This is an amended version of the article published in the Herald in April 2007.