Recently a minister belonging to one of the island nations which make up the West Indies suggested that the Caribbean people should forget about the declining status of West Indian cricket and concentrate on the other more important things such as commerce and industry.
He added that in the past, West Indian cricket had an important political aim, but since that aim was successfully achieved, there was now no need for cricket to be taken so seriously.
Despite the fact that the minister’s comments sounded harsh, they do contain a very important historical aspect of the region’s cricket.
Rise and fall of West Indian cricket nationalism
The West Indies cricket team is made up of numerous tiny island states in the Caribbean. The populations of these small islands largely consist of people whose ancestors were brought here as slaves from Africa and South Asia by white Western colonialists.
The hold of white overlords remained strong in these islands even when (from the mid-20th century onward) the black and South Asian people of the region were allowed self-rule.
For example, the West Indies gained Test status in the 1920s, but the team did not have a black captain till almost 40 years later! The team’s first black captain was Frank Worrell who was appointed captain in 1960.
Simon Lister in his 2007 book Supercat quotes the most successful West Indian cricket captain, Clive Lloyd (who was made skipper in 1974), as saying that till the early 1970s, "West Indian players played to please white people" and that "black cricketers were seen as something exotic, whose only role was to entertain white audiences."
But in the 1970s, things were changing on the islands. Left-wing unrest, political turmoil and street violence had gripped the region. These were directly inspired by the emergence of radical ‘Black Power’ groups and civil rights movements in the United States in the 1960s.
Hilary Beckles in her detailed study of West Indian cricket wrote that the West Indian nations had begun to search for an identity that was not shaped by their bygone colonial overlords. The nations were also looking to assert a nationalism based on the black culture, which, over the decades, had developed on the islands.
Amidst riots, assassinations, collapsing economies and growing animosity between the islands, cricket became the sport which not only managed to instill a sense of racial unity between the islands, but the sport also became an expression of collective West Indian nationalism.
This happened when the West Indies won cricket’s inaugural world cup in 1975, defeating a strong Australian side in the final.
This new expression of the emerging West Indian nationalism was further strengthened when the West Indies toured England in 1976. Amidst racial violence in London and Birmingham, England captain Tony Greig was quoted in the press as saying that he plans to make the West Indians "grovel." This was taken as a racist slur by the West Indian squad and it galvanised the players to "destroy English cricket."
West Indian batsmen played their shots as if they were physically assaulting English bowlers, and West Indian fast bowlers, especially Michael Holding and Andy Roberts, were given a free hand by Lloyd to aim at the English batsmen’s heads and bodies. The West Indies won the five-Test series 3-0.
During the last Test when England were on their way to losing the game and the series, Tony Grieg stunned the crowd by falling down on his knees and pretending to grovel. He was literally made to eat his own words.
Thus began West Indies ascendancy in world cricket which lasted for almost a decade and a half, during which the team retained its number one ranking in Tests and ODIs till the late 1980s.
Between 1976 and 1988, every game by the West Indies was played as if it was an act of war and the players were psyched to believe that the existence of the West Indian nations banked on how the team performed on the field.
By the early 1990s, the politics and economies of the island nations had greatly stabilised and improved. Ironically, this is when West Indian cricket began to decline. It was as if due to the political and economic improvements on the islands, West Indian cricket lost its purpose and meaning. The besieged mindset that had driven West Indian cricket between 1976 and late 1980s had withered away.
From the early 2000s onward, the once mighty and seemingly invincible cricket side was hovering at the bottom of cricket world rankings. A sad decline which is still in the process of further deterioration.
West Indian cricket is a prominent example of how a sport is sometimes used as a political/ideological expression by nation-states. But this phenomenon was more common in football, especially in South American countries.
Again, quite like what happened in the West Indies, South American football too retained an ideological and political dimension during a period of political and economic turmoil.
Joshua Nadel, a professor of history and author of Why Soccer Matters in Latin America, wrote that "modern Latin American nations and soccer grew and evolved together. Soccer clubs and stadiums acted as spaces where Latin American societies could grapple with the complexities of nationhood, citizenship, politics, gender and race."
He went on to add that in Brazil football first became a way to iron-out tensions between the country’s Latino and black populations and then to develop a distinctive Brazilian idea of nationhood.
The same happened in various other Latin American countries as well whose football squads developed their own style of playing which was different to the European style. This helped define South American culture in a world (and sport) which was dominated by European ideas.
Brazil witnessed a military coup in 1964. Facing an economic crisis, political chaos and racial polarisation, the military regime began investing heavily in Brazilian football. It constructed 13 new football stadiums and handpicked a manager who could be easily molded to mouth the government’s version of national unity.
