In a conversation with Eos, the dean of the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lums speaks with Asma Faiz about his new book Cricket in Pakistan: Nation, Identity and Politics

What inspired you to write this book?

When one writes a book at this stage of one’s career, it must be a project of deep personal value. My father inculcated the love of cricket in my brothers and me. Then, living in Lahore for the last 15 years showed me the extent of the impact that cricket has on people. It’s much more than a game. It filters into every aspect of people’s lives.

I started thinking about exploring cricket in greater detail as an academic. Much research has been done on postcolonial literature, but sport has been grossly neglected not only in Pakistan, but other postcolonial societies such as Australia, Sri Lanka and the West Indies. It’s important for scholars to understand factors that shape broader society and cricket has grabbed people’s imaginations in so much of the world. I’ve tried to tell one story about cricket, and there are so many more that still need to be told. Cricket is a vast and under-researched territory for investigation.

What was your broad methodological approach?

When people are convinced by the way a scholar frames the research question, they’re eager to share their stories, especially in Pakistan where these stories have not been told before. I had access to key research material and persons as I was based in Lahore. I could go to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and the local clubs and speak to past and current cricketers. I did have to build trust with my research subjects, which allowed for greater rapport during interviews. The only area I was a bit concerned about was match-fixing but, as anthropologists, we’re trained to deal with sensitive subjects.

How is cricket reflective of the Pakistani ‘national character’?

The linkage between sports and the national character was very interesting to me. A cricket team’s evolution reflects societal transitions and, in the 1970s, Pakistan was culturally quite liberal and our cricketers were deeply connected with the international cricketing community. Every summer, Pakistani cricketers played county cricket in England. They also played Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in Australia. They were primarily urbane, middle-class professionals and reflected the youthfulness, exuberance and optimism of the ’70s.

Then, under Gen Ziaul Haq, society became much more conservative and the demographics of cricket also changed. Up until the 1980s, most players came from either Karachi or Lahore. When television broadened exposure, Peshawar, Bahawalpur, Sahiwal, Hyderabad, Multan, Sialkot and Sheikhupura etc became emerging centres of cricket. Now the team is dominated by players from smaller towns and cities, from Larkana to North Waziristan.

You talk about some fantastic matches played by the Pakistani team, such as the 2017 Champions Trophy, and describe them as reflecting the “mercurial” character of the Pakistani team.

The 2017 Champions Trophy was similar to the 1992 World Cup: we performed so poorly initially, only to ultimately lift the trophy on both occasions. In 2017, this was all the more remarkable because there had been no cricket in Pakistan since the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team. This represented the mercurial nature of the Pakistani team that has regularly confounded us with such remarkable performances. In many ways, it’s reflective of the country itself — how did Pakistan survive in 1947 amidst floods of refugees, threadbare government machinery, loss of qualified personnel and finance, and barely any industry and international support? Yet it somehow not only survived, but had periods of relative prosperity as well.

The story of its cricket is similar. A country with no domestic cricketing structure won a Test match in its very first series against India in 1952. Two years later, on its first England tour, Pakistan won against the country that had introduced the game to it. 1992 and 2017 were amazing victories, as was the 2009 Twenty20 World Cup. This enormous talent — in Pakistan and in cricket — needs to be harnessed. For example, Imran Khan harnessed the potential of the Pakistani team in 1992. Pakistan’s mercurial nature has brought excitement to cricket, we have created some amazing things such as the ‘doosra’ or reverse swing.

Regarding management of the team, how does the culture of ad-hocism that exists in Pakistan impact the performance of the team that sometimes surprises the world?

Our team has survived and performed in spite of the prevalent management and structure. Imran Khan as captain had authority and would bypass the structure. A lot of this has to do with leadership. It is not just leadership of the team, but leadership of the board and the broader leadership of the state that matters. My research points to the significance of leadership.

Military regimes did a better job of using cricket for their own purposes as compared to civilian governments, mainly because they were looking for regime legitimacy and used the sport to popularise themselves. For example, Gen Zia made himself visible at matches for political mileage and used cricket for diplomatic pursuits. Gen Pervez Musharraf did the same. Democratic governments relied more on patronage, giving important positions to those who helped them win elections. Pakistan has had a pattern of centralised leadership, in which an effective leader can do wonders, but a poor leader will magnify negatives. Poor leadership in Pakistani cricket caused serious problems of bloated bureaucracies in the PCB, proliferation of match-fixing scandals and loss of support from neighbouring Asian boards.

What led to the “vernacularisation” of cricket in Pakistan?

To some extent, it reflects the diversification of career pursuits of the middle classes, who began to pursue other steadier and safer professions. At the same time, cricket’s reach was spreading beyond Karachi and Lahore. International teams played tour matches in smaller centres, exposing the game to a much wider audience. Radio and television broadcasts of cricket into traditional community and market spaces were also crucial factors behind the game’s dissemination, as was the team’s success from the 1970s when a raft of superstars emerged, including Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Asif Iqbal, Sarfraz Nawaz, Majid Khan, Mushtaq Mohammad and Javed Miandad amongst others. From the 1990s, a much wider pool of cricketers was emerging, including those from less privileged backgrounds, who were determined to make the most of their opportunities. This could be their only chance of making it big in life, so they gave it their best shot. There was a certain steely determination behind their commitment. There were other factors, such as population growth and density in urban centres, meaning that cricket grounds were less and less available for use in school.

Where do things stand regarding the religiosity that swept through the team?

Gen Zia’s period brought about migration to the Gulf, the growth of madressahs, the Afghan jihad and conservatism. The Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ) grew rapidly. This had an impact on the nature of the team when those born in Zia’s time grew up. By 2004, Inzamamul Haq, son of a muezzin [one who announces the call to prayer], was captaining a team of players from all over Pakistan and much less privileged backgrounds. These were sons of daily wage labourers, night watchmen and small farmers. The changes in the team’s composition reflected wider socio-political changes, but I think the spike in religiosity that we saw in the early 2000s probably resulted from a combination of the need for redemption from the match-fixing scandals in the 1990s, the increasing commercialisation of the game and the influence of the TJ on the captain and a few senior players at the time.

You discussed Pakistan’s isolation from international cricket after the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team. Have we returned to the international cricketing arena?

We need to sort out the security threat in Pakistan, which still exists. It concerns me as a cricket lover. We now have goodwill from all quarters abroad, but if there is an increase in terrorist activity in Pakistan, we’ll run into problems again although enormous amounts of work have been done on this front. Cricket can help improve Pakistan’s image internationally, but this needs the tackling of security issues seriously. Once there’s a degree of stability, then you can begin to change the narrative on Pakistan, which also needs significant work. Our ‘soft power’ is not sufficiently developed.

Pakistan-India is one of the most captivating rivalries in any sport. Is there any future to resuming cricket relations with India?

I like to believe that there is. There are no bilateral cricketing ties between the two right now. For cricket to resume, we need some basic level of goodwill that currently does not exist. History does tell us that a turnaround can happen rather quickly, as was shown in the Musharraf-Vajpayee period in the early 2000s. Cricketers will respond to broader rapprochement. There has never been any outward hostility from fans whenever Pakistani and Indian teams visited each other, and players got on well. However, the deadlock will deepen the longer Pakistan and India are unable to play against each other. International cricket, Pakistan and India need this rivalry to be rekindled.

The interviewer is assistant professor of political science at Lums and author of In Search of Lost Glory: Sindhi Nationalism in Pakistan. She tweets @faiz_asma

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 31st, 2022

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