The ploy worked when Brazil won the 1970 football world cup. The victory was sweet amidst the continuing economic and political turmoil in Brazil. Predictably, the military regime touted the win as a regenerative expression of Brazilian nationalism and unity.
The trend continued in the 1970s. As sportswriter Jamie Rainbow reminded readers in an excellent 2013 feature in World Soccer, by 1975 the Brazilian football team manager was describing the team as "an infantry unit."
Militaristic terms had begun to describe ‘missions’ of Latin American football teams. In fact, an actual war had already taken place between the armies of two South American nations, El Salvador and Honduras, in 1969 over a football match!
In 1976, a military regime came to power in Argentina. The government that the military had toppled had planned to use the holding of the 1978 football world cup in Argentina to revive Argentinean economy, politics and nationalism. The military regime which came to power was brutal and drew condemnation from various European countries.
The dictatorship decided to use the 1978 world cup to cleanse the regime’s tainted reputation. It not only wanted to just host the event but went to great lengths to make sure that Argentina won the cup.
According to a 2012 media report, when the military dictator of Peru sent some political prisoners to Argentina in 1978 to be interrogated by the notorious Argentinean regime, the Argentinean dictator Jorge Videla told his counterpart that he would only agree to take the prisoners if he forced the Peru team to lose to Argentina in a group game.
Argentina needed to defeat Peru by a margin of four goals to eliminate Brazil and go into the finals. That’s exactly what happened. Argentina then went on to defeat Holland in the finals and the victory was hailed by Videla as a triumph of Argentinian nationalism.
But unlike West Indian cricket nationalism of the 1970s and 1980s, the ideological aspect in South American football was more multidimensional. For example, Jamie Rainbow also alludes to the fact that the idea of nationalism held by the opponents of military regimes in Brazil and Argentina also found a voice in the game.
Rainbow wrote that the flamboyant samba style of playing football in Brazil was developed not only as a protest against European style of playing, but also as a protest against the regimented mindset being imposed by dictators.
Ben Cullimore, writing in These Football Times, mentions that before commercialism entirely took over football, most front-line footballers in South America and Europe were socialists because they came from working-class backgrounds.
In 2010, former Liverpool and England footballer Simon Hattenstone told the Guardian that the ‘socialist legacy’ in Latin American football has instilled the kind of collective ethos in South American teams which helps them win more major events than the England team.
Football also became an expression of nationalism in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The Dutch team developed a style of playing called ‘total football’ (totaalvoetbal) - a tactical theory in which any outfield player could take over the role of any other player in a team.
This helped the Dutch to reach the finals of the 1974 World Cup. In the final against Germany, the Dutch employed the tactic to the fullest. In the Netherlands, the game against Germany was seen a chance to seek Netherlands’ revenge against Nazi Germany’s occupation of Holland during World War II. But the tense game was won by Germany.
The nationalist impulse in sports in Pakistan
Former Pakistan batting legend Hanif Mohammad wrote in his book that Pakistan’s first cricket captain, Abdul Hafeez Kardar, would often make patriotic speeches in front of the players and explain to them that playing cricket for Pakistan was much more than a sporting role; it was a national duty of utmost importance.
Pakistan came into being in 1947. It had scarce economic resources and even when its cricket team was handed Test status by the international cricket authorities, its cricket board could not afford to give the players proper playing kits. Hanif wrote that the players were often loaned money by fans so they could buy bats, gloves, pads and shoes.
Kardar was a staunch nationalist and he especially wanted the team to do well against the region’s former colonial rulers England, and also against India from which Pakistan had been acrimoniously carved as a separate country.
During Pakistan’s first-ever Test series in 1952 (against India in India), Kardar asked the cricket board to hand out Pakistan’s national dress – shirvanee – to the players. The government obliged.
But, curiously, when the team was to be photographed with the Indian president in Delhi, they did turn up in shirvanees – except Kardar, who turned up in a tuxedo! No one knows why.
In 1954 when Pakistan defeated England in a Test during its first tour of England, the Pakistan government became alert to the possibility of using cricket as an expression of nationalist fervour. The victory in England was explained as Pakistan’s resilience and the players were hailed as heroes who had ‘overcome the colonial legacy of the region.’
The successful exploits of Kardar’s team continued to draw attention from the government and more resources were invested in the game. In 1958 when Kardar announced his retirement, Prime Minister Feroz Khan Noon and Governor General Iskander Mirza implored him to carry on. But Kardar decided to remain retired.
In late 1958, Ayub Khan came to power through a military coup. He envisioned Pakistan as a country driven by a robust economy and industrialisation and a nationalism built on the precepts of ‘Muslim modernism’, scientific thinking and a strong military.
But after Kardar, Pakistan cricket had fallen by the wayside. It was unable to express Ayub’s idea of vigorous nationalism. This is when hockey seeped through the cracks emerging between cricket and Pakistan’s changing nationalist ethos.
Pakistan hockey had first made its mark by winning the 1958 Asian Games hockey final. But it was the team’s win against India in the hockey final of the 1960 Olympic Games which galvanised hockey in Pakistan and it became the national sport of the country.
On the other hand, cricket continued to slide. After Pakistan lost 4-0 in a series against England in 1962, the Ayub regime announced that Pakistan was not to play any international cricket until the team upped its standards. Pakistan didn’t play another series till 1964. And again none between 1965 and early 1967. It hardly won a cricket game across the 1960s.
What’s more, some schools in the country, such as Habib School and Cantt Public School in Karachi, debarred students from playing cricket.
Cricket in those days was played by just seven countries. Hockey was a more global sport. Ayub found hockey to be a perfect sporting expression of his idea of progress and nationalism. And unlike South American football or West Indian cricket which would thrive in times of political turmoil, hockey in Pakistan grew during a time of economic growth and political stability (albeit both achieved through authoritarian means).
In 1968, Pakistan won its second Olympic hockey title. Though the Ayub regime which had invested major resources in the game was quick to hail the victory as an expression of the government’s ‘decade of development’, truth was that the regime by was now facing a serious protest movement.
After the 1965 Pakistan-India War, the country’s economy had begun to slide, triggering political turmoil. Ayub resigned in March 1969. By 1971, the country’s armed forces were embroiled in a vicious civil war in its eastern wing (the Bengali-dominated East Pakistan).
In the summer of 1971, some Pakistani cricketers tried to make cricket nationally relevant again. The civil war in East Pakistan had gotten intense when the Pakistan cricket team reached England under the captaincy of Intikhab Alam.
A charity organisation had planned to auction a bat in London, signed by Pakistan and England players. The auction money was then supposed to be handed over to the Red Cross working in East Pakistan during a destructive monsoon there.
Some Pakistan players led by former Marxist-student-leader-turned-cricketer Aftab Gul refused to sign the bat, claiming that the ‘Bengalis were traitors!’ But the government of General Yahya Khan, fearing that this act would be seen by the British press as an exhibition of West Pakistan’s arrogance towards the Bengalis, ordered the team management and the captain to make sure that the players signed the bat. They eventually did. Pakistan lost the series 2-0.
Whereas Gul’s attempt to elevate the nationalist character of Pakistan cricket backfired and the sport in the country continued to sink, hockey once again came forth to achieve a major distinction. Now operating in much more troublesome circumstances (civil war, political turmoil, economic decline), the Pakistan hockey team reached Barcelona in October 1971 to take part in the inaugural Hockey World Cup.
It glided through to the final and beat Spain 1-0 to win the cup. Two months later, East Pakistan broke away and became Bangladesh. Yahya resigned and the chairman of the populist Pakistan People’s Party PPP rose to become the country’s new ruling party.
Under Bhutto and after the East Pakistan debacle, Pakistan’s nationalist narrative began to change. It became more aggressive, mainly driven by illusions of grandeur (pumped in to regenerate a demoralised polity) and a persecution complex which blamed ‘international forces working against Pakistan.’
The nature of the country’s hockey team also changed. Whereas in the 1960s the hockey team was to perform as a reflection and symbol of the Ayub regime’s developmental and modernist nationalist model, the team became more aggressive during the Bhutto regime.
In his autobiography, former Pakistan hockey captain Islauddin wrote that the Pakistan hockey players in the 1970s were trained like soldiers. Passionate patriotic songs were played during training and the players were told that they were the sporting expressions of the country’s post-1971 renewal. The persecution complex which had seeped in the nationalist narrative made its way into the team as well.
For example, after Pakistan lost to Germany in the final of the 1972 hockey Olympic final in Munich, the team management accused the referee of cheating. When the team was being handed their silver medals, the players laughed and casually threw the medals on the ground. No action was taken by the Pakistan government. It too believed the refereeing was flawed.
By the mid-1970s, the Pakistan hockey team had reached the number one spot in hockey world rankings. Just before the hockey final of the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran (between Pakistan and India), PTV ran footage of Pakistani hockey players loudly playing Pakistani nationalist songs so that the songs could be heard by the Indian players who were training nearby. Pakistan won the final 2-0.
In 1976, Pakistan cricket which had been in the doldrums ever since the early 1960s tried to crawl back into contention when Pakistan pulled off a stunning win against Australia in Australia. But it got its best chance yet to make a prominent nationalist statement when in 1978, cricket resumed between Pakistan and India. It had been terminated after the 1965 war.
In July 1977 a reactionary military coup had put General Zia into power. He was facing protests when the Indian cricket team arrived in Pakistan to play three Tests and three ODIs. But months before the series kicked off, the Pakistan hockey team had won its second world cup title, defeating the Netherlands 3-2 in a closely-fought final.
On the team’s return to Pakistan (from Argentina), captain Islauddin and his players were showered with praise by the Zia regime and hockey reached the peak of its popularity in Pakistan. An Astroturf stadium was built in Karachi because international hockey was now to be played on Astroturf.
Months later, cricket rebounded by defeating India 2-0, and the regime declared a holiday to celebrate the win! What’s more, while the Pakistan cricket team was on its way to win a Test against India in Lahore, the hockey team won the inaugural Champions Trophy (also held in Lahore), thus retaining its number one ranking in world hockey.
Cricket had somewhat rebounded as a popular sport, but it continued to play second fiddle to hockey. Ironically, even though Pakistan cricket captain Mushtaq Muhammad had managed to make the board increase the salaries of the players, nothing of the sort happened for the hockey players. They were still being dubbed as ‘soldiers’ who were playing for the country’s national pride rather than money.
Low pay and high nationalist expectations did not halt Pakistan hockey’s continuing rise. It remained to be Pakistan’s most popular sport despite the fact that the Pakistan cricket team scored some major victories in the early 1980s, both under Imran Khan’s captaincy. In 1982-83, it defeated India 3-0 and then swept Australia 3-0.
But the Pakistan hockey team was still the number one-ranked side in the world and by now Pakistan was known in the world (especially in Europe) more for the kind of hockey that it had been producing than anything else. Then, in 1982, the hockey team won its third world cup title.
Thousands of fans, including famous film personalities and ministers, greeted the team at the Lahore Airport when it returned to Pakistan (from India) with the cup. Zia praised the side by also alluding to the ‘Islamisation’ aspect which his regime had added to Pakistan’s post-1971 nationalist narrative. He said that the hockey team had ‘played like mujahids (holy warriors)’. And when he was now thinking of using hockey as a diplomatic tool to ease ties with India, Sharjah happened.
If one was to point out the year from when Pakistan cricket began to overtake hockey as a national sport, it has to be 1986. During a Pakistan-India final in an international cricket tournament in Sharjah in April 1986, India was well-placed to win the game when Pakistan vice-captain and master batsman Javed Miandad played a match-winning innings to help the team grab its first major tournament. Requiring four to win from the last ball of the match, Miandad lifted Indian medium-pacer Cheetan Sharma for a massive six!
The country went wild and Minadad became perhaps Pakistan cricket’s first millionaire! On the other end of 1986, hockey world champions Pakistan were knocked down and out of that year’s Hockey World Cup. In the 12-team-event, Pakistan came 11th. As a consolation, the number two side in the world India came 12th. The great South Asian hockey decline had begun.
In an interview given on a show on PTV, Pakistan’s ace goalkeeper Shahid Ali Khan spilled the beans by informing that hockey players got just Rs26 as daily allowance on tours and less than Rs1,000 per match. He added that whenever the players had asked for a pay raise, they were told that they should be ashamed of themselves for asking money because playing for Pakistan was a ‘selfless national duty.’
Zia now decided to use cricket as a diplomatic tool instead of hockey to better ties with India. He did just that by visiting India to watch a match during Pakistan’s 1987 tour of that country. Pakistan won the Test series 1-0 and the ODI series 5-1.
From the late 1980s onward, Pakistan cricket inherited the nationalist character which the country’s hockey had been carrying ever since the early 1960s. In 1992, the Pakistan cricket team won its first world cup, coming back into the tournament after being almost knocked out.
This win further consolidated cricket’s popularity and national character in Pakistan, even though the hockey team did rebound for a bit by winning its fourth world cup in 1994. But this was Pakistan hockey’s last hurrah. It began to decline rather drastically.
Today, the new generation of Pakistanis have little or no memory or knowledge of what Pakistan hockey was once about. This once giant nationalist-sporting endeavour has simply withered away.
Pakistan cricket’s most recent nationalist endeavour came in 2012 when Misbah-ul-Haq was made captain of a team tainted by scandal and infighting. It reflected the state of the country at the time: polarised, isolated and plagued by terrorism. No foreign team was willing to tour Pakistan. Misbah had to captain all his games abroad.
He gradually repaired the damage and in 2016, when Pakistan won a Test against England at Lords, the team performed push-ups as a salutation to the military men who had given fitness training to the players for the tour. This was Pakistan cricket’s way of acknowledging the shift in the nationalist narrative being shaped by the state and government of Pakistan which now wants to reverse the militaristic narrative instilled in the 1980s.
The push-ups meant that cricket is still well ingrained as the sport which defines Pakistan’s nationalist ethos